BY STEVE SPAULDING
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
DES MOINES, IOWA — If you’re Wells Fargo, a banking and financial services company working in today’s fast-changing economy, the place to build your new office building is definitely downtown. Even if it’s a relatively small downtown like the one in Des Moines, that’s still where the infrastructure, the communications, the personnel pool and a sizeable share of your clientele will be.
If you’re a specialty contractor like Baker Group, hired to do the HVAC, plumbing and fixtures for Wells Fargo’s new $7.6 million, 10-story, 330,000-sq.-ft. office building, one of the last places you want to work is downtown. That means limited space in mechanical rooms, for a start.
“There’s tremendous value, in cost-per-square-foot of area, so space is always at a premium,” said Gary Walter, project manager, estimator and 11-year employee with Baker Group. “The engineers try to shoe-horn you into a smaller area than it really should take.”
The same space constraints left no lay-down area for materials and very limited storage space in those same cramped, yet-to-be-completed mechanical rooms. Along with space constraints went serious time constraints. All the building’s mechanical systems were located on the top floor, which meant the last floor to be built was also the first floor that needed to be finished.
“Because building finishes relied on the startup of an HVAC system, and the HVAC system needed chilled water in place and tower water to augment the chiller, we had to have the mechanical systems in operation in a very short period of time,” Walter explained.
A high level of coordination among Baker Group, piping manufacturer Anvil International and distributor Central States Industrial Supply of Omaha, Neb., allowed them to meet these challenges.
Manufacturers have used the “just-in-time” approach in a variety of fields to match production with demand while keeping inventory to a minimum. Applying it to the demands of mechanical contracting for this job involved detailed specification and scheduling.
“It was a conglomerate job,” Walter said, “with Baker specifying the materials, the rep seeing to it that the materials were ordered on a timely basis, and then Anvil filling the orders and shipping directly to the jobsite.”
In planning the work, Walter broke the job schedule up into weekly or bi-weekly blocks, keeping in mind such variables as the availability of rented equipment (such as the crane) and the extra time needed to fill specialty orders.
That need for special orders came from two time-saving ideas at loggerheads with one another: Baker Group had opted to use Anvil’s Gruvlok grooved piping system instead of a welded system to save time in installation, as well as for it’s adaptability to tight conditions. Additionally, Baker Group has its own in-house CAD system for all detailing work — but it had not been formatted to work with all components of the Gruvlok system. So, Anvil custom-fabricated 90-degree long radius elbows to meet the project’s specifications, and then delivered them just in time.
Another tactic for dealing with the tight schedule and limited space was for Baker to order some materials sorted and crated as complete packages, which were then delivered directly to the floor where the materials would be used for a given application. The building’s Trane chillers were a prime example.
“We ordered all the materials for a chiller’s face-piping,” Walter said. “That would be the chilled water piping and the condenser water piping coming from the overhead feeders and overhead mains down into the chillers. All that along with the pump was ordered as a separate group.”
All the materials were crated and tagged, meaning there was no need for the workers to hunt all over the jobsite looking for what they needed or to constantly refer back to the mechanical drawings.
“The service made it easy for us to access and identify the material once it arrived,” said Mike Jackson, a field superintendent at Baker. “It helped keep construction on schedule by allowing workers to plan ahead, determine what they were going to work on in the afternoon or the next day, and grab the appropriate crate or skid.”
Risk of blowing the schedule
The risk of the just-in-time approach is that if any partner in the project — contractor, distributor or manufacturer — has a breakdown or mix-up at any stage it can create a domino effect, blowing the schedule and causing cost overruns.
But thanks to good planning, logistics and clear communication, the Wells Fargo project went smoothly. To give some idea of the scope, over the course of the project Baker Group installed 70 water closets, 60 lavs and 30 urinals (all china fixtures from Eljer) and about 20 sinks (from Elkay).
Work began for Baker Group in late spring of 2001 and was finished by early December 2002.
“The Wells Fargo project was a great success,” Walter said. “I’m pleased to say we’ve had no piping-related callbacks.”
In fact, new work is coming Baker Group’s way based on its past performance, he added. He said he’s looking forward to all the work involved in detailing, specifying and coordinating a project.
“It’s way less of a challenge than you can imagine,” Walter said. “The real challenge comes from not spending the time coordinating this stuff, and then having to answer problems in the field as they come along.”