Construction Manager

For the last two years, Sormanti practically lived on campus overseeing construction of the $58-million Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences that opened in January right on schedule.

The L-shaped center, dubbed CBLS, occupies the west flank of a new quadrangle that eventually will be populated on the south by a new pharmacy building, on the north by a new chemistry building, and on the east by the existing Coastal Institute.

“I’m glad I came home,” said Sormanti as the project, perhaps the most complex ever undertaken on the campus to date, was going through its finishing phase.

Sormanti was the senior general superintendent for the CBLS project, working for Gilbane Building Company, a construction management company that coordinated the whole project.

Sormanti was a logical choice to be site superintendent for the center because of his experience with construction of laboratory buildings with all their specialized systems and construction details that pose unusual challenges for engineers, architects, and construction tradesmen.

Upon graduation from URI, Sormanti applied for work with Gilbane, one of Rhode Island’s foremost building firms. He didn’t get hired initially but persevered until Gilbane gave him a two-month trial as assistant project engineer on a multi-building Pfizer project in Connecticut.

That two-month trial lasted 11 years as he was eventually promoted to general superintendent to oversee the remaining $90 million of the $1 billion construction project.

After Pfizer, Sormanti was assigned to the $75 million life sciences building at Brown University for three years.

However, he has one non-lab building project under his belt that has a special spot in his heart. At the end of the 2006 baseball season, he was assigned by Gilbane to oversee the on-going annual renovation of Fenway Park.

“I had been to Fenway a couple of times,” Sormanti recalls, “and I always thought the place should be torn down and they should build a new one.” But his opinion changed once he started working on that hallowed ground.

The project included gutting and replacing 26 luxury suites, taking out old seats and installing new ones, renovating the press level and working on the grandstand. “We had cranes on the infield, moving steel and pre-cast concrete,” he says. “Once I was there, my opinion about Fenway changed—the place grabbed hold of me.”

From Fenway, Sormanti came to URI. “This was nice and close to home,” says the Cumberland, R.I., resident. “I always loved this campus.”

As superintendent, Sormanti was responsible for everything on the building site. He operated out of a trailer-office but spent most of the time at meetings and checking things on site. His job, he says, was concerned with four things—“safety, quality, schedule, and cost—in that order.”

Safety is utmost because of the dangers that exist on such a complex building site. Everyone had to wear hard hats and safety glasses on the site and frequent visitors are required to take a 10-hour OSHA training course.

The task starts with Gilbane, which has no construction workers on its payroll; the company’s role is construction management, especially lining up subcontractors.

Coordination is essential to getting the job done safely, on time, and within budget, says Sormanti, adding that he has to check the work of every subcontractor to make sure the work is complete and up to specs so that the next sub can take the project to the next step.

No project, especially one as complex as the CBLS, which is designed to meet stringent energy efficiency requirements, is without problems, says Sormanti: “We did not have any one major problem. We had numerous small ones, but that is not unusual on a project this size. I enjoy the challenge of inspiring people and getting the best out of everyone in an atmosphere of teamwork.”

As the January completion date approached, finish workers swarmed through the building and choreographing the sequence of work became dicier for Sormanti—tile people could get in the way of cabinet installers or electricians in the way of plumbers.

In December Sormanti had to come up with a solution to a design problem—there was not enough clearance to run all the wires for the automatic windows that open in the four-story atrium so surface channels had to be added. And space between a banister railing and an adjacent column exceeded four inches (a hazard for small children), and so the railings had to be re-installed.

After his family—wife, Elisa, and two-year-old son Michael—building is Sormanti’s passion. “I loved math and loved to learn how to put things together,” he says, adding that on TV his favorite shows are The History Channel’s Modern Marvels and How It’s Made.

These days Sormanti is superintendent on a new Gilbane project, building a financial headquarters for the CVS Corporation in Woonsocket only 12 minutes from his home.

But the URI experience was special to him. He had particular praise for Paul DePace ’66, M.B.A.’72, URI’s director of capital projects: “I worked for many managers, and Paul is one of the best.”

DePace said one of the reasons Gilbane was chosen for the CBLS project was its people: “Mike had a reputation of being an excellent site manager, and he proved to be just that. By his attention to business, he solved a number of issues before they came to my attention, and if they were not resolved by then, he had possible solutions to offer.”

“There was a good relationship with URI, Gilbane, and the architects, Payette Associates,” says Sormanti, noting also that most of the construction workers were from Rhode Island and exhibited “a lot of Rhode Island pride” in working on a project that involved their tax dollars.

“It was personally rewarding to provide a high level of quality at my alma mater. It was a pleasure to put effort into something that will be appreciated by teachers and students for many years to come. Who knows—maybe someday my son Michael will be one of them.”

By Rudi Hempe ’62