Wolverine Specializes In Different Concept They Call It Build Over

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Most people in manufacturing have been through expansions or renovations; the months-long, noisy, drafty, grit-tasting, dust-settling processes, complete with curtains of semi-opaque plastic as crews tack an addition on to the main building.

It's one of those growing pains which, like moving a manufacturing plant from an old building to a brand-new one, can be about as much fun as being sacked by an NFL defensive tackle.

Well, Wolverine Building Inc. has been specializing in something it calls build-over, which it claims is much more efficient and far less painful.

What's the difference between the build-over approach and a traditional renovation? It's a big difference, according to Jim Ziegler, project manager for Wolverine.

"With a renovation," Ziegler said, "most of the time the building structure remains intact as you change out the insides — adding or bumping out a wall or changing an exterior surface."

But with a build-over, he said, "we're building a new box over the old box, then demolishing the old box out. All the while, equipment and people inside keep moving."

According to Mike Kelly, a vice president for Wolverine, the firm usually meets with frank disbelief when it claims it can do a build-over — enclose an old plant with new one and then remove the old plant — while day-to-day operations continue inside.

"The first response when we present this option and tell owners they can keep their lines and people moving is usually, 'You can't do that.' And we say 'Yes, we can, and we have,'" Kelly said.

And they offer evidence, such as a foundry company in White Cloud, Vi-Chem in downtown Grand Rapids, Prince Corp. in Holland, and Harbor Industries, a Grand Haven-based manufacturer of commercial display shelving that redid its plant in Charlevoix.

The Prince project, which is visible to drivers on U.S. 31 in Holland, involved enclosing one arm of an existing shop with a new structure large enough to accommodate a rail spur and a roof 30 feet higher than its predecessor.

The firm needed the head room to allow free play for an overhead crane that the firm uses in assembling hot metal die-cast machines weighing up to 250 tons.

Prince staffers recall the project lasting about four months, and requiring coordination meetings each week between Prince's management, Wolverine's project engineers and manager, and the subcontractors.

"The owner had trains, delivery trucks, and product moving in and out and around inside this plant 16 hours a day. We built over and added onto an area, without their production line missing a product delivery deadline," Kelly said. "The owner had exact deadlines to meet, and to jeopardize even one was not acceptable."

The Charlevoix project involved building a 280,000-square-foot enclosure around and above an obsolescent out-of-code hodgepodge resulting from 22 expansions of one sort of another since the 1940s.

The structure itself had little value but it housed a 24/7 operation that badly needed much more space and straightened lines of operation.

City leaders helped Harbor Industries seek land in several surrounding counties. But re-zoning and the cost to bring utilities out to one site or another were beyond Harbor Industries' resources — not to mention the cost of halting production while removing equipment from an old plant and setting it up in the new one.

Harbor Industries had another concern: What would happen to its employees and to Charlevoix if the community's largest employer took its business elsewhere?

Wolverine suggested that the firm's current site was the best site and came up with the concept of a build-over, which would allow the plant to continue operating through the construction project. Wolverine and Harbor Industries worked with the city to acquire nearly 11 acres of adjacent municipally owned land.

Ziegler explained that the project involved more than building the new structure and taking out the old. "We actually raised elevation a foot to account for the varied floor levels from earlier renovations," Ziegler said.

"We cut out sections of the old floor and poured new concrete flooring throughout the whole building."

He explained that the project also involved using a crane to lower new columns through the old roof. Meanwhile, the project required engineering and maneuvering around dust recovery systems and electrical systems.

"We systematically coordinated shut-down of one electrical system while turning on another, as we moved from area to area building the new structure," Ziegler said.

"I wouldn't say this process is any faster than building a new plant out in the suburbs," Ziegler said. "But it's a lot more efficient."

Wolverine also contends that it's far less costly.

Fred Wert, a Wolverine building engineer, buttresses Ziegler's comments, adding that there's more to it than just building a new shell around the old building.

"We help our customers upgrade facilities and operations concurrently," Wert said. "We can come up with more practical, cost-effective plant processes as part of the facility renovation. Rarely do we come up against a situation we haven't seen."

He explained that in manufacturing construction, the shape of a building rarely is more important than the flow of the equipment and product inside it.

But he said that because location and staff challenges are more of a concern, companies often unwittingly force themselves to settle for a plant shape, or limited plant size.

As a result, he argues, companies that purchase land in advance for new buildings often are limiting their options as far as plant size, layout and manufacturing processes are concerned — and often without realizing it until it's too late.

"Overall productivity costs suffer, and owners end up hearing about problems from their foreman and line workers ever after," Wert added.

He and Ziegler said Wolverine engineers work very closely with the client company's technical staff and literally must anticipate all the problems, pitfalls and challenges, and then design the problems right out of the project.

Kelly says building over simply offers more options.

"If you've already got a good site," he said, "a build-over allows you to stay there. You don't necessarily have to be limited by the building that's on it," says Kelly.

"Considering dollars and disruption, the cost of actually moving to a new location is huge," he said. He said the build-over technique offers enormous opportunity for manufacturers in the area. "Companies should look at it as an alternative to moving."

Kelly said the cost savings of staying in place are enormous in that a firm can take advantage of utilities already in place. The same applies, he added, to existing parking lots, to the savings of not having to relocate and reinstall plant equipment, while obviating the cost of new high-cost land.

Kelly says building over allows an owner to put facility capital investment to work more quickly than with a traditional construction approach and schedule; it puts that capital investment to work in direct performance improvement areas and it does so "now, not a year or two down the road."

Building over presents some challenges, however, that are different from building a new building miles away. Operations inside the old plant can continue, but not precisely as before.

"It's very much a team effort," Ziegler said, "and the owner is as much a part of the team as everybody else."

He explained that a great deal of flexibility must be built into the process. "From our side," Kelly said, "that includes the project engineer, our project manager and site supervisor, our subs and our employees. A customer-driven change might force us to regroup, redirect, communicate, then implement with very little notice," said Kelly.

"You've got to have good communications on these projects," he added. "Because when the site supervisor and owner agree that in half an hour, there's going to be a column cut in through the existing roof and placed where this desk is, things move quickly."

"Our ability to maintain project costs, efficiencies and end deadlines is wholly dependent on the day-to-day. In our on-site phase, we plan these projects in five- to 10-day increments, no further out," Ziegler said.

"We can't have inexperienced subcontractors," Kelly added. "We can't have a sub decide to take off from the job site for a week because the scheduled job changed. That flexibility takes a mature, experienced contractor; our teams are disciplined and committed."

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