Built to Last | Villanova Magazine | Villanova University

Built to Last

How does Villanova’s project management team keep up with all of the new developments on campus? We spent a day with senior project manager Marilou Smith ‘84 COE to find out.


Marilou Smith and Robert Morro atop the Villanova Performing Arts Center building wearing hard hats and safety vests

At 5:45 a.m. on a brisk winter morning, Marilou Smith ’84 COE rounds the corner from Ithan Avenue to Lancaster Avenue in a well-worn pair of Brooks running sneakers. She makes a mental note of some items to discuss with contractors on the construction site later in the day.

A late bloomer to running, Smith took up the pastime as an outlet around the same time she took on the single biggest project of her 35-year career and of Villanova’s campus enhancements so far. The $285 million transformation of Lancaster Avenue entails construction of the Commons residence hall complex, Villanova’s first Performing Arts Center, a pedestrian bridge, a 1,200-vehicle parking garage, a two-story addition to the existing parking garage on campus, a surface parking lot and new streetscapes along Lancaster Avenue.

With the Ithan Avenue parking garage and pedestrian bridge spanning Route 30 complete, the August 2019 finish line for the Commons is in sight—with the 2020 opening of the Performing Arts Center not far behind it.

“The sites are part of my running loop, which gives me an opportunity to see what’s going on,” Smith says. “I can identify any potential issues and address them promptly so they don’t become a major problem.”

Anyone who’s worked with Smith during her 22 years in Facilities Management at Villanova wouldn’t be surprised that she gets a head start on her to-do list before the sun even comes up. She has a reputation as a problem-solver who’s always a step ahead. “Marilou is a great engineer and project manager and has a good perspective and balance in her approach to issues that crop up,” says Robert Morro, vice president for Facilities Management.

Since ground broke on the construction in 2015, Smith has worked with 60-plus outside consultants— from architects and engineers to traffic experts and parking lot specialists. “She has to mediate competing priorities and timelines with all of those people, and she’s very skilled at taking complicated issues and distilling them down to what’s really important to us,” Morro says.

A close-up look at the black-and-white architectural drawings for Villanova’s new residence halls, The Commons
A coat rack in senior project manager Marilou Smith’s office with three Villanova hard hats and yellow and orange safety gear
At her desk, Villanova senior project manager Marilou Smith laces up her brown worn construction boots

Smith usually spends mornings in her office triaging email to ensure projects keep moving, then she dons construction gear to meet with contractors on site to review construction progress, discuss updates and look over architectural drawings.


Stewardship at Work

Smith is one of eight full-time project managers at Villanova, who have a wide range of experience in mechanical, electrical and civil engineering. Led by Steve Hildebrand, assistant vice president for Engineering and Construction, the team tackles an average of 150 projects per year— from relatively minor jobs like an office refresh to game-changers like the $65 million Finneran Pavilion renovation.

When a new job comes in, Hildebrand looks at the type and size of the project and chooses a project manager based on current workload, expertise, the intensity of the job and familiarity with the particular building. “The broad base of expertise our team has—not only in terms of engineering specialty but of field experience—is crucial to support the wide range of needs we have across campus,” he says. “Every project that we approach is extremely important to the client, so the attentiveness, expertise and management we lend to any one of these jobs is the same regardless of the size. Each job is part of our mission to build a better University.”

Their blueprint is the campus master plan. Commissioned in 2008 by University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS, it is the first documented campus master plan in the University’s history, Morro says. Bit by bit, his team is helping to bring the vision for the future of Villanova to life.

“We’re blessed to have strong team players who are extremely dedicated,” Morro says. “I always tell my folks that we have a lot of clients to serve. Stewardship is the main role of our department. The reason we have in-house project managers is because they understand Villanova, and they can convey what’s important to us to the myriad contractors and consultants who work for us.”

For many years, Smith was one of those consultants. Not long after graduating from Villanova with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1984, she landed a position as a design engineer at PWI Engineering, a firm based in Philadelphia. Her alma mater soon became one of her clients and the renovation of Picotte Hall at Dundale (the Morris Estate at the time) was her first project. Within two years, Smith was asked to join the Facilities Management team at Villanova University.

Her first project for Facilities Management happened to be her last design project for PWI Engineering— the expansion and renovation of Mendel Hall in 1996. Since then she has overseen hundreds of jobs on campus, including Driscoll Hall, which houses the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing; the Sheehan and Sullivan residence hall renovations; Café Nova and renovations to the dining area and kitchen in Dougherty Hall; the Health Services Building; and the Structural Engineering Teaching and Research laboratory.

An alumna, parent, staff member and neighbor of the University, Smith’s lifelong and multifaceted relationship with Villanova informs her understanding of the many clients that Facilities Management serves and their needs. “Being a neighbor and parent has certainly helped me to grow as a better project manager and steward of the University. I see things from different perspectives,” she says.

For instance, the planning process for the Commons included input from many of the University’s neighbors. Smith tried to keep their concerns in mind, particularly when designing the exterior lighting as well as the landscape buffering along the driveway behind the residence halls.

“We originally had lights on both sides of the bridge pathway, and I had the designers make a modification so that we only had lights facing toward the residence halls,” she explains. “We still have adequate light crossing the bridge, but the light is directed away from the neighborhood.”

As Villanova prepares to open its newest residence halls to more than 1,100 students this August, key members of the University’s Project Management team highlight the work that’s being done and how The Commons will transform campus.



Planning to tackle some projects of your own this spring? Here are five basic tactics Villanova’s project managers use every day:

  • 1

    Nail Down the Details

    Make sure you have clearly defined expectations. Identify the scope, budget, timeline and types of expertise you’ll need to get the job done. Get buy-in from key stakeholders.

  • 2

    Keep Communication Lines Open

    Make sure everyone working on the project is clear about their task and what they are providing upon completion. Be consistent, open, honest and clear with everyone.

  • 3

    Manage Project Risks

    Identify risks as they approach and manage them before they get out of hand. A risk is only a potential problem—and with prompt attention, it doesn’t have to become an actual one.

  • 4

    Avoid Scope Creep

    Don’t let your new sink become a full-scale kitchen renovation. Scope creep happens when new elements are added to a project without revisiting the original plan to look at how it will impact the budget, schedule and resources needed.

  • 5

    Schedule Regular Check-ins

    Check in regularly throughout the project’s lifecycle to ensure the work is meeting expectations and moving along as scheduled to avoid any major surprises at the end.

Exterior of The Commons residence halls showing black casement windows, gothic arches, stone facade and faux slate
Construction workers and vehicles on site building the steel beam infrastructure for the future Performing Arts Center
Marilou Smith reviews architectural plans on site for Villanova Performing Arts Center with LF Driscoll site superintendent
Against a bright blue sky, a cast-stone cross adorns the black roof of The Commons residence halls
Marilou Smith surveys progress The Commons residence halls site, with construction workers and vehicles in the background
A construction worker carries a ladder under one of the stone arches of The Commons residence halls
Marilou Smith talks with a contractor working on the interior finishing of The Commons residence halls

Smith does walk-throughs of the construction sites for The Commons and the Performing Arts Center at least once a week to stay up to date on all the details of the projects.


From Rendering To Reality

Seemingly small details can have a significant impact for a massive project like the Commons.

A team from world-class firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects came up with the vision, look and feel for the complex. Local firm Voith & Mactavish Architects brought the renderings to life with an artistic flair. And Smith manages the process and all the logistics to make it a reality.

“It takes a village,” she says. “I have a terrific team, both design and construction, who constantly communicate with me through phone calls, emails and at our weekly meetings.” She tracks issues on multiple lists—a minimum of four: construction, design, equipment and township code requirements and communications.

It takes untold attention to detail to make a brand-new building blend seamlessly with a 177-year-old campus. Not the least of which is the façade. To match the collegiate gothic look that’s distinctive of Villanova’s campus, the builders used 5,000 tons of stone in a precise blend of colors.

“I want these buildings to look as if they have always been here,” Smith says. That’s what she told the architects. “They exceeded all expectations. You see these details on the drawings but when they’re actually in place, it’s just amazing.” The architects were extremely intentional in every single aspect of these buildings. Each one contains something that makes it unique.

“When you walk through those arches, it’s spectacular. It’s too hard to say I have one favorite feature,” Smith says.

There’s the eclectic mix of brick, stone and faux slate. The series of arches staggered just so, to make the entrance look like an endless archway. The decorative cast stone elements that adorn the turrets and faux chimneys. The tiny windows that speckle the back-stair towers. The black casement windows that give the building an old-world look. The cast stone panels over the arches that leave space for future ornamental art or statues. It’s a type of architectural detail more reminiscent of the early 20th century than the 21st century.

“I want this campus to stand the test of time,” she says. “I come from a long line of Villanovans—my father, my grandfather, three of my brothers, a lot of cousins, nieces and nephews and three of my four sons. We pretty much have Villanova in our blood.

“I love what I do; I love to build things. When I look at a project, I know I’m going to be looking at it every day, and I want to be proud of it.” ◼︎

Senior project manager Marilou Smith '84 COE describes a few of the key spaces you'll see in Villanova's new Performing Arts Center and just how much progress has been made on the building in the past few months.

Plugging Away at the Punch List

With 1,138 students scheduled for move-in this August, the Commons is the next project on senior project manager Marilou Smith’s docket for completion. Once the contractors finish construction on this complex of six new residence buildings, Villanova’s Facilities Management team begins the massive task of getting it move-in ready.

“Just think about one room in your house times a thousand,” says Robert Morro, vice president for Facilities Management. “There are more details than you can imagine.”

That’s where the punch list comes in. An essential element of every construction project, this list details all the items that need to be completed before the job gets the final stamp of approval.

The $65 million Finneran Pavilion renovation had 2,466 items on the punch list, so the list for this project will likely number in the tens of thousands. “We have many, many layers of inspection down to the precise detail to ensure we have a fabulous end product,” Morro says.

Did You Know?

The term “punch list” originated at a time when contractors literally punched holes in a list to mark which items needed attention.

Marilou Smith in her bright yellow safety gear and hard hat looks out from the top of the future Performing Arts Center roof
Torcon project engineer points to a detail on architectural plans he’s discussing with Marilou Smith standing beside him
Black gothic arched windows on stone facade of The Commons residence halls, with construction crew in the distance on site

Every detail—from the views of campus from the rooftops to the shape of the windows—is overseen by Smith and a team of architects, engineers, consultants and construction supervisors.


Leading the Way in Stormwater Management

In less than a year, the Commons and the future Performing Arts Center have transformed from steel-beam skeletons to striking stone facades. Quite as significant—though not as visible to the untrained eye—is the impact on Villanova’s environmental footprint.

For the past two years, senior project manager Marilou Smith ’84 COE has worked closely with Nave Newell Engineering, as well as Villanova Center for Resilient Water Systems Lead Bridget Wadzuk, PhD, ’00 COE and Director Robert Traver, PhD, to incorporate cutting-edge stormwater management control measures throughout the developments on Lancaster Avenue.

“Stormwater management is a huge challenge in this region—so in true Villanova fashion, we took this opportunity to go above and beyond what is required,” Smith says.

The systems in place on the site will capture approximately 2.2 inches of rainfall, more than 100 percent above the 1 inch required by Radnor Township code. “And we’re doing it in really interesting, different and innovative ways,” Dr. Wadzuk says. “We’re talking about resiliency, which is a step beyond sustainability. We’re building a diverse stormwater management portfolio that treats and reuses water in many different ways.”

Previously occupied by a nearly 10-acre parking lot of impenetrable asphalt, the site now incorporates a green infrastructure that will reduce stormwater runoff, filter pollution and replenish the groundwater supply.


rain gardens


infiltration trenches


inches of rainfall captured


cisterns that filter and reuse a portion of the water runoff from the roofs to help cool the new buildings

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