Phil Martin, facilities planning and construction manager for Eastern Mennonite University, guides a tour of the Suter Science Center West renovations. His "wisdom and experience" are integral to the successful project, says EMU CFO Daryl Bert. (Photos by Andrew Strack)

Suter Science Center construction manager Phil Martin sees the big picture … and every last detail

Listen in on Phil Martin’s phone conversation with an architect for the ongoing Suter Science Center renovation, and you get a sense of the eagle vision – and bird’s-eye perspective – required for the Eastern Mennonite University’s facilities planning and construction manager’s job.

Martin is the point person for the renovation, the liaison between, well, pretty much everyone involved in the project, from professors who will use the new labs and offices, to the contractors, to university administrators, to designers, to architects like the one he was talking with last week.

Martin and the architect discuss the locations, circuits and dimming options for specific sets of lights in specific classrooms; building codes that might impact a professor’s preferred placement of an LCD projector; and the office wall accent color swatches professors can choose from.

The Suter Science Center drawings on the blueprint table in Martin’s office show every aspect of the renovation project: the building as a whole, labs, offices – details including furniture and even sink faucets. Overseeing such a project requires a mind for big-scope details and minutia.

And Martin might be the perfect person for his job.

Renovations will support EMU’s mechanics and prototypes labs, offices and student collaboration and study spaces.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle to get all the pieces in place.”

Martin’s attention to project planning and review is more than fun, though, for EMU’s CFO Daryl Bert.

“A renovation project involves planning for the known conditions that are readily observable and the unknown conditions that sit behind existing walls,” he said. “Phil’s wisdom and foresight from his years of experience ultimately result in a project that progresses smoothly, is completed on schedule, and stays within budget,” he said. “It’s music to the ears.”

Puzzle fit

Martin has put together some pretty big puzzles – including two five-year capital improvement program budgets of $850 million each in a Georgia school district where, as executive director of facilities services, he was part of a team that oversaw the construction of two dozen or more new schools and major renovations of numerous others.

Facilities planning and construction manager Phil Martin, engineering students and professor Danny King inspect a mechanism from the old planetarium projector.

But his amount of stress at that job was “phenomenal,” he said. The Christmas before he left it in 2008, his oldest daughter, a medical professional, noticed the physical toll it was taking on him.

“Daddy,” she told him, “This Christmas you’re different. If you don’t get out of here, they will carry you out in a box.” Those words played over and over in his mind over the next several months.  

That stress level – and wanting to live nearer to grandchildren – prompted Martin to head north, and for eight years in West York, Pennsylvania, he directed the facilities program of a K-12 school district and managed multiple elementary school renovation projects and a $55 million high school renovation – and then started thinking about retirement.

Back in the 1970s, while a student at EMC, Martin had found student employment working in the Physical Plant. His skills and good sense didn’t go unnoticed, and one day the physical plant director Eldon Kurtz and the university business manager Dwight Wyse called him in for an office chat: Would Martin be interested in managing a variety of “deferred maintenance projects” that needed attention, things that were beyond the scope of regular maintenance work but too small to merit a general contractor?

He was, in fact, interested – and for his junior and senior year at EMU, Martin worked half time while finishing his social work degree. (He would go on to earn a master’s in business administration, from Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland.)

Some four decades later, in 2016, with retirement on his mind, Martin called up his old boss Kurtz, now the director of Facilities Management at EMU.

“I made a lot of beginner’s construction mistakes while working as a student at EMC,” Martin told him. “I would like to give back to the University, now that I have some experience.”

Would Kurtz have any need of someone with some facilities and construction experience under his belt?

“Absolutely,” Kurtz said, and in January 2017, Martin began his current position at EMU.

Working with people

Forty years after graduating from EMC, Martin returned to campus to oversee facilities upgrades.

When Martin and his wife Joyce left Harrisonburg in 1980, it was for her dietetic internship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Over the next two years, Martin used his social work degree in a psychiatric hospital, in conditions of extreme challenge.

That taught him a lot about working with people, which has proved valuable for his subsequent work with all the sorts of people who come together on a construction project, where there might be constant squabbles between workers; unrealistic expectations, construction costs and competing interests to negotiate; and lots of “sticky wickets.”  

“I put my social work training to use in the business environment,” he said.  

He has to “tell it like it is,” which “most of the time” doesn’t make him the good guy – and which, by the way, he seems totally okay with.

“Sometimes, in the past, I have had to carry a big stick,” he said – “and bark.”

EMU, he said, has been a much more cooperative environment in which to work.  


The Suter Science Center renovations are another opportunity for Martin to take the dreams and ideas of end users and create a useful and cost-effective facility.

The renovation of the western portion of the Suter Science Center at Eastern Mennonite University is now underway.

The Mechanics Lab layout, for example, takes into account space needs for specific research tools like the new wind tunnel, materials tester, data acquisition equipment, coupled tanks for calculating liquid flow rates, and more.

The 3-D printers, which are currently compressed into a small space,  will have a more spacious home in the Prototype Lab, with surrounding counter workspace. A new laser cutter will be located in the same lab and provide industry-like opportunities for student learning and projects.

A new student collaboration area is part of the renovation plans. Significant portions of walls in this area will be painted with a clear dry-erase-marker friendly film, for figuring out problems or group brainstorming sessions – all the while writing on the wall itself.

And he’s heard students, when they’ve seen architects’ renderings of the anticipated collaborative work and study areas, say, “I see where I’m going to study!”

Martin hopes the current phase of renovations construction will be finished in early June, which he thinks will give just enough time for installing furniture, technology and equipment before the start of the 2018-19 academic year.

Leading up to that, his desk diary is “phrenetic,” and weeks can feel like a “blur,” he said.

But that’s just time – not his good sense and project vision.

Lucky EMU.

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Join the Discussion on “Suter Science Center construction manager Phil Martin sees the big picture … and every last detail

  1. I’m so pleased to see Phil back at EMU. I appreciate immensely the opportunity to collaborate with Phil as we addressed deferred maintenance issues at EMC while we both were entering the facilities construction and maintenance management field. I sensed early on that Phil’s ability to comprehend and organize the big picture while paying attention to detail would serve him well. I am privileged to call Phil both friend and colleague and wish him and the entire EMU team every blessing in the work ahead.

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