Q&A with Dave Espinosa, Mortenson Project Executive

A seasoned project executive with Mortenson in Denver, Dave Espinosa, LEED GAA has led some of the company’s most impactful projects locally, including the renovation of 1740 Broadway at the Atrium, and the construction of Modern Aviation’s FBO terminal and hangar and the Rocky Mountain Public Media Buell Public Media Center. Espinosa is currently leading the construction of Mortenson’s new headquarters in RiNo, the development of Mile High United Way’s new Early Childhood Education Center and just kicked off Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s new Center for the Healing Arts expansion.

Beyond his leadership within the built environment, Espinosa has become a recognized champion for diversifying the construction workforce and ensuring representation across every level of the industry. As head of Mortenson Denver’s Business Resource Group (BRG) focused on DEI efforts, he has developed inclusive recruiting and talent attraction practices and spearheaded the Latin BRG to expand growth opportunities for Mortenson’s Hispanic team members. He has served on the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation Board, Aurora Public Schools Foundation Board, and the Mi Casa Resource Center board. Additionally, Espinosa recently accepted Mortenson’s 2023 ‘Corporate Catalyst for Girls’ award from Girls Inc. for the company’s work to co-create a new playground for girls in the program — a project he spearheaded.

What drove your interest in construction?

Growing up in Panama, one of my biggest influences was my aunt, Yolanda Cordero — a civil engineer and a professor at the University of Panama. I always enjoyed learning about the projects she worked on, and I knew that engineering was a path I could take. Once my family moved to the U.S., Aunt Yolanda continued to have a meaningful influence on my college career as I declared my major in the School of Engineering at Southern Illinois University. She provided support, helped guide me, and answered my questions even though we were 3,000 miles apart. She passed away 12 years ago from cancer, and I can say, aside from my mother, she was the strongest female presence helping to mold my career.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding part of my job is experiencing our projects come to life, and the people who occupy buildings put purpose on the brick-and-mortar our craftspeople lay for the structure. The understanding that structures can become something more than their physical parts has always been a great satisfaction to me. At the end of the day, construction is a service-based industry, though I believe what sets us apart is how we deliver that service: not just a structure but a structure with a purpose. That, to me, is most rewarding.

What is the project in your career that you are most proud of and why?

I have been very fortunate in my career to have been a part of and led incredible teams on amazing projects, some of which are Denver landmarks and others that have helped provide solutions to important issues in our community. I can’t narrow what I’m most proud of down to one project, so I’ll highlight three projects that have inspired me to build structures with purpose:

  1. Mile High United Way Morgridge Center for Community Change: I am proud to have led the construction of this building and witnessed the impact it has had in our community. The project provided me with opportunities to experience how a community can come together to support one another and foster a great relationship with an amazing human being, President and CEO of Mile High United Way, Christine Benero.
  2. Civic Center Station: This was one of the most structurally challenge projects I have completed. It was gratifying to work on this landmark for our city to revitalize an area of Downtown Denver and then to see it come alive with a brand-new purpose.
  3. Rocky Mountain PBS: Having never before worked on a TV or radio station (and not just any radio station but award-winning KUVO) on a design-build project, it was incredibly fun and challenging to provide both design-build services for the structure as well as the integration systems for the TV and radio station. Collaborating with Amanda Mountain (President and CEO of Rocky Mountain Public Media) and her team was incredible; the passion they bring to what they do was so enjoyable.

What is the biggest challenge you see facing the construction industry? 

As our industry continues to evolve, we face challenges, one of which is better balancing our workforce diversity at all levels. It is important to showcase how rewarding a career in the construction industry can be, from a tower crane controller or general superintendent to a project manager or operations manager. There is a place for everyone in this lucrative and professionally rewarding industry. As far as diversity, the industry needs more BIPOC and women at all levels of our workforce to ensure representation. Though we are not there yet, we are moving forward. I am honored to work for a company that emphasizes this sentiment as not simply a priority or goal but an absolute core value.

I graduated in 2003 and was the only Hispanic person in my graduating class from the Construction program. The only reason I went into this field was because of the influence I had early on from my aunt. We need to provide opportunities to others so they can experience access and growth in what has, for me, been a very gratifying field.

What emerging technologies do you believe will have the biggest impact on the construction industry over the next five years?

It is essential to our built world to consider innovation in construction. When I started in the industry 20+ years ago, virtual construction was in its infancy; there were no iPhones (Nextels were the ‘it’ product) or iPads. I used to walk around a job site with a backpack with a half-size set of drawings, a scale, a wheel and a calculator. Now, I only need my phone, which has everything I need, from drawings to a tape measure. Though, we still build the same way, we dig a hole, pour the foundations and erect the structure.

I think a greater emphasis on lean processes that reduce waste in all aspects of construction, utilization of new materials and even artificial intelligence will push the next wave of innovation in our industry. Again, I am lucky that Mortenson is not just a pioneer in our industry when it comes to innovation, but they embrace it at all levels and lead the industry. We are more than just a construction company, we are innovators and disruptors in our industry with a full array of tools that provide our clients with the most efficient and forward-thinking ways to bring projects alive—from development services to renewables energy to in-house self-perform capabilities—and the market for virtual construction and augmented reality and robotics.

Can you share an example of a project that pushed the boundaries of conventional construction practices, and what were the key lessons learned from that experience?

Civic Center Station was a challenging project because of its location in the middle of one of the busiest intersections of Downtown Denver and because of how the construction needed to happen. It was like doing open heart surgery in the middle of the street. We had to complete a surgical demolition to detach the existing bus station, which ran under the 20-story high-rise while allowing 5,000 people to come to the building daily. Additionally, there were many stakeholders we needed to coordinate in addition to RTD’s nine bus routes. We also built the entire station above the existing parking garage and added new foundations. Looking back at that project, I am amazed at all the work and engineering that went on behind the scenes that only the craft workers, engineers, RTD and our managers experienced to complete that project.

As far as lessons learned from Civic Center Station, communicating and understanding expectations were key to the success on the project. This was a unique renovation with very distinct challenges, and every day we communicated what we were doing with the client, RTD, as well as external stakeholders to ensure they were abreast of activities that could disrupt their day-t- day and come up with solutions as a group to minimize impacts.

What are some of the most important steps you believe the industry could take to diversify the construction workforce pipeline and meet the massive demand for labor?

Recruitment is vital, both traditional recruitment options and putting more care and attention on how we recruit for our craft labor. We need to demonstrate to the next generation the value our craft provides and how rewarding these careers can be. Recruitment starts with education about the different paths that construction can provide in craft and operations. I work with some of the best craft people in the industry and without them, none of the projects we work on would be possible. We need to showcase more and more what our industry is all about. When I learned about the construction program at my university, I thought it was not for me, as I assumed I would have to be a professional engineer to work in the industry. As I look around at my colleagues, many have different backgrounds not traditionally in construction which brings a different lens to how we do things.

As a Latino leader in construction, what advice would you give to rising professionals in the construction industry? 

Throughout my career, I have been lucky to have had many great mentors who invested their time in me and led me to opportunities. My best advice is to dream big, surround yourself with people who believe in you, and never shy away from opportunity. If it wasn’t for an opportunity and a conversation, I would not have had the career I have. Finally, always pay it forward!

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