By Kate MacDougall

For the past 25 years, the Construction Owners Association of America (COAA) has been a beacon of support for construction owners across the country, providing continuing education and training, best practice resources and information, and invaluable collaboration and networking opportunities. And its future is bright as the association takes the first steps into its second quarter century. But none of this progress would have been possible without visionary and founder Al Phillips paving the way.

The Journey to Creating COAA

In the 1980s—years before COAA was formed—Phillips, a construction law attorney and native Atlantan, noticed that while most of the main players in the construction industry, including architects and contractors, had their own support in the form of professional associations and formalized contract documents, the “centerpiece” of every construction project—the facilities owners—did not. 

“We believed that owners’ rights and positions were not being represented in the workplace,” Phillips said. “For example, the American Institute of Architects has, for over 100 years, published construction contract documents that have become the standard in the U.S. construction industry. But they were written, from the outset, by the architects on behalf of the architects. And as one might expect, they were very avidly protectionist of the architectural profession.”

As a first step in closing this gap, Phillips and his firm established the National Construction Law Center (NCLC), which set out to create construction documents “written from the owner’s perspective, not for the purpose of being excessively owner-oriented to the detriment of others, but to try to level the playing field,” he explained. The NCLC also published a newsletter and conducted seminars to educate and empower construction owners.

But he obviously did not stop there. Phillips firmly believed that, in addition to formalized legal documents, facilities owners needed “an organization that would help educate them and bring them together in the same location to talk, to share their opinions and their experiences,” he said. After researching the other available resources in the field and gauging interest among construction owners, Phillips said that he was intimidated by the sheer size and heterogeneity of the group of people who needed something like COAA. 

“The owner universe is so diverse,” he said. “If you are in a tall building in a large city, and you look out over the landscape, you’re looking at properties owned by people who have been involved in construction. The idea of trying to efficiently identify that group and then bring them all together into a cohesive organization was overwhelming.”

But, always positive and optimistic, Phillips didn’t let that deter him. He and his team set out to raise the funds needed to start the association, bringing in more than they anticipated. They then created a board of directors comprising a broad mix of owner representatives from the public and private sectors and various industries. And on August 10, 1994, Phillips’ dream became a reality as COAA was officially founded. 

Twenty-five years later, Phillips is no longer directly involved in COAA, but he is proud of its progress thus far and is looking forward to seeing the association continue to prosper.

“There’s no substitute for education, and there’s no substitute for sharing experiences,” Phillips said. “COAA has done and continues to do that: provide education and a focal point for the sharing of experiences that has never, to my knowledge, been done in the construction industry for owners. That is a big thing, and I hope it will continue for a long time in the future.”

The Path Ahead

“We’re owners of the facilities, like medical buildings, airports, K-12 school districts, constantly building new or renovating,” COAA Executive Director Howie Ferguson said. “Until Al had his idea, those people didn’t have a group or network or association through which to get together and talk about best practices, what works and what doesn’t. COAA has helped give the owner more of a voice within the industry.”

Across the past quarter century, COAA has grown its membership base, established leadership conferences, created educational offerings such as the Owners Training Institute, and recognized owners’ success through Project Leadership Awards and other outlets. The association also gives back to its industry by awarding two annual Albert E. Phillips college scholarships—named for COAA’s founder—to students pursuing design or construction careers. 

“The organization has been extremely successful in creating a platform for the owner’s voice in the planning, design, and construction industry during the past 25 years,” COAA President Allison B. Muth said. “I am honored to serve as president during this time as we continue to create awareness within the industry that the owner’s voice matters.”  

With an eye on the future, COAA’s 25th year will be spent preparing for exciting growth, launching in new markets, and rolling out myriad new initiatives—laying the groundwork for a successful future. 

“We are currently working to enhance our educational programs, offer even more forums for owners to connect, and continue to engage new owners from all industry sectors that are working to deliver projects,” Muth said. “It’s an exciting time to be part of COAA and to know that the efforts we are making today will drive change on how projects are delivered in the future.”

Ferguson added: “We’re known as the best kept secret in the industry, and we want to shed that label. It’s about reaching more owners to help them be better at what they do.”

Looking back on the inception and founding of COAA, Phillips said that he’s proud to have accomplished his original goal—“creating a quality product that serves our members”—and he says there is only one thing he would do differently if given the chance. 

“I would go back even earlier and work to establish COAA 10 years sooner. There has always been a need for this type of association, and by starting earlier, we would’ve had the opportunity to support and empower that many more construction owners in their careers,” he said.

 

To commemorate COAA’s 25th anniversary and Al Phillip’s contribution to the industry, the association has published a series of videos in which Phillips discusses the idea and its roots, how he gauged interest and formed COAA, what those first few gatherings were like, and how COAA has grown over the past quarter century.