A building project they will remember

January 7, 2011
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The opening this week of the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital on the Spectrum Health Butterworth campus will officially mark the beginning of healthier lives for the area’s kids and also the end of a substantial and unique construction project.

It took four years to build the $286 million hospital, but the design work got started years earlier — in the summer of 2003. Next, a parking lot was cleared from the Michigan Street site the hospital now occupies, well before a brick was laid.

About 2,400 workers had a hand in the construction. The project was co-managed by Turner Construction Co. of New York and the Wolverine Building Group of Grand Rapids.

“The workers and everybody on this project understood this was something special, and I think everybody right from day one really took a lot of pride in this project. We do that on all projects, but this one was really unique and special,” said Bruce Burgess, vice president of Wolverine Construction Management.

“We had the opportunity to create some unique design solutions. We had a design team that was trying to do something that had never been done before, and that was a lot of fun,” he added.

Jonathan Bailey Associates of Dallas and URS Corp. of Grand Rapids were the design team. One of the design solutions Burgess referred to is the full-vision glass of the patient rooms, which he thought had never been done in a hospital before. Another is the pedestrian bridge that stretches from 35 Michigan Street to the hospital’s two-story lobby. Yet another is the waves that seem to engulf the building’s exterior.

“We did a lot of 3-D modeling and three-dimensional laser scanning of the in-place construction to get the systems just perfect. We did a lot of mock-ups of areas ahead of building them, so we could get them most efficient as functionally possible. So it was a lot of practice planning, collaboration with the owner and the architect in really sweating out the details. And the results, I think, really speak for the amount of effort that was put in up-front. From that perspective, it was a really unique project,” said Burgess.

Ron Dawson, senior project manager for Turner, agreed with Burgess’ take and added that the design of the hospital was able to combine technical sophistication with aesthetics, which he said doesn’t happen very often.

“This one brought the two together. It’s a world-class hospital and it’s also got the same unique aesthetic aspect that you don’t typically see in a hospital to this degree. It was very fun to work on and very challenging, with the unique shape of the bridge, the exterior-wall system, and then tying those into the mechanical systems and the high humidity levels that a hospital typically has so that you avoid problems with the exterior wall and the condensation,” he said.

Both Burgess and Dawson said constructing a hospital is much more demanding than putting up an office structure or residential building. Burgess pointed out that building codes are more stringent for hospitals.

Dawson said the mechanicals that went into the children’s hospital had to be more sophisticated. “Technically, it’s a lot more difficult. There is a lot more to it and you really need to have staff and subcontractors that have that experience and that skill set for a hospital to avoid pitfalls,” he said.

“But again, this one was also very unique because it had so many unique architectural characteristics to it, as well. So we kind of got the best of both worlds on this project. I know all the subcontractors and tradesmen felt it was a great opportunity, to be involved with this project,” Dawson added.

Another unique aspect of the project was that the management team had to meet with one group that normally isn’t involved with putting up a building — the hospital’s physicians. Burgess said they met regularly with the doctors.

“They are such an amazing group of people. You have to meet with them at 6 a.m. because they have surgery and a full day in front of them. They came to these meetings so focused that you had to bring your ‘A game’ and a want to create excellence. I’m really going to miss the intensity and the excellence of working with that group of people and really trying to do something exceptional,” he said.

As a project, Burgess and Dawson made it clear they will remember working on this one for a long time. As for what will leave a lasting impression on him, Dawson said he was awed with what he called the world-class operating rooms and the facility’s laboratories. But he said the lobby was his favorite feature.

“I was proud to walk my family and friends through and show them those areas. But I always left the lobby for last. It’s just such an incredible space, from the terrazzo floor to the high ceilings and the interactive play area,” said Dawson, who moved here from Detroit, where Turner has an office, to manage the project for his firm.

“The project really did what it set out to do. It gets the kids looking around and so fixed on the facility itself, I think they forget why they might be in the building to begin with. So it helps drive their fears away and makes it an inviting place for them,” he said.

As for his favorite elements of the new hospital, Burgess said the building’s stylish exterior design, full-vision glass, operating rooms and radiology department rank right up there. Then there is the playground on the west side of the lobby. “It’s almost like a beautiful, little urban park right on the outside of the building on one of the roofs,” he said.

“The patient rooms are great because these not only accommodate the caregivers and the patients, but they’re also designed to accommodate the families. I think that’s really important to the success of the facility,” said Burgess. “The first open house I was at, I saw children come into the building for the first time. When I saw they loved the building and were instantly comfortable in that space, I knew that we’d accomplished what we had set out to do.”

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