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Puget Sound Business Journal: Construction choreography: Migration to downtown forces a delicate dance among developers, construction companies
June 17, 2016
By Brad Boberg
Mortenson Construction, Andersen Construction and Howard S. Wright Construction compete for jobs all the time, but in the crucible of Seattle’s Denny Triangle neighborhood, their rivalry is tempered by the need to play nice.
“With contractors it’s usually a contest — who’s first or who’s best — but here it’s a collaboration,” said Phil Greany, construction executive for three Mortenson projects in the Denny Triangle.
New high-rises are going up throughout Seattle, but nowhere is construction denser than along Minor, Boren and Terry avenues between the busy arterials of Stewart and Howell streets — three square blocks where Mortenson, Andersen and Howard S. Wright, a Balfour Beatty company, have been choreographing everything from concrete pours to material deliveries to tower crane operations for five overlapping construction projects.
Mortenson started the wave of work in 2013 with the combined Hill7 office building and Hilton Garden Inn on Boren Avenue, which it completed last year. Now it’s constructing the combined Tilt49 office building and AMLI Arc apartment tower on the opposite side of Boren Avenue and the Marriott Residence Inn on Terry Avenue.
Across the alley from Tilt49, Andersen is building the Kinects apartment tower on Minor Avenue. On the back side of Hill7 and across Terry Avenue from the Marriott, Howard S. Wright is completing the Midtown 21 office tower after starting work while Hill7 was still in progress.
“It’s extremely confined. We’re working within a postage stamp,” said Matt Lambert, project executive for Midtown 21.
The Denny Triangle is just one microcosm in downtown Seattle where construction companies are choreographing a delicate dance to meet the ongoing demands for new offices, hotels and residences in the city, as more and more companies and individuals move into downtown Seattle. The Downtown Seattle Association notes that currently there are 65 buildings under construction — the most since 2005.
As companies flock to Seattle, demand for office space remains strong, the DSA said. Facebook and Amazon are expanding their presence in Seattle and Expedia, Google and Weyerhaeuser are all moving to Seattle from the Eastside and South King County. Demand is poised to continue to be robust.
The DSA calculates that office projects totaling more than 14 million square feet of planned construction are in the pipeline. That’s more new space than developers built between 2005 and 2016.
Add to that the new hotels, apartment complexes and condo high-rises and the migration to downtown Seattle is making the need for competing construction crews and developers to work more closely than ever to coordinate efforts.
Downtown construction always forces contractors to make accommodations to work in cramped quarters, but they aren’t usually forced to become akin to partners with other contractors as they have in the beehive of construction between Stewart and Howell streets.
“Normally, contractors keep all of their plans and secret sauce to themselves in terms of logistics and project management,” Greany said. “Here, we have to be really open and trust…our competitors. That’s certainly different.”
Don Lane, senior project manager for Kinects, wasn’t sure whether to expect conflict or Kumbaya with just 18 feet separating Kinects from Tilt 49. “My thought going in was it could be really challenging. We could be butting heads,” he said.
That hasn’t been the case, however, as teams from Andersen and Mortenson meet weekly, trade delivery schedules and share easements to ensure each team can work as safely and efficiently as possible.
Similar communication and coordination occurs between Mortenson and Howard S. Wright, but with more face time. The construction offices for the Marriott and Midtown 21 are next door to each other — and not by accident. Howard S. Wright, which set up shop first, helped Mortenson land a neighboring space.
While the two companies duel day in and day out to win contracts, they try to have each other’s backs on the job site.
While the contractors are constantly resolving issues as they arise during the course of construction, the developers — Touchstone (Hill7 and Tilt49), AMLI (Arc), Stonebridge (Marriott), Trammell Crow (Midtown 21) and Security Properties (Kinects) — negotiated remedies to some potential headaches before construction started.
The alley separating Kinects from Tilt49/AMLI Arc is just 18 feet wide. The deep excavations required to create their massive foundations threatened the stability of the sliver of soil between them.
Touchstone and Security Properties agreed to use the same subcontractor, Ground Support of Woodinville, to design both shoring systems in a way that would keep the alley from collapsing.
The Kinects excavation began first. As the pit descended, Andersen threaded rows of rods horizontally under the alley at four different depths. The rods — 21 per row — extended from the Kinects shoring wall to the Tilt49/AMLI Arc site. When excavation began at that location, Mortenson gradually tied the rods into its shoring wall.
The two projects also employ the same tower crane provider, Morrow. Besides providing cranes, Morrow conducted a swing study to help the contractors understand how to safely share the air space.
During certain stages of construction, the two crane booms could have collided. Mortenson and Andersen put their crane operators on the same radio frequency.
“If we needed to swing their direction, we would call and say we’re bringing a load around and vice versa,” Lane said. “It was a load-per-load coordination.”
The two cranes also could have kissed during off hours when they swing freely to reduce strain on their mast.
Mortenson’s crane features a special luffing boom to avoid striking both the Kinects crane, which was erected first, and the building itself. When Mortenson’s crane is idle or when it needs to swivel past the building, the luffing boom can be raised from its horizontal operating position to a vertical position that removes the potential for hitting anything.
Terry Avenue, which separates the Midtown 21 and Marriott construction sites, is another area where cooperation is critical.
“I’m looking out my office window right now and Mortenson is hauling dirt and we’re pouring concrete as we speak,” Lambert said. “We have a flagger out there and Mortenson has a flagger out there and the two of them are working really well to make sure we don’t have any issues.”
Construction is dynamic, so the problems are always changing, but the pressure to keep streets and sidewalks open as much as possible is constant. Truck traffic, lane closures and parking issues would take congestion to another level without careful planning and a golden rule mentality.
Ken Ewalt is the city of Seattle’s construction coordinator for the city center hub. The area includes the Mortenson, Andersen and Howard S. Wright job sites plus nearby sites where Sellen Construction is building a hotel for developer R.C. Hedreen and Seattle City Light is building a new substation.
Ewalt leads monthly meetings where area contractors share their requests to work in city right of ways, send heavy trucks rumbling through busy streets and engage in other disruptive activities.
Juggling the various requests requires strict scheduling. Ewalt can only hope for more of the same going forward because the future is chockablock with construction. “Every single parking lot that’s left in the city is going to be developed,” he said.
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