Facing Down Building Challenges

May 29, 2007
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Some of West Michigan’s signature projects are responses to engineering problems.

Problem: Constructing a building with no visible support.

Lamar Construction Co. is building a showpiece structure for its new Hudsonville headquarters — a cantilever-shaped office that juts 125 feet into the air. To ensure the 6,500-square-foot section of the facility does not tip on its side, a 70-foot-tall concrete and steel shaft and a 1,250-yard concrete and steel foundation were placed in the ground as counterweights to the cantilevered structure.

While the support structure required months of work and internal water pipes to cool the concrete during curing, erecting the cantilever was an even greater challenge. Placed in three 36,000-pound sections, the structure’s steel trusses had to be precisely engineered to ensure level orientation and support. The steel needed to remain at a constant 400 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the welding procedure. On two separate occasions, it was necessary to continuously weld for six days, a total of 144 hours.

Problem: Building on Michigan Street hill.

Bounded by the Ford Freeway, two of the region’s busiest streets, Spectrum Health’s downtown campus and a trio of other large-scale construction projects, the Michigan Street Development would be one of the most difficult commercial projects ever in West Michigan even if it wasn’t built on a 10-percent slope.

“One of the biggest challenges is designing an 1,100-linear-foot facility on a hill that drops a hundred feet,” said Richard Temple, project manager for URS Corp., the engineering firm quarterbacking the 700,000-square-foot Christman Co. project.

The initial concern was how to orientate traffic into the building, with the designers eventually choosing Bostwick Avenue as the baseline for the towers. For the construction of the parking deck — built into the hill as much as 60 feet below grade at some points — a massive retaining wall was constructed with an extensive system of “tieback” cables pinning the wall to the earth.

Careful planning was required to limit disruption to Michigan Street traffic and the Towers office building that stands in the middle of the project, to avoid utilities central to the operation of the hospital and downtown as a whole, and to link the project with Spectrum Health and the Van Andel Institute via bridge and tunnel.

“Then there is the time factor,” Temple said. “There are so many things going on the hill with different schedules and different owners that all has to be coordinated. We’re building the outer two-thirds of the project with the Towers office building intact, then going back and demolishing it. From a design position, you have to always be thinking through the entire project.”

Other concerns include the recent addition of Michigan State University’s Secchia Center to the west tower and engineering out vibrations from the parking deck to the Lemmen Holton Cancer Center in the east tower, an issue in particular for the facility’s linear accelerator vaults.

Problem: Putting a pool on the roof of a former school.

Built like a fortress of brick and concrete, the former Grand Rapids Union High School was sturdy enough to support nearly two dozen three-story condominium units atop its roof as part of Parkland Properties’ renovation of the school into Union Square Condos. Adding a full-size, concrete pool and Jacuzzi was a bit more than the structure could handle.

To support this rooftop playground, holes were drilled through every floor of the building and into the foundation. Concrete was poured to create vertical columns built atop new floorings on the first floor of the building. The pool sits atop these columns.

Problem: Moving students across one of the busiest motorways in West Michigan.

Gary Voogt, CEO of Grand Rapids engineering firm Moore & Bruggink, fondly recalls the years of discussion at Calvin College, his alma mater, that led to the construction of the Calvin College pedestrian overpass in 2002.

“I remember years of talking about how to get kids across East Beltline. Tunnel or bridge?” Voogt said. “It had to be a bridge, they said; bad things happen in a tunnel. That’s the place of the devil.”

Creating the structure that today extends over M-37/East Beltline Avenue fell to Grand Rapids architectural and engineering firm BETA Design Group Inc.

“The problem with these bridges — what some call gerbil tubes — is that 99 out of 100 of them are eyesores,” said BETA President and CEO Doug Brant.

The resulting structure, which also contains heating and cooling infrastructure for the recently constructed Prince Conference Center, became a showpiece and archetype for the college, but the aesthetic achievements are secondary to its details: for example, a heated lip on the rooftop that prevents accumulated snow and ice from falling on cars passing underneath.

Problem: Renovating a building to meet both green and historical standards.

When Guy Bazzani of Bazzani Associates began renovating the Helmus Building at 959 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids as his home and corporate headquarters, he did so with the intention of making the abandoned warehouse the city’s first building certified in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design protocol.

He also wanted the project to meet all the requirements of a historical structure, but the requirements of the two standards conflict on some building materials, particularly glass. Historical standards prefer windows to be as transparent as possible, while the high-performance glazing systems of the energy-efficient LEED standard are reflective.

Glass samples from nearly every industry manufacturer were collected, and Bazzani was able to set a national standard for high-performance glazing systems in historical structures after vetting the glass through inspections by the U.S. Green Building Council, the State Historic Preservation Commission and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Problem: Building on an island.

As it gears up for a potential bond construction project for the Beaver Island Community School on Beaver Island, roughly 20 miles off the coast of Charlevoix, Grand Rapids’ BETA Design will tap into its experience with the 2003 construction of the Mackinac Island Medical Center.

“The difficulties are just getting there,” said Steve Moe, senior project leader on the Mackinac Island project. “You can take a ferry when the lake water isn’t frozen over. When it is, you can take a snowmobile, or you can fly, which gets expensive.”

The water was passable throughout the Mackinac Island project, but the construction also had to contend with the logistical difficulties unique to Mackinac Island. The island limits all transport to horse-drawn vehicles during the summer tourist season, and also limits the hours when power tools can be used outdoors.

“But there are different rules that take effect once the Grand Hotel closes,” Moe said. “More vehicles are allowed on the island, power tools and things like that. That’s when a lot of the construction happens.”

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