Pankow, Charles | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections
Charles J. Pankow (1923-2004) established his eponymous construction company in the belief that success in his industry could be achieved by deploying innovation construction and project delivery technologies that benefited his clients. The Charles Pankow Foundation, which Mr. Pankow founded in 2002, funded this oral history collection to document the professional achievements of the man and his firm.
Born in South Bend, Indiana, Charlie-as he was known to his family, friends, and colleagues-Pankow matriculated at Purdue University in the fall of 1941. World War II interrupted his studies. A childhood bout with scarlet fever prevented him from serving in the army, but he was able to join the navy near the end of the war. He was stationed in Japan until 1946. A year later, he graduated from Purdue with a degree in civil engineering.
He relocated to Southern California with his wife, Doris, and took a job with S. B. Barnes Associates, a Los Angeles structural engineering firm that Purdue University graduates Stephenson B. Barnes and Mark Deering had founded in 1934. Charlie Pankow had met Barnes while on naval leave. He worked for Barnes a little more than two years. He then worked for The Austin Company, an early design-build pioneer, for about a year.
In 1951 Charlie Pankow joined Peter Kiewit Sons', one of the largest contractors in America. Notwithstanding the company's focus on the construction of dams, roads, and other large civil infrastructure projects, Pankow was able to carve out a niche in building concrete commercial structures. By 1957, he had convinced Peter Kiewit to establish a building division within the company's southwest district. For six years, he led a close-knit cadre of engineers and other field personnel, who together gained experience in slipforming and other concrete-forming technologies. They also developed their expertise in the practice of design-build, a project delivery approach wherein the design-builder, who is typically the general contractor, assumes responsibility for delivering a project at a price that is determined early in the process and accepts the financial risks associated with schedule and cost overruns. The design-builder works with the architect and structural engineer in planning and design to achieve "more economical and efficient construction," as Charlie Pankow explained.
The professional frustrations of working within a corporate culture that valued heavy construction work (dams, roads, and the like) prompted Pankow to form Charles Pankow, Inc. (CPI), with three of his Kiewit colleagues in 1963. Almost all of his employees within the Arcadia, California,based building division followed him out of the company.
Since 1963, Charles Pankow Builders, Ltd. (CPBL), as the company is now known, has constructed upwards of 200 apartment buildings, condominiums, hotels and resorts, office towers, regional shopping centers, and other commercial structures. Pankow Special Projects, Ltd. (PSPL), a subsidiary business, engages in tenant improvements, health care facility upgrades, seismic renovations, adaptive reuse of historically and architecturally significant structures, and other specialized products. Since its establishment in 1995, PSPL has completed more than 800 projects.
Assembled within the new firm, Pankow and his colleagues innovated concrete forming technology and championed design-build. They strove to "automate" the job site through on-site precasting of structural and architectural concrete elements, slipforming or jumpforming of vertical building elements, and using fly forms to install horizontal building elements. Pankow's teams developed many innovations, often in collaboration with other members of the building team. They included: using the architectural "skin" of a structure to form exterior columns and beams; using superplasticisor admixtures in the casting of beams and girders; developing a portable casting beam bed; incorporating HVAC air shafts into the concrete core of the building; devising the means to construct a second story over an existing enclosed mall without requiring the shopping center to close for business; and, perhaps, most impressively, developing the precast hybrid moment resistant frame (PHMRF) that incorporates the advantages of precast concrete and provides a seismic framing system that outperforms structural steel.
The PHMRF resulted from the joint efforts of CPBL, the University of Washington, structural engineers John A. Martin & Associates, and the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute for Standards and Technology. It has been deployed most conspicuously in the construction of the Paramount in San Francisco, the tallest precast concrete building on the West Coast upon its completion in 2001.
Both CPI and CPBL distinguished themselves among contractors by self-performing concrete work to ensure high quality and timely construction. Doing so helped the Pankow companies to deliver projects on time and within the owner's budget almost without exception.
Charlie Pankow was a leading member of many national associations and academies, and he received numerous awards and honors. In 1980 he served as president of the American Concrete Institute (ACI). Twenty-three years earlier, he had assisted in the formation of the Southern California Chapter-the first local ACI chapter in America. In 1970 he received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from his alma mater; in 1980, he received an honorary doctorate degree from the university. In 1990 the ACI awarded him its Henry C. Turner Award. In 1993 the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce conferred upon him its Industry Achievement Award. In 1997 he was elected into the National Academy of Engineering. In 2002 the American Society of Civil Engineer's gave him its OPAL (Outstanding Projects and Leaders) Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Construction. In 2003 the Design-Build Institute of America, which Charlie Pankow had helped to found a decade earlier, awarded him its Brunelleschi Medal for Lifetime Achievement. In 1999 Engineering News-Record recognized him as one of the top six builders of the prior half-century as part of the publication's 125th anniversary.
Pankow was a noted speaker at state, regional, and national conventions and university conferences and symposia. He authored several articles in professional journals and, in his capacity as ACI president, the President's Memo in Concrete International, the journal of the ACI. Pankow also contributed chapters on tilt-up and precast construction in successive editions of Concrete Construction Handbook, edited by Joseph Waddell.
Pankow became well-known as a connoisseur of the arts through his acquisition of a considerable collection of ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Russian artifacts. Indeed, he amassed one of the largest private collections of Russian and Greek icons in America.
Over the years, Charles Pankow and his estate have contributed generously to several educational institutions, most notably Purdue University, where two concrete laboratories bear his name.