Seth Kelso, project director at the Overland Park, Kansas, office of McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., has found his niche: Since joining McCarthy in 2001, Kelso has overseen the construction of more than 25 percent of the United States’ biosafety level 4 — or BSL-4 — high-containment facilities.
These facilities are always important, but they’re especially relevant today. The properties are used to conduct research related to infectious diseases, biological agents and other sensitive scientific and medical areas. BSL-4 ranks as the highest containment level established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kelso is a major player in this field. His work encompasses more than 50 percent of the gross square footage of BSL-4 facilities in the country.
Here’s an example of the work Kelso tackles: He recently served as onsite project director during construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas. Located on a 48-acre site on the Kansas State University campus, the 707,000-square-foot facility will study diseases that threaten both America’s animal agricultural industry and public health. To be operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it will be the nation’s only BSL-4 lab for large animals.
Kelso will now shift his focus to the design and construction of research laboratory projects in the Kansas City region while also overseeing a new BSL-4 lab for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke with Kelso about his commercial real estate career, what led him to specialize in high-containment facilities and why the work fascinates him so.
Here is what this industry veteran had to say.
What led you to a career in commercial real estate?
Seth Kelso: I earned a degree in construction management and business at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. Then I got hired on with McCarthy in 2001 when I graduated. I always knew construction management was what interested me.
As a young kid, I enjoyed building things. I used to get into trouble for taking apart electronics and trying to figure out how they went back together. I always enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how things work. That led to me studying construction, which led me to my career at McCarthy.
What do you enjoy about this career?
Kelso: I have never thought of leaving McCarthy or doing anything else. I enjoy working in a team environment. That’s probably on the top of my list. Working as a team within McCarthy with the architects, engineers and owners is extremely rewarding. Everyone has a specific path, objective or goal. It’s satisfying to see all of these individuals and companies coming together with the ultimate goal to design and build a facility and enjoy doing it.
I really enjoy all the projects I’ve been involved with. I’m fortunate that I’ve been involved from the initial stages of planning and designing. I’ve been involved on the front end. I get to be a part of how we schedule construction, how we plan these facilities. Then I get to see all that unfold and am involved in managing that process all the way through. I’ve always enjoyed being a part of the evolution of design and construction.
There is just something about working as a team and being collaborative that always keep me interested. There is never a boring day on this job. It is always exciting, the things that pop up.
Other people we’ve interviewed also mention that no two days are the same in commercial real estate.
Kelso: It’s true. As much as we plan and prepare, there are always things that come up. It’s up to us to be nimble and strategic enough to react to those challenges that do pop up. We may be out digging in our site and discover some rock that we didn’t know was there. We might discover something that was unknown. Being able to adjust to those unknowns and overcome them is so important. There is never a dull moment.
Then there’s the fact that you are working with all types of people on every job, from blue-collar tradespeople to professional engineers to the client who is focused on getting that facility up and running. The diversity of the people also makes this career interesting.
How did you get involved in working on BSL-4 high-containment facilities? That seems like a very specific niche.
Kelso: When I was hired by McCarthy in 2001, I didn’t have a particular project type in mind that I wanted to focus on. I was pretty open-minded on what I took on. I was interested, though, in the fact that about 50 percent of our commercial work back then was hospitals. I thought that would be interesting. A smaller percentage of our work was also the construction of labs. That lab percentage has increased during the years. And as it has increased, it’s become something that has definitely interested me.
I started here in the estimating department. In 2001, McCarthy was awarded the work on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention building in Atlanta, building 18. That was the first BSL-4 lab in recent history. From there, I just continued with lab work. It was all about the right timing and being in the right place to get involved with that project. I have been working with BSL-4 labs ever since.
Do you expect to see an increase in the number of new BSL-4 labs built across the country?
Kelso: Especially with what is going on with COVID-19 and how we have learned that we should be more prepared to respond to these threats than we are, I do see this market continuing to grow.
When I first started working on lab construction, I was concerned that I might be getting into a niche market that was too specialized. I wondered if I needed to diversify my personal portfolio. I had a fear that this lab work would not be steady enough.
Today, that fear is not there. With what is going on in the country, I do see the construction of these facilities rising. I see that the United States does not want to rely on other countries for this type of work. We need to be in control of taking care of our people. I do think the demand for new lab facilities is going to continue to grow. I’m excited about that.
What are some of the bigger challenges in building BSL-4 labs?
Kelso: They are very complex in their engineering and construction details. The best formula for success is being engaged and involved from the front end of the process all the way through the final design. We can influence the design of these buildings and make sure that what is being drawn and detailed is buildable. We use virtual programs to look for possible challenges. We consider what items can be prefabricated off the building site. It’s very complex and we do everything we can to eliminate potential problems at the front end.
I was talking with a coworker of mine and we came to the conclusion that building these facilities is like building a Swiss watch with Lincoln Logs. It is very complicated, very precise work. The quality has to be top-notch. The formula to making a project a success is having a builder and people who have learned the lesson about getting into that design and figuring things out before you have several hundred tradespeople and power cranes on site. That is not the time to figure it all out. You will make some missteps if you don’t figure out the challenges during the design phase.
When you aren’t working on these complex facilities, what do you like to do with your free time?
Kelso: I have a 14-year-old and 12-year-old. They keep my wife and me busy with their sports. I definitely enjoy being involved with that, helping them practice or being a parent cheering on the sideline. My daughter is big into golf, while my son is big into soccer. As a family, we enjoy golfing together.
I used to be a fairly avid hunter and fisherman. That has slowed as my focus has turned to the kids’ sports. My son is getting into fishing and hunting, too, so I am excited to make that transition back into teaching him what I grew up loving.