A Sprint to the Finish at Sapphire Falls
Imagine Michael Phelps is about to start a 100-meter race. But just as he steps onto the diving block, poised to explode into the water, officials notify Michael that the swimmers in every other lane will only be racing 70 meters. Even a man whose very name imparts a sense of making the impossible appear entirely possible would deem that path to gold a little daunting.
Fortunately, athletes are afforded a fair playing field. In the construction industry, however, contractors often contend with some degree of disadvantage, whether it’s defaults or even disagreements. Perhaps no project team can testify more on the subject of obstacles than the one from Balfour Beatty Construction which recently completed the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando. Having earned a decades-strong reputation as Florida’s premier hospitality builder, our people are no strangers to the complexities of this market. From the outset, we knew the task of completing a 980,000-square-foot resort that encompassed 12 interconnecting buildings in 18 months would come down to a picture perfect finish.
But what we didn’t know is that the project would be plagued with a tidal wave of front-end issues such as permitting delays and major design modifications. Or that those issues, completely outside our control, would result in a 21-week (30%) net loss to the original, fast-track schedule. Or that we’d need to develop a multi-faceted acceleration strategy that re-sequenced the entire project, including all critical path activities like the 1,000-room hotel’s high-end lobby. Or that, nearly 120 days after receiving the notice to proceed, we’d need to dedicate three months of intensive value engineering to slash a $30 million scope increase in half. If there was a medal for the world’s most resilient project team, no company would be closing in on Balfour Beatty’s right to stand at the center podium.
The project team may not have borne the weight of the world watching on their shoulders, but the spotlight was plenty intense. To maximize summer revenue streams, Loews had targeted the resort’s soft opening for June 2016. There was more than money at stake, however; there were also the dreams of hundreds of guests who pre-booked rooms hinging upon our ability to deliver. Having developed relationships of mutual trust and respect with Loews and Universal on previous projects—including the neighboring resort, Cabana Bay—the owners relied upon Balfour Beatty’s recommendation regarding the feasibility of the initial schedule and agreed to forego the soft opening in favor of a mid-July hotel grand opening. Together, we also elected to postpone the 131,000-square-foot convention center into early fall, when the need for this space would reach its peak. But with 17 of the 21 weeks still left to recover, the odds weren’t exactly stacked in our favor.
The site itself—or Mother Nature for that matter—didn’t cut us any breaks either. Half of the site was underwater due to an unusually wet 2014-2015 winter season. Had the team been able to follow the original schedule, Balfour Beatty would have been drying-in the structure after Central Florida’s rainy season which runs from late May through mid-October, but instead, we were coming out of the ground right in the thick of it. Old man winter reared his ugly head again in late 2015 and early 2016, saturating the project at an equally inauspicious time. What’s more, the site contained nearly 100,000 cubic yards of unsuitable soil. As Universal expanded over the years, the Sapphire Falls site had become a veritable dumping ground for garbage soil from other projects. Because the team had planned on utilizing existing soil to raise the grade level for the hotel’s fourth floor entrance, a tedious “plan B” was required: transporting approximately 70,000 cubic yards of substitute soil. For a project that entailed over 48 feet of elevation changes, including a 17-foot excavation for the lagoon, the site conditions hardly helped the team stay afloat.
The project team was also forced to tackle the sitework and structure simultaneously, which meant there were just enough men and machines onsite at any given time to produce utter mayhem without some serious strategic planning. Compounding these issues was the fact that two other contractors were using the jobsite as a major access point. It’s been said that we can’t change the cards we’re dealt, only how we play the hand. So that’s precisely what Balfour Beatty did, managing the job like a downtown high rise by using a “just-in-time” approach to deliveries and exercising creativity when it came to storing long-lead items like 30 truckloads of formwork that arrived weeks before they could be set in place.
“Walking the site was like going to Walmart the week school starts or the mall on Christmas Eve,” recalls general superintendent, Neal Ernest. “You literally couldn’t find a pathway for your truck on a 38-acre site. We dealt with some major logistical challenges.”
During the 60 days leading up to the hotel turnover, Balfour Beatty was still in the race, but every team member knew it would come down to the touch of a fingertip. If the project had instant replay, the footage would reveal an all out kick, with subcontractors logging 80-hour weeks to keep pace with planned work as well as the re-work that resulted both from activities that were forced to occur out of sequence and last-minute design modifications—a norm in highly customized hospitality construction. “It was controlled chaos,” reflects Neal.
At this juncture, the building wasn’t dry, the windows weren’t installed and the kitchen equipment wasn’t in place. If that doesn’t sound like a formula for success, the finishes for Sapphire Falls’ 90,000-square-foot showpiece lobby—which includes a custom, radius staircase and a 5,000-pound chandelier—were only just getting started. The exterior of the hotel wasn’t any further along. To make matters worse, amenities such as the lagoon and waterfalls were by far the most challenging to build, involving a strict progression of work, intense cross-trade collaboration and complex tie-ins. The morning Sapphire Falls’ first guests arrived, there were a staggering 600 men still wrapping up their scopes. It came down to the wire, maybe even a one-hundredth second margin, but finish strong we did.
If every member of the Sapphire Falls team was surveyed about the reasons for Balfour Beatty’s success—which in addition to building a stunning resort includes logging over two million man hours without a single lost time accident—they’d cite a strong rapport with the owners. They’d call attention to the fact that approximately 75% of the subcontractors had also built the award-winning Cabana Bay project. They’d credit strong communication and pull planning and preconstruction excellence. But all together, it couldn’t come close to capturing the essence of a race as ineffably magical as it was improbably miraculous. Because even if you hold Michael Phelps back, you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’ll still be in the mix. That’s just the way it is with champions. We embrace feats others wouldn’t. When we’re in front of a crowd and a dream is on the line, we won’t just sprint. We’ll downright fly.