Campus & Community

Building a World-Class Program in Construction Management

Linda Thomas portrait

Linda Thomas got the job: Turn Georgia Tech into a “village” for 30,000 people. A year to plan, but only two weeks to build.

As construction manager for the $30 million Athletes Village for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, she delivered the temporary facilities required — on time — for a small city: Olympic-size pool, new or adapted residences, a kitchen to feed 3,500 in one sitting, five McDonald’s restaurants, a dance hall and coffeehouse to keep the young athletes busy, utilities, a satellite television studio for NBC’s “The Today Show.”

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. “It was a unique project — we had more money than we had time.

“It was fascinating and still remains fascinating to me. Talk about the ultimate in team work.”

This is just one major construction project that the multi-talented Thomas — a former Georgia Tech professor, Navy officer and attorney — led in her earlier life as a construction manager. The Georgia Tech Ph.D. has spent the last 20 years as an educator — at her alma mater and at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design (NSAD) — and is now leading Stevens’ efforts to re-invigorate its construction management program.

The program’s new focus is her specialty — megaprojects, those projects that cost more than $1 billon, take more than a year to complete and are notorious for going over budget, Thomas explains during a recent conversation inside her Altorfer Academic Complex office.

Since joining Stevens in May 2014, Thomas has been busy, hiring Associate Teaching Professor Ellyn Lester; hosting roundtables with construction firms in New York and New Jersey to discuss their research and educational needs; developing symposia for industry professionals; updating the curriculum and offering several new construction management and continuing education courses.

“Our success is a testament to how things can get done at a small school,” she says. “Stevens is a wonderful place to work.

“It’s a nice feeling to be rewarded this job at this point in my career — to be at a place where I feel I am listened to, able to do innovative things and feel supported.”

She often relies on case studies and real-life examples in her teaching, so Stevens also appealed to her because of its proud history of innovation. Thomas points toward several major innovations stemming from Stevens, including the Jersey barrier, which is used to separate traffic lanes and minimize vehicle damage, and the Gantt Chart — developed by Henry Gantt, Class of 1884, a bar chart for project scheduling and an essential tool for many construction managers.

“There are many research heavyweights in the built environment from Stevens,” she says.

Those who work with her say that Thomas has made an impact in her brief time at Castle Point.

“In a short amount of time she has built up the construction management program both in numbers (doubling the number of incoming students) and in quality. It’s more rigorous now, and has incorporated formal training in leadership and in research methods,” says Professor David Vaccari, director of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering. “I think that because of Linda, the Stevens construction management program is poised to become one of the premier construction management programs in the country.”

Before joining Stevens, Thomas founded the Construction Management Department at the NSAD and was previously a tenured professor at Georgia Tech, in its building construction program. She has also worked as a litigation attorney and a lieutenant with the U.S. Civil Engineer Corps.

For the Atlanta Olympics, she was asked to design a course that allowed Georgia Tech students to work with her on the Athletes Village. She immediately fell in love with teaching.

“I like seeing the light bulb go on,” she explains. “Twenty-somethings look like they’re all together and grown up — that’s just the exterior. There’s constant internal questioning going on, they’re coming into themselves. I am privileged to be a witness.”