Rebellious. Disruptive. Nonconformist. A person who thinks and acts independently of and different from others. That’s how our friends at Cambridge define a Maverick.
But let’s take it one step further. Mavericks are revolutionaries. If there’s a wrench in the system they fix it, if a convention needs to be challenged they stand up and say something, and if there’s a seemingly insurmountable limitation they push through it and find themselves on the other side. Mavericks are hardwired to take the road less traveled by. They go where no one else has gone because there’s no other option.
There are mountains of top leader lists in the AEC/RE industry for people who’ve built an impressive resume or successful companies but seemingly none for the people who made an unpopular choice, and as a result, transformed how we design and build the world around us.
This list is an effort to finally give these people the recognition they deserve.
We will look back at these people as those who defied the boundaries of the built world. They pioneered breakthrough technology, had insight nobody else had, and dreamed up visions larger than life – and acted on them – when they were deemed preposterous.
So, here it is: our list of 25 Mavericks that either, have revolutionized, or are revolutionizing, our cities, buildings, and infrastructure. We’ve received incredible nominations from all over AEC/RE, proving that there are many exceptional leaders in our industry. This list is a collection of the most exceptional, most unconventional, and most trailblazing among them.
ARCHITECTURE / DESIGN
Founder and Principal
Maverick Moment: Having established himself as one of the premier talents in architecture with designs such as his own Gehry Residence and the Norton House in Venice Beach, Frank Gehry had no reason to turn his gaze toward software. He needed tools that didn’t exist for architecture design, however, and thus he led Gehry Technologies to develop its high-performance CAD program, Digital Project. The powerful suite can support the most demanding projects Gehry throws at it, pushing his designs and buildings into uncharted territory. Most significantly, Gehry Technologies brought parametric modeling into AEC (previously, it had only existed in aerospace design) and since then it has been the framework around which all 3D modeling software has been built.
Maverick Moment: The building industry has always been a male-dominant sector – and skyscrapers have long been a man’s signature move. Jeanne Gang broke through the glass ceiling and went where no woman had before her: she was commissioned to design a towering, ambitious 82-story skyscraper in the heart of downtown Chicago. The 819 ft Aqua Tower is now the tallest building ever designed by a female architect (more accurately, the tallest building designed by a female-led architectural firm). However, that towering scraper is soon to be eclipsed… by Gang herself, when she unveils the 95-story Vista Tower in 2020. Mavericks break their own records. Nor do they care about gender barriers or stereotypes.
CITIES & INFRASTRUCTURE
Bridges to Prosperity (B2P)
President and CEO
Maverick Moment: As one of the most highly distinguished young engineers in her industry, Avery Bang had an easy career path laid out for her: Get a job at a renowned firm, climb the corporate ladder quickly, and make great money as a for-profit engineer. It was a golden ticket that she ultimately turned down. Instead, she returned to Bridges to Prosperity, a non-profit bringing modern engineering to underdeveloped and impoverished countries, where she had volunteered in the past. Now as President and CEO of B2P, she has ambitious plans to connect over 1 billion people worldwide with proper transportation networks – and don’t put it past her.
Director of Senseable City Lab
Maverick Moment: In fall of 2004, Carlo Ratti published his well-known “Space Syntax: Some Inconsistencies” paper. The paper called into question the widely accepted theory of “space syntax,” a tool urban planners utilize to simulate potential social effects of their designs. Ratti’s piece also proposed a solution: use cell phone data and network analysis to measure social effects, paving the way toward a completely new line of thought about how the industry plans architectural designs and plans its cities.
Founder and CEO
Maverick Moment: Daniel Doctoroff, known for holding positions as the Deputy Mayor of New York City and CEO of Bloomberg, took a hard right turn in 2015 when he formed a new start-up with Alphabet called Sidewalk Labs. Within two years of its inception, Doctoroff led the company to secure the largest smart city project ever embarked upon. Sidewalk Labs will develop “the world’s first neighborhood made built from the internet up,” renovating 800 acres of waterfront property in Toronto to be automated, efficient, and very smart. From self-driving public transit to sensors and machines that sort waste from recycling, the neighborhood has the potential to be the new standard for major global cities.
Co-founder, CEO, and Product Architect
Maverick Moment: Do we have to pick just one? A man of many maverick moments, Elon Musk was stuck in traffic in 2016 when an idea struck him: what if he just went underneath it all? Hence, The Boring Company was born. What began as the SpaceX founder’s gridlock frustration has now turned into one of the ambitious infrastructure projects of the century. The Boring Company has its eye on creating an underground hyperloop system to connect New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C, and has recently become of the two finalists in a competition to create express service transport between downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport.
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Maverick Moment: In 2001, Michael Polsky was stuck in a classic entrepreneurial catch twenty-two. He had sold his company to the utilities mammoth Calpine, landing on their Board of Directors, but was miserable in his new position – back working for the man. So, he quit, leaving money and security on the table to pursue a new entrepreneurial venture focused around a more sustainable and eco-friendly form of energy — wind energy. Their first project failed, losing the company $6 million. In that failure, Polsky found profound insight toward where the industry was heading. With that in mind, he carried on and turned Invenergy into a $1 billion company.
Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill
FAIA, Consulting Partner, Urban Design and Planning
Maverick Moment: One of the most ambitious projects in recent memory is SOM’s Great Lakes Century Vision endeavor. The initiative spans 192 million acres and is perhaps the nation’s most substantial effort to preserve the water and vitality of the Great Lakes for years to come. Spearheading that project was Phil Enquist, who spent years working through private and governmental red tape to make this pro-bono labor of love a reality. Aligning with stakeholders in public and private sectors is notoriously difficult, but Enquist’s decision to pursue this project — one with no ROI, no less —could renew the economic and ecological prosperity of the Great Lakes throughout the next century.
Founder, Chairman, and CEO
Maverick Moment: Embracing the influx of innovative built technology, Bob Clark took on one of the most daunting logistical tasks around: cutting through bureaucratic red tape and regulation. In 2014, Clayco received permission from the FAA to fly $50,000 drones over its project sites. Drones are quickly becoming an imperative tool for the jobsite. Clark took notice of that early on when drones were a risky investment that few dared contend with. Uplift Data Partners, the drone service he launched shortly thereafter, is now one of the leading drone companies in the AEC space.
President & CEO
Maverick Moment: Geoff Smith was given the keys to his father’s 65-year-old general contracting firm and rather than maintaining course, he took a left turn and completely restructured the business into an end-to-end construction company, taking control of not only the building process, but of finance, design, and operations as well. Smith took note of client concerns over contractors’ accountability and ability to provide support throughout a project for a successful outcome, and hence, decided to maneuver EllisDon into riskier waters to meet that demand. Since the change, EllisDon has increased annual revenue nearly four times over.
Maverick Moment: John Fish of Suffolk announced last year that the company would be opening “Smart Labs” across the country to spur new innovation. This wouldn’t qualify for a maverick-worthy moment, except for one important detail: these labs are for the construction industry. The labs, which utilize up-and-coming tech like VR, AR, live-streaming, predictive analytics, and more, eliminate the excuse that built industry companies “don’t have the tools or access.” Fish has a difficult road ahead of him to convince his company, and the rest of the industry, to keep innovating, but this is a move that took guts, and his labs are giving the industry everything it needs to pursue serious tech adoption.
Chairman and Co-founder
Maverick Moment: Would you give up a CEO lifestyle to helm a new startup with no reputation, respect, or proven path to success? Pivoting from Flextronics (now Flex), a tech manufacturer, Michael Marks left the security of his position as a CEO on the table to disrupt the AEC space. Marks co-founded Katerra, which should be a household name to you by now, and this year, secured an $865 million VC investment this year to expedite the building process by fabricating components in their own factories, moving them to the jobsite, and piecing them together — a style of building never before embraced by the industry.
Maverick Moment: Homes designed by Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and Philip Johnson with a $120,000 price tag were unthinkable until the Filipino entrepreneur Robbie Antonio launched Revolution Precrafted. An avid collector of international modern and post-war contemporary art, while on the other end, a real estate tycoon (President of Antonio Development in New York, and Managing Director of Century Properties based in Asia), Antonio wanted to bridge his two worlds – art and property. He connected the dots between stylish, designer homes and prefabrication technology in a way nobody had before him. In a country where startup technology companies are only just beginning to find footing in the industry, Antonio pulled out in front of the pack with an ingenious method of delivering designer homes at unbelievable costs.
Maverick Moment: Modular construction is becoming a hot trend in the industry because of its cost-effective and eco-conscious nature. That wasn’t always the case, however, and Roger Krulak read the tea leaves and acted on them before anyone else. Krulak lead the first R&D project for modular construction, an endeavor that sprouted FC Modular within Forest City Ratner Companies. Soon after, he purchased the company’s core assets and founded FullStack Modular. Krulak was honing in on modular construction long before it was a buzzword, and even now, remains at the forefront of that revolution.
Chairman and CEO
Maverick Moment: When Steve Jobs left and returned to Apple years later, he brought with him new vision and experience that propelled the company further than ever before. Stan Pepper acted as CEO of his family’s company in the 80s and 90s before leaving for a 13-year hiatus, during which he served as CEO of StratusVue, a project management software developer. Pepper stepped away from his roots to discover a broader perspective of the industry. Doing so was a daring break from the status quo, and Pepper put himself in a vulnerable position as he moved away from the security of a family-run enterprise into unknown territory. Like Jobs, however, Pepper eventually returned to his company years later with a new vision for how to embrace new technology and solidify their place in the industry for years to come.
Maverick Moment: 3D printing is a game-changing technology for the construction industry, allowing the prefabrication of inexpensive, sturdy homes in mere hours. Ma Yihe and WinSun saw this opportunity before anyone else. Five years ago, they constructed 10 single-story houses in a single day by 3D printing sections of the homes and assembling them together. Yihe has spearheaded the tech that will save the industry billions, all while setting his gaze on remedying housing crises in impoverished countries.
President & Co-founder
Maverick Moment: Robotic assistance in some of the most arduous, back-breaking tasks in the building industry may have sounded like science fiction at one time, but not to Scott Peters. Using his management and engineering background, Peters pursued his passion, invention, after seeing the opportunity to reinvent an entire sector of construction. This entrepreneurial pivot has made Peters one of the forefront inventors of the construction tech revolution. In 2015, he led his company Construction Robotics to unveiling SAM, the game-changing semi-automated mason that can lay bricks five times faster than a human. SAM has helped alleviate stain on workers, all while aiding an industry in the midst of a labor shortage.
Maverick Moment: The moment ‘An Outline of the Building Description System’ was published in 1974, the future of the construction industry became clear. Charles Easton’s revolutionary research report outlined a computer system that could, theoretically, manipulate and store information about a building’s design, construction, and operation. That system would be highly interactive as well, with graphics capable of rendering sophisticated drawings of projects. Now, virtually every architecture and construction firm behind every building project of the last 25 years can thank Charles M. Eastman for making their job immeasurably easier by laying the groundwork for the construction management software to come.
Co-founder & CEO
Maverick Moment: When the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were officially released in 2016, they exhibited the impressive potential of virtual reality technology, but they lacked software that truly harnessed their power. Well ahead of his time, Shane Scranton recognized that VR would be a game-changing advancement for built world tech, and set to work on IrisVR’s Prospect software. Prospect allows users to convert blueprints and 3D plans into VR experiences they can use during every phase of design and construction. Simply put, Scranton made VR in the built community more than a gimmick. He made it an everyday reality.
Founder & CEO
Maverick Moment: Steve Wightman’s goal for the last 26 years has been to disrupt construction payment. When Steve Wightman’s daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 24, it shook the Wightman family to their core. BuildPay, Wightman’s start-up that he had built from scratch, was placed on the backburner to allow him to take care of his daughter. Once his daughter was healthy, Wightman got back to work immediately on BuildPay forward once again to become one of the industry’s most trusted construction software providers. He’s failed, been told it couldn’t happen, but his persistence has evolved into a payment technology that is poised to revolutionize the way construction is paid for.
Co-founder and CEO
Maverick Moment: Call it The Social Network effect: Tracy Young quit her post-college job as a construction project engineer and moved in with her friends, three software developers and two construction engineers, to begin work on PlanGrid, now one of construction tech’s Silicon Valley darlings (over $66 million raised). During her time in the field, Young noticed the inefficiencies in existing construction technology. PlanGrid was Young’s response to that, allowing her to create tools she wished she had been given earlier in her career. But having a successful startup is not what makes her a Maverick. Tracy’s moment came when she made the decision to take a male-dominated industry by the horns and solve its biggest technology problems without ever stopping to think about how big a challenge that actually is.
Co-founder & CEO
Maverick Moment: The $20 billion evaluation that WeWork received last year sent shockwaves across the real estate industry. Adam Neumann led that charge, winning over world renown investor Masayoshi Son to secure a $3 billion investment. How long did Neumann have to win over Japan’s wealthiest man? Son ran late to their tour, so he had 12 minutes and a car ride to forever change the way the real estate business is run.
Maverick Moment: What do you do when you’re one of the top real estate brokers in one of the largest urban markets in the country? If you’re Thaddeus Wong, you take what you learned, bring your partner Michael Golden, leave $1.5 million worth of commissions on the table, and start your own firm that dwarfs your former employer and becomes the 11th largest by sales volume in the country. Wong saw a place in the market for a service-focused real estate firm that could meet the demand of the market while also meeting the needs of its employees and thus, @properties was born.
Co-founder & Managing Partner
Maverick Moment: When Brendan Wallace announced Fifth Wall Ventures, a $212 million investment fund focused exclusively on built world technology, it marked the largest VC fund in the built space – by an enormous margin. Convincing investors that the built world, a collection of industries known for their lack of technological advancement – was an opportunistic market, couldn’t have been easy; yet Wallace persisted because he saw its true potential. It’s still early in the game, but with investments in market leaders like Clutter, VTS, and Opendoor, it seems Wallace’s outlandish idea was more than just investor talk, it was a premonition.
Brick & Mortar
Founder and Managing Director
Maverick Moment: The world expected Darren Bechtel to join the ranks of his family at Bechtel, the nation’s largest civil engineering, construction, and project management firm. Instead, he opened a construction-tech focused VC fund with partner Curtis Rodgers in 2015 that is seeking to nurture emerging technology in AEC and facilities management. It goes without saying that most people wouldn’t have stepped away from an infallible path to success, but for Darren it amounted to an easy decision: investing is what he’s passionate about, it’s what he’s good at (Brick & Mortar’s tight scope has led them to companies like PlanGrid, zlien, BuildingConnected, and Rhumbix), and it’s a chance for him to play a lead role in ensuring the adoption of technology across the built world.