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Keeping news downtown

Shunning a cheaper suburban site, an Omaha newspaper strengthens ties to its readers with a new printing plant

August 01, 2002 |

Newspaper consultants had toldOmaha World-Herald that the most economical plan for finally updating its outdated production facility would be to build in the suburbs, most likely on a site of at least 20 acres. But the newspaper decided to stay true to its Cornhusker roots and reinforce its commitment to the city by opting for a 7-acre downtown site.

To accomplish that squeeze play, however, the designers first had to honor the classic credo of "form follows function," letting the huge new printing presses drive the design. The stunning, fast-track result was created by two accomplished national players that also share local roots, architect-engineer HDR Inc. and construction manager Kiewit Construction Co.

"When we started the design, it became obvious what the solution should be — to showcase printing technology," recalls John Cameron, HDR's project designer. "Without the extensive use of exterior glass, the height of the presses would have resulted in a structure that resembled a huge box. We thought it would have been a formidable wall." The solution chosen instead results in a design that Cameron calls "dynamic, fascinating and high-tech."

And so far, the $54.8 million Freedom Center's positive reception since it opened last fall has validated the gutsy decision of World-Heraldpublisher John Gottschalk, who rejected the expert advice to make a downtown statement. Aside from the symbolism, the facility also serves utilitarian educational purposes.

Unlike the newspaper's former production facility, which housed presses in the basement, the new Freedom Center facility invites the public to look inside. A sloping curtain wall along the west elevation of the press hall is 360 feet long and 50 feet high. And an interior walkway around the press area provides visitors on orientation tours with a close-up view of state-of-the-art printing technology.

Cameron says the facility has a street presence while also being quite practical, by virtue of its use of economical materials. "We wanted to make sure that the statement made (to the city) was the one Gottschalk wanted, without being extravagant," he says. The attention of motorists driving from the airport into the downtown area is drawn to the big curved roof. The printing hall is abutted on east and west sides by streets that provide access to and from Interstate 480.


Curved roof and extensive exterior glazing highlight Freedom Center, Omaha World-Herald’s new production center.

Priorities, prying eyes & Mother Nature

Encompassing four city blocks, the new 619,000-sq.-ft. complex consists of three structures: the five-level, 275,000-sq.-ft. cast-in-place concrete press hall; a steel-framed, 20,000-sq.-ft. paper and newsprint storage warehouse; and a precast concrete garage for 600 cars. The press hall and paper storage facility had to be connected by a tunnel that runs under a busy street bisecting the site. The road is so vital that the city had required the owner to build around it.

Exterior glazing on the paper storage building has allowed the public to watch as automated equipment moves rolls of newsprint from storage. To accommodate its high-rack storage system, the paper storage building has a clear height of more than 60 feet.

Despite the logistical concerns of the tight, downtown site, arguably the most challenging obstacle that faced the 27-month project was posed by Mother Nature. One memorable weekend during excavation, a sudden, 11-in. rain on a Saturday flooded other downtown office lobbies and the Freedom Center site under 4 feet of water, recalls Tim Galligan, project manager with Kiewit. Crews had to work through the night, pumping water out so work could resume on schedule Monday morning, he adds.

Like any modern newspaper printing plant, this project in Omaha also incorporated extensive owner-supplied equipment. In fact, the value of owner-supplied equipment was approximately equal to the cost of constructing the building, according to Terry Krueger, VP of operations for the World-Herald.


A state-of-the-art, German-made printing press, which is supported on an independent concrete structure, fills the 64-ft.-high press hall.

Complicating matters was the fact that 20 subcontractors had contracts directly with the owner, not with Kiewit, the CM. "Equipment vendors came on at different times," Galligan notes. "We traded drawings early on to let them know where we anticipated our construction, and they sent us theirs showing where they anticipated their work."

Installation of the press began in the summer of 2000. Press equipment was delivered by 186 trucks arriving hourly over the course of a week.

German precision

German press manufacturer MAN Roland had to build a separate concrete press table to support 1,700 tons of machinery. The work had many critical schedule requirements and construction tolerances. For example, the top of the 287-ft.-long, 26-ft.-wide table could not vary by more than 1/16 inch. Just as important, the table was wet cured for 90 days to reduce shrinkage and internal stresses.

"The precise nature of the German-engineered press was really only as good as the building," Krueger says, explaining that any deviation in the distance between press towers would have caused a "major problem."

Traditional rotary presses have a common driveshaft, he explains, but each cylinder of the new press has an individual motor that is controlled by a computer network. This results in a more precise printing registration on each page, but the numerous motors generate a considerable amount of heat.

Since the paper's middle name is "World," it appropriately drew from a wide pool of international expertise. In fact, Krueger says the project used consultants and/or equipment of one sort or another from 13 countries. "We tried to get the best solution for each function," he explains.

Still, the firm did not forget that its first name is "Omaha," either. With that in mind, "the company made an extraordinary commitment to stay downtown," Krueger says. "Many U.S. newspapers our size (210,000 daily circulation) are moving to greenfield sites," he adds. But the World-Herald is not among them, even though staying downtown easily proved to be the more expensive and more challenging course.

Those concerns added to the already tricky business of printing plant work. For instance, the new press hall requires a minimum relative humidity of 45%, which is maintained by adding humidification equipment to the air handlers, according to Scott Winfrey, project mechanical engineer with HDR.

To forestall the formation of condensation, the glass-enclosed press hall is triple-glazed. Meanwhile, its HVAC system is designed to maintain a temperature range of 68 F to 78 F in the printing hall. For optimal environmental conditions, an air flow of 220,000 cfm is pumped through the hall and the motor control room.

In fact, the motor control room itself receives 1,000 air changes per hour. (Office buildings typically have just five changes per hour). Also, since printing plates are sensitive to humidity, the plate room required secondary humidifiers to maintain a minimum 50% humidity. Winfrey notes that the press is entirely water-cooled by a system that also chills compressors and vacuum pumps. Without this feature, much more air would be needed for cooling, he says.

Good vibrations

Aside from temperature, vibration was also a concern. Mike Kuhse, HDR's project structural engineer, explains that aside from supporting the weight of the presses, the German-built table also alleviates vibration concerns by isolating the presses from the building structure. Also, the 28-ft.-high retaining wall in the foundation helps by absorbing lateral floor movement.

"It was a total fast-track project with an aggressive schedule," says Kuhse. "We had to make a lot of assumptions and to be very flexible in the design." For example, five large floor openings were initially made to accommodate conveyors for moving paper between floors. But when that proved unnecessary, the gaps were filled in allowing floor space to be recaptured.

Today, as the presses roll steadily, one can gaze out of the Freedom Center's ample glass and see other owners who have similarly committed to downtown. The new 40-story First National Bank of Omaha tower is nearing completion. Nearby are a 1 million-sq.-ft. convention center and arena project scheduled for completion in 2003, and a new 1.1 million-sq.-ft. headquarters for Union Pacific Railroad.

Construction Costs

General requirements, CM fee $7,953,366
Site work 4,558,673
Concrete 8,067,191
Masonry 6,184,488
Metals 4,857,427
Carpentry/casework 254,457
Waterproofing/Roofing 1,297,959
Door, windows, exterior enclosure 3,021,617
Finishes 3,761,732
Specialties 5,512
Rail Spur 260,982
Elevators 566,071
Mechanical 8,866,281
Electrical 4,674,049
Miscellaneous costs 560,929
TOTAL $54,890,734

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