The artful builder

Building Madison’s performing arts center for kids
Jul20 Otj Issue 1
Photographs by Ben Gerhards/CG Schmidt
Gabriel Neves at the future site of the Madison Youth Arts Center.

Brazil native Gabriel Neves, 27, was always the creative type. “I used to drive my mom crazy,” he says of his inquisitive nature. “I’d take all my toys apart and try to rebuild them.”

Now he’s coordinating the construction of the highly anticipated Madison Youth Arts Center (MYAC) just off East Washington Avenue. Neves, a project engineer for CG Schmidt, has been in Madison on and off since 2017, starting as an intern for the company. He moved here permanently in 2018 after being offered the full-time position thousands of miles away from his homeland.

The $35 million MYAC, scheduled to open in April 2021, will be designed specifically for school-age children interested in pursuing the arts (e.g., dance, music, theater). The center was bolstered by a $20 million pledge from American Girl founder and local philanthropist Pleasant Rowland and other major donors. When complete, it will become the permanent home of the Children’s Theater of Madison (CTM) and Madison Youth Choirs (MYC), and host numerous other arts-based organizations, as well.

This is Neves’ first high-profile project in Madison, having previously worked on schools in Barneveld and Lodi, and this one is particularly unique because two major projects are being built concurrently on the same city block. “One is an apartment building [Stone House Development] with an above-ground parking ramp being built by Stevens Construction,” he explains. “The fourth floor of our building sits on top of their parking ramp.”

Coordination between the two construction companies is extensive. Each has a tower crane operating high above the site, for example, and both need to be operating at the same time.

“You can’t just operate one crane alone because it could spin and lead to problems,” Neves explains.

Another complication is the location, at the corner of Ingersoll and Mifflin streets, across from Lapham Elementary School in a residential neighborhood crowded with parked cars on narrow streets.

As a part of the construction management team, Neves coordinates with all the MYAC subcontractors to make sure everything goes according to the architect’s [Eppstein Uhen Architects] design. He is in charge of knowing what will be arriving when and keeping a constant line of communication open between all parties.

Will COVID-19 force a supplier to close temporarily or delay a delivery? If masonry is scheduled to begin, door frames should be ordered, delivered, and ready. Neves keeps everyone on track.

Technology, from computers to 3D models, helps ensure that everything will fit inside the building as planned. “It’s very challenging,” Neves states, “but it’s good to see progress being made.”


Before planting his roots firmly in U.S. soil and leaving his family and friends behind, Neves considered becoming a scientist or going to med school.

Construction won out. He wanted to build something tangible.

He studied as an exchange student in Chicago for two years before graduating with a degree in civil engineering in Brazil followed by a master’s in construction management from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“In Brazil, you have to decide what you want to do before you get into college. So if you started college and decided that you wanted to change majors, you would have to start from zero. Some people never graduate because of that,” he smirks.

Construction materials differ somewhat, too. For example, most construction in Brazil involves the use of concrete columns and bricks, he explains, and air or vapor barriers aren’t required because temperatures aren’t as extreme.

The MYAC building broke ground last fall, beginning with pouring the foundation and first floor columns for the structure. This spring, the CG Schmidt team poured slab-on-grade and worked its way up, floor by floor. Pouring concrete is a big job requiring as many as 20 people on site. “We have a huge truck that pumps concrete up to our level,” Neves marvels. “It’s almost twice the size of our concrete truck and takes up half the street.”

Traffic control often falls on his checklist, as well.

At least two people are required to guide the concrete pump at the top level because of its weight. The fourth floor, because of its size, will require four separate pours, each taking almost a full day. After each, workers will return the next day to add control joints, Neves explains. “Concrete will always crack, so they try to predict where that might occur, and a superficial cut is made with a saw to allow the concrete to move.”

Less than a year from now, the building’s top floor will include a 300-seat performance theater, a flexible “black box” theater with 125 seats, dressing rooms, classroom studios, storage areas for costumes, a production shop for building scenery, and two outdoor patios. The team has been collaborating with acoustics and soundproofing specialists and computer consultants. “These are things you wouldn’t see in a typical commercial building or school,” Neves relates. “I’m learning as I go, and I have great mentors.”

All floors should be completed by the end of June at which point the building will be enclosed and Neves’ focus will turn to the interior finishes — cabinets, flooring selections, tiles — or making sure the correct paint colors are applied to the walls.

He’ll remain on the MYAC project through completion, and his next career goal is moving up to project manager, which would allow him to work in the field and assume more financial and budgeting oversight.

“I love seeing something different happening every day,” Neves remarks, “especially when it comes to overcoming challenges and finding fixes. It’s stressful, but at the end of the day it’s just so rewarding. I love my job and we have a purpose.”