Samuel Ashley Jr.
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Most construction companies wouldn’t accept a project with a 10-year-plus timeline. But when Japanese Solderless Terminals (JST) approached Michigan-based Cunningham-Limp with a grand vision of a campus that preserved the surrounding forest, the company couldn’t say no, said President Samuel Ashley Jr. The campus is now the most sustainable construction site in Michigan, according to Ashley.

“A client sold the land to JST, and passed the project information on to us because they were confident that our company would be able to build exactly what they wanted,” Ashley said. “It was 2015 when we actually sat down for our first meeting.”

The site is a “newer forest” in that it was planted and grown in the last 40 years, but JST took into consideration everything from the original indigenous community (the Potawatomi Tribe) to the watershed to animal and insect behavior.

“JST’s goal was to maintain and advance the natural ecosystem. That means for us, carefully carving out the main driveways, preserving as many trees as possible while selectively removing trees and reclaiming as much timber as possible,” Ashley explained.

The six-building campus is seven years into development, with one building complete, a second about 50% complete, a third and fourth with foundations laid and the final two still in the design phase. Construction has been underway for about three years, and Ashley estimates there are 2 1/2 to three years left in the project. The buildings are primarily built from wood so that they blend into the forest surrounding them.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused some headaches for the project, notably in sourcing timber and other commodities. While materials costs soared, Ashley also had to contend with the Japan-based JST leadership no longer being able to visit the site when the world shut down.

“They used to come every two months,” Ashley said. “There were many days we were doing video walkthroughs with them to show the site’s progress and answer questions.”

Ashley said he gives JST a lot of credit for sticking with the project through the crisis.

The site has required a lot of education in the surrounding community, with many calling it “that weird project off [Interstate] 696.”

“They would ask me, ‘What is this?’ And I said, ‘I can’t really explain it, but I can show you,’” Ashley said. He now leads tours of the site every Friday for anyone who has questions, this includes group of university students majoring in construction, environmental science and more. Ashley said the local school system has added some trade classes, and he hope to be able to extend the tours to high school students in those classes.

That goes along with changes Ashley would like to see in the construction industry and sustainable practices within it, Ashley wants to see more education of younger generations. 

“We have a substantial emerging skills gap right now,” Ashley said. “Let’s focus on those high school and college students. I think we lost the opportunity to attract a lot of talented people to our industry [and] there are people about to retire with 40-plus years of knowledge and experience. There’s a big difference in 40 years and three years. If you want to see change, then those with a lot of experience need to step up and share with the next generation. … [Education] is probably one of the easiest and one of the best ways for people to get involved.”