Some Unique Building Challenges

December 1, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Building the DeVos Place convention center has been a six-days-a-week operation for Grand Rapids-based Erhardt Construction and Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction Group since August 2000.

It’s been Erhardt-Hunt’s baby from the get-go and will be until the completion of Phase III, which will involve razing part of Welsh Auditorium to make room for a new 40,000-square-foot ballroom, and also renovation of the Grand Center. Phase III is slated to get underway in June 2004 and be completed in January 2005.

Since the start, the Erhardt-Hunt crew has stayed right on schedule.

Earlier this summer, the construction team committed to opening the convention center one month earlier than anticipated in order to accommodate the Midwest Industrial Woodworking Expo on Dec. 4-5, which will bring to town more than 7,000 people and 600 exhibitors.

“So not only have we been able to maintain schedule, we’ve been able to accelerate the contract schedule by slightly over 30 days to accommodate that show,” said Bill Sewell, construction manager for Hunt Construction Group.

On any given day there have been from 255 to 350 workers on site, said Don Van Beek, general superintendent for Erhardt Construction.

With the opening of the DeVos Place’s Grand Gallery and exhibit hall this week, the construction team will have exceeded the one million man-hour mark. By the completion of Phase III in early 2005, Sewell estimates total man-hours will reach 1.5 to 1.6 million mark.

All in all, 150 subcontractors will have worked on the project by the time Phase III is finished, Sewell said.

“An administrative goal that we set out to achieve and, in fact, have exceeded, is the minority contracting participation,” he noted.

“At the time we awarded this work and released these contracts, the city’s goals were 11 percent and 2 percent for minority and women-owned businesses. Those have been relaxed since, but we are at the present time managing 17 percent minority subcontractors on the job, so we’ve exceeded that goal substantially.”

The more than 1-million-square-foot DeVos Place features a 75-foot high, glass-enclosed Grand Gallery and a 160,000-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall that can be divided into three halls, each the size of a football field and each with its own restrooms and concession/ banquet kitchen space.

Across from the exhibit hall will be a 40,000-square-foot ballroom with banquet seating capacity for 4,000.

The facility also has 35,000 square feet of subdividable meeting space, 12 enclosed loading docks, more than 700 underground parking spaces and a skywalk linking the center to two hotels and the Van Andel Arena.

The project includes renovation of the 2,446-seat DeVos Performance Hall, which has remained open throughout construction.

Erhardt Construction and Hunt Construction Group function as one company for the project, just as they have for two previous projects and will again for one future high-profile building project in Grand Rapids.

They joint ventured for the 10,500-seat Van Andel Arena, which was completed in 1996, and teamed for the renovation of the 33-story Plaza Towers, which features 150 condominiums, 120 apartment units and a seven-story, 240-room Courtyard by Marriott Hotel. DeVos Place, however, is the largest project the two companies have undertaken together to date.

The Erhardt-Hunt team also has been awarded the construction contract for the new Grand Rapids Art Museum.

At the start, there were numerous old building foundations that had to be removed from the DeVos Place site, including the old Bissell building foundation, an old canal, an old smokestack foundation and sanitary sewer mains dating to 1932, Van Beek recalled.

He said the crew had one unexpected encounter in the process — a 15,000-gallon fuel oil tank that had to be dug out and dealt with in a hazardous materials (hazmat) fashion.

Because of the site’s past industrial use, the soil was contaminated with trace metals and chemicals and had to be trucked to special landfills. Sewell said that process alone required a significant trucking operation.

In addition, water on the site had been contaminated from the soil, so it had to be handled in a hazmat fashion, as well.

Next, the crew had to drill the foundations.

Some of the caissons, which are used in constructing foundations in or near a body of water, were embedded as deep as 65 feet and ranged from three to 10 feet in diameter.

While drilling, the crew encountered a significant number of voids below ground, Sewell said, and had to pump in some 1,225 cubic yards of grout to fill all the subsurface voids.

Sewell said the building’s swooping roof design and its column-free exhibit hall called for a fairly unconventional steel erection operation.

“We had to do some creative shoring during the steel erection. It was all put in place before the shoring towers could come down.”

Working on the confined 13-acre riverfront site was a challenge, as well.

“We’re very landlocked, with a major thoroughfare on one side, an alley we had to share with the hotel to the south, the river to the west and rush hour traffic on the north,” Sewell observed.

“A big key to making things run smooth was that Don had deliveries programmed for the wee hours in the morning.”

Building materials and trucks were stored off site. The delivery of materials was a huge logistical task in and of itself, Van Beek recalled.

In addition to early morning deliveries, construction debris had to be hauled away daily before morning traffic kicked in.

Sewell said a security guard was posted at the gate around the clock just to manage deliveries and keep the public from entering the site and chocking up the alley.

Last winter, 100 inches of snow presented a hurdle, too, because crews were placing concrete during the winter months but the building was not yet completely under roof.

“But we never missed a day because of weather,” he added. “The guys would come into work and their task for those days would be to shovel snow.”

Since the site is the epicenter of the annual Celebration on the Grand fireworks display, Erhardt-Hunt worked closely with the fire department to take precautions to avoid potential problems and damage to the convention center, Sewell recalled.

He anticipates the biggest complication of the third and final phase of the project will be access to the site.

“The only access for any materials into and out of the Welsh Auditorium area is Lyon’s Square, which is shared 100 percent of the time with the Amway Hotel’s delivery operations. Up until Thanksgiving it was also shared with SMG’s Grand Center shows and move-ins.”

Van Beek said there will be more schedule challenges in Phase III. On top of that, the finishes for the ballroom are higher end than those of the exhibit hall.    

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