Roofraising project is miraculous

May 2, 2011
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Even though the renovation was the first of its kind in the region, the lesson to be learned is that Franklin Partners should have waited until spring arrived to do the work. The real estate investment firm was well aware of that, but in this case, waiting wasn’t an option.

“You’re in a pretty precarious position when you’re raising a roof in the winter,” Don Shoemaker, a principal with Franklin Partners, said with a smile.

Franklin Partners had to literally jack up a good portion of the roof of a 324,000-square-foot building at 4247 Eastern Ave. SE in Wyoming to ensure that the Undercar Products Group Inc., which produces automotive components, could move into the facility. Business has been so good for the firm that it needed more space than its current location at 900 Hynes Ave. SW in Grand Rapids provides.

But Undercar needed a building with an interior 32 feet high, while the roof over the Eastern Avenue facility only offered 15 feet of clearance. So, what’s a building owner to do? Raise the roof 17 feet, of course. And that is what the Oak Brook, Ill., firm did — for the first time in its history and, as far as anybody can recall, the first time in the history of the local industrial real estate market.

“It was the first one of this scale that’s been done in West Michigan. We lifted 236,000 feet of roof. There’s another 96,000 feet we didn’t lift. We basically went from 15 feet of clear height inside the building to 32 feet of clear height inside the building,” said Shoemaker, whose firm has revived eight industrial buildings in West Michigan. “We hadn’t done this before.”

The 96,000 square feet of roof that wasn’t lifted already had tenants underneath it. Priceline has its online bookings center there and AMI Entertainment also is a tenant.

The 1950’s-era building, which once belonged to Dematic Corp., was declared obsolete by the city of Wyoming and the state, and was awarded brownfield redevelopment tax credits. One reason for that designation was that its interior clearance wasn’t nearly high enough for today’s manufacturers.

When a deal Shoemaker thought he had with Walmart fell through, he knew he had to make changes to the building.

“What got the wheels going is there was a user out in the market and there was not a facility with their needs, in terms of having 32-foot height with heavy power and good infrastructure. So 10 months later, we signed a lease with them and started construction,” said Shoemaker.

Gary Tamminga, director of facilities for Franklin Partners, called Rooflifters. The company, which has offices in Toronto and Miami, has used a hydraulic lift system it created to lift roofs for more than 20 years. As one might expect, it’s a painstakingly slow process.

Rooflifters used what it calls “crib posts” — hydraulic jacks — for the heavy lifting. But it could only lift half of the massive roof at a time and at the snail-like pace of 6 inches an hour. It took 34 hours of hydraulic lifting in two lengthy sessions to raise it the full 17 feet.

“It’s a very analog-type process; it’s not computerized at all. We did it in two sections, about 115,000 feet at a time. The first half went up without very much difficulty in December. And if you remember, winter hit a little late this year. For the second half, we had to bring in twice as many crib posts — the jacks, and we had real difficulty getting it raised with the ice and snow on the roof,” said Shoemaker.

“The lesson to be learned here is, wait until spring. But that wasn’t an option because the tenant was in a hurry. We basically had to take down all the walls during construction to raise the roof, and we had days where we’d get two feet of snow inside the building, which would have to be manually shoveled out,” he added.

Shoemaker said he had another day with very high winds while the second-half lift was all the way up. But the new columns that would support that portion of the roof weren’t in yet, and the wind shifted the unsupported roof about four inches, which made everyone fear that it would come crashing down as it was being realigned. But the crew, led by Tamminga, got everything under control.

“It was a miraculous effort,” said Shoemaker.

“I think the crews only took two days off between Christmas and last week. It was quite an effort. But we didn’t just raise the roof: We replaced the roof. We replaced all the mechanicals. We put in new mechanical rooms and did all the utility runs for our automotive company because they were concerned about keeping up with production while going through a move.”

Franklin Partners turned the building into a “plug-and-play” facility for Undercar a few weeks ago so the firm could continue production at its Hynes site while it moves into the Eastern Avenue location, and not miss a manufacturing beat. Undercar plans to be completely operational there by October and also plans to add 25 jobs to its work force.

Shoemaker, whose company bought the building in 2006, is relieved that the work went pretty well — all things considered.

“We had some challenging moments just because of the weather. Not that it’s a surprise that there are winter conditions in Grand Rapids,” he said.

Shoemaker credited Duke Suwyn, the CEO of Colliers International-West Michigan who brokered the leasing deal, and the city of Wyoming for getting the project done.

“We have brownfield credits. We have an IFT zone set up, so our real estate taxes stay low, and that allowed us to collect net rent from the tenant that made it cost-effective to spend the money to raise the roof,” he said. “So it really wouldn’t have been done if those incentives weren’t in place and the city didn’t support it.”

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