Collaborative experience

Eight coordination teams provide critical design/construction interface for Seattle's complex Experience Music Project
August 11, 2010

The curvilinear shape of Seattle's Experience Music Project (EMP), a museum that documents and celebrates the history of rock 'n' roll music, suggests that it could have become a reality only through close coordination between its designers and builders. The judges for BD&C's Building Team Project of the Year competition affirmed this assessment by selecting EMP, which opened in June 2000, as a Grand Award winner.

"All preconceived roles essentially were cast aside, and 'SWAT' teams were implemented to be accountable for specific facets of the project," says Paul Zumwalt, the project's director of design and construction with Vulcan Northwest Inc., EMP's owner and developer. "Architects, contractors, fabricators and vendors had equal input within each team, and were ultimately responsible for creating a facility unlike anything that has been built previously."

After the release of the original design documents for the main structural frame, the design team expended nearly as much effort as had been required for the basic design, notes E. Douglas Loesch, principal with the project's structural engineer, Seattle-based Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire. "Advancing the design during the construction period required close, continuous coordination within a 50-plus member team of design firms and a similar number of construction organizations," he says. "All of this work was conducted against a backdrop of rapidly changing technology, which the vision of EMP mandated be taken up 'on-the-fly' and included in the design."

The organization of eight design/construction coordination teams by the project's general contractor, Seattle-based Hoffman Construction Co. of Washington, made the project's joint construction and design effort as productive as possible at all times, Loesch says.

"Many challenges faced the design and construction team," Zumwalt notes. "The first and foremost was the curving, extraordinary architecture of Frank Gehry. To make this dream a reality, we witnessed a team collaborative process never before seen."

Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft Corp. and the museum's sponsor, wanted a building that would capture the energy, creativity and excitement of Jimi Hendrix's music. "In discussions of how a physical object could convey the desired message, it quickly became clear that the building shapes would be like no other building," says George Metzger, senior associate with architect Frank O. Gehry Associates. "Allen suggested that the building be 'swoopy,' like a guitar body. From this point forward, it was clear that everybody involved in the project would need an open mind to bring the building into reality."

Contractor/ fabricator collaboration

Because the evaluation of new construction systems required an integration of manufacturing, fabrication and construction processes, design/build subcontractors became integral members of the team. They included Kansas City, Mo.-based A. Zahner Co., which developed a double-curved, panelized exterior metal cladding system; Portland, Ore.-based Columbia Wire & Iron Works, which produced long-span, CAD/CAM-fabricated curved structural steel members; J.S. Perrott & Co., which mounted wood paneling to a uniquely-shaped substrate; Portland, Ore.-based Benson Industries, which fabricated and erected complex geometrical exterior glazing; and Enfield, Conn.-based Permasteelisa Cladding Technologies, which erected the glass-and-steel exterior skin.

To better determine the expectations of unique systems, in many cases the owner agreed to pay subcontractors for a mockup of the proposed construction prior to finalizing the overall bid cost.

All members of the construction team used CATIA — an acronym for Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application — a software application that was developed 20 years ago by a French firm, Dassault Systems, to design the Mirage jet fighter. The program enabled the entire team to gain from the existing information and to add information to the database that helped others in their work.

The design of geometrically complex elements was demystified with assistance of the computer. The building enclosure, structure, some interior elements and mechanical/electrical/plumbing components could be combined into one computer model to resolve interferences and conflicts before the work was fabricated. This helped provide more accurate quantity takeoffs and better understanding of the scheduling required to assemble the inter-related elements. Many components were fabricated by CAD/CAM equipment with data taken directly from the computer.

Execution of the project required the entire team to look at the big picture, define the essence of key building elements and determine what could be built now versus later, says Sandra Bonderman, project manager with the project's Seattle-based mechanical engineer Notkin Engineering Inc. For example, the location of the exhibit areas was not identified nor their characteristics known when ground was broken, one year after the design process began and three years before the grand opening.

EMP presented many challenges in routing electrical and mechanical systems, says James Redding, an associate with the project's Seattle-based electrical engineer, Sparling. "Since the power loads were often not known in detail before various areas of the building were built, we routinely faced major difficulties getting conduit and power circuitry from power source equipment to the loads." The demanding schedule did not allow any time to be squandered.

The partnering model employed by EMP allowed the city's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use to make commitments with the assurance that problems and conflicts could be resolved quickly, John King Jr., Seattle's chief building inspector, says. Construction permits were issued in phases, which allowed an early construction start. Design questions and construction difficulties were resolved through a conflict-resolution tree, with representatives of all parties available for decision-making.

Douglas Winn, vice president of Hoffman Construction Co. of Washington, reiterated the importance of having building officials as integral team members. For example, requirements for fireproofing the steel structure were complicated because EMP has steel ribs that transition from vertical to horizontal, instead of traditional columns or beams. The development of a fire- protection plan required a joint analysis by the project's design/code team and the city building officials and plan reviewers.

EMP's $102 million base-building cost includes core and shell construction, metal exterior skin, sitework and improvements to an existing monorail track, which now passes through an opening in EMP. The $240 million total project cost additionally includes consultant fees, interior finishes, content development and rights, exhibit design and installation as well as exhibit fees and owner expenditures.

Although EMP was admittedly not an inexpensive project, its budget was not open-ended. "Costs were watched like a hawk," says Winn. "Though much of the work could be considered in the 'research and development' category, once the construction system was under way the cost control stayed right in place, keeping everyone as careful and efficient as they could be, given the complexities of the design. Assignment of the work was done in a competitive manner, and was verified by our internal cost control and estimating efforts to assure they were proper for the scope identified," he says.

         
 

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