John Robinson, MBA ’03, returned to Pittsburgh with a weighty task: Oversee the development of the greenest office tower in the world. Four years later, he has delivered on time and under budget.

Like most engineers, John Robinson loves efficiency. When he strikes that perfect balance of form and function without wasting any resources, he’s in his happy place.

Just don’t call it green.

“What does that mean? I despise the word ‘green.’ I can’t stand it,” he said. “The greenest building in the world is a mud hut that is off the grid, zero impact.”

While he exaggerates to make a point, his caution on behalf of the industry is serious: “I’d say 90 percent of the time you hear the word ‘green,’ someone’s just leveraging it for their own gain,” he said. “We call it ‘greenwashing.’ There’s just way too much of it.”

The Big Challenge

It matters to Robinson because he has devoted a significant portion of his career to building projects that meet stringent standards for promoting environmental and energy efficiency. An accredited professional for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), he worked for Vulcan, the company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and oversaw several projects in the Pacific Northwest — including buildings for Amazon — that met the organization’s Silver and Gold certification requirements. But it wasn’t until his first day on the job for PNC Financial Services, back in 2011, that his skills were tested at an entirely new level.

Robinson, the point man behind the development of The Tower at PNC Plaza — PNC’s new 550-foot corporate headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh — flew to Chicago on his first day at PNC to meet the project’s design team. On the spot, his boss asked him to choose a favorite from three design concepts. A month later, the bar moved several rungs higher when PNC leadership announced that it wanted its new headquarters to be the greenest office tower in the world.

“It really changed the rules of the game completely,” Robinson said. “It was intimidating to me because one, I had to figure out what ‘green’ meant to the bank. And two, it was intimidating because my job is to keep major projects on track while mitigating risk all along the way. As conceived, the project would be over $400 million.” 

Global Experiences

So how, exactly, does a young engineer from Kansas City ultimately find himself standing on top of the most efficient, highly automated office tower in the world? 

It’s a path that starts in Guatemala. 

Robinson, a third-generation engineer who grew up discussing construction projects around the dinner table, yearned to work in the field on projects of his own. After graduating with his civil engineering degree, he went to work for the engineering firm that his family started, Black & Veatch. Typically, engineers work in design for four to five years before becoming licensed and moving into the field, a way of paying their professional dues. But a joint venture to build a power plant in Guatemala presented itself, and with it, an opportunity for Robinson to spread his wings.

This is a $440 million project that’s barreling down the highway at 100 miles an hour. Everything needs to be on the table. Everything should be transparent and aligned.

Because the plant — the first such facility in Central America — would be built in a fairly unstable part of the country, the project engineer job had not attracted many applicants. Robinson, who spoke fluent Spanish, won the position.

“You go into very, very remote parts of the country where the culture is basically untouched — true descendants of the Mayan civilization, where they speak K’iche’ and languages that you can’t even learn. You just have to live there,” recalled Robinson, who loved the juxtaposition of the rural culture with the modernity of places like Guatemala City. “It was a fun time in my life.”

In 1999, a friend contacted Robinson about a financial services startup, Euronet Worldwide. They shipped refurbished, second-generation ATMs from the United States to Europe and established ATM and mobile phone banking networks within major cities that were just starting to experience the globalization of credit. Robinson started in Budapest, then moved in succession to Athens, the Greek islands and Cairo, leaving a trail of ATM and mobile phone banking networks in his wake. He put the first-ever ATM at the pyramids in Egypt. 

“To thrive in those environments, you have to have deep technical understanding,” he said. “You have to really know how to get to the finish line successfully, on time, on budget, and meet internal and external expectations. And the exciting part about that is you work with all different types of people.”

New Analytical Skills

Still, something was missing. Robinson began to realize that he needed to become educated and skilled in finance if he wanted to advance in his career.

“Increasingly, with the clients that I was working with, they were looking at payback, return on investment and things that I was not capable of calculating for them,” he said. “So I knew that I had to go back and get my MBA.”

He applied to Carnegie Mellon University’s business school, sight unseen, based on its top 20 Financial Times ranking. On his first day, at math camp, he met his future wife, Monica, MBA ’03, S ’96. He studied the finance track, viewing it as the best way to enhance his engineering and construction background.

Robinson credits the financial modeling and analytical skills he learned in business school with helping him to successfully predict a project’s success.

“The Tepper School taught me to look at the underlying data, evaluate it for correlations and relationships, and draw my own conclusions,” he said. “We don’t just look at how much it will cost to build a project and what the return will be. We also take very deep dives into market demand for such a product. Being able to take data, look for correlation, and using that to forecast where you will be at property delivery is very important.”

In a project as complex as PNC’s Tower, that kind of analysis was key. 

“It’s insane, the amount of risk that people take on to do these kinds of things,” Robinson said. “You have to know how to manage it. You have to surround yourself with good people. Processes have to be transparent, and teams have to be aligned. Because time is money, you’re not even halfway done with your design when demolition commences and excavation begins.”

Total Involvement

While on-time on-budget performance is not always attainable in the project development world, those standards were non-negotiable for PNC.

Robinson’s job quickly became 100 percent devoted to making sure the Tower met all of the company’s requirements. To do so, he immersed himself in virtually every part that went into the building’s design. He visited the manufacturing facilities for various components and pushed the systems to failure; he interviewed the people who designed each product before selecting it, so he would understand, at a very fundamental level, exactly what he was putting into the building. “We weren’t just going to buy something off the shelf. We wanted to know everything about every moving part that we were buying.”

At the end of the day, you have to be in the trenches with the people who are making the project viable and buildable.

He even donned a hardhat and descended into a mine in Rutland, Vermont, to personally select the marble that would be used in the Tower’s grand lobby. 

Apart from the financial skills he acquired, Robinson says his organizational behavior classes from business school also helped him navigate the complexity of the Tower job.

“You’re programming a building for 2,200 occupants, which basically boiled down to, I think, 25 different lines of business that are full of different personalities, different skill sets, different ways of working,” he explained. Organizational behavior training helped him figure out “how to relate to people, what motivates people, and how to get people to compromise and feel like they’ve succeeded even in the face of compromise.”

Moving Onward

A month after the Tower’s completion, Robinson accepted a job at PJ Dick, a Pittsburgh-based commercial construction company with which he worked on the Tower project. As banks transition to an infrastructure that relies more heavily on technology than on bricks and mortar, he believed his background would be better suited to the move. However, he remains on excellent terms with PNC and continues to serve as the project historian for the Tower, answering daily questions about how the building’s various systems work.

With the successful delivery of the Tower in October 2015, the PJ Dick team that worked on the project with Robinson packed up its downtown office and moved to Oakland to build the David A. Tepper Quadrangle. The Robinsons, who live close to the Carnegie Mellon campus, often stroll down to peek in on its progress.

“My favorite team of all time is now building the Tepper Quadrangle, every single day, giving it their all,” Robinson said.

In his new role, which he assumed in November 2015, Robinson is building what he calls a development-assist business. He works with PJ Dick’s development clients to help them identify opportunities and evaluate their viability, and then execute upon them. In doing so, he continues to leave his mark on Pittsburgh, his adopted hometown. 

“It’s such a high-risk, high-stakes business and you have to know how to manage it,” he said. “And there’s so much potential to provide positive impact to the community and to the user, and to the urban fabric that you’re creating. There’s so much opportunity to do it right.”

Platinum and beyond

  • One of the few LEED Platinum high-rise buildings in existence
  • Double-skin façade promotes natural ventilation and high thermal efficiency
  • Solar chimney “stack effect” exhausts air up and out of building core with minimal fan power
  • Radiant systems and chilled beams significantly reduce inefficient forced-air systems
  • Narrow floor plates allow sunlight to illuminate up to 90 percent of work space
  • Façade-integrated automated blinds significantly reduce solar heat gain within interior
  • Water recycling system can reduce water consumption by up to 80 percent
  • First-generation Beacon light sculpture communicates energy use to occupants

John Robinson, MBA ’03
Director of development, PJ Dick