Air and Space Museum ’Takes Flight’ in Chantilly

Fri March 19, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

The 100th anniversary of powered flight was chosen as the day to open the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on the property of Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, VA. A companion to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, the Udvar-Hazy center provides a second location for the display of the museum’s collection.

Despite several change orders and various challenges, prime contractor Hensel Phelps Construction Company, Greeley, CO, was able to complete the project on time for the opening Dec. 15, 2003. The Wright brothers first achieved powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

The center is named for its most generous individual donor, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, who pledged $65 million. Udvar-Hazy is chief executive officer of a worldwide commercial aircraft-leasing company, International Lease Finance Corp.

The total cost of the project was approximately $311 million, including design, site infrastructure, construction, move-in and start-up. Congress mandated that only non-federal funds be used for the center’s construction. However, $8 million in federal funds was allocated for the initial planning and design.

Lin Ezell, project coordinator of the center, noted, “From the owner’s perspective, the fact that we had a fixed opening date that marked the 100th anniversary of powered flight was always a challenge because it meant that any weather delays or other difficulties had to be worked around. We had to open on time regardless of what was thrown at us in the field.

“Secondly,” Ezell continued, “the funding for this project is from private rather than federal forces, even though the Smithsonian, the customer, is a quasi-federal agency. There was a marked decline in the ability to raise funds from private sources because of the market decline, which left the client in a cash flow difficulty.”

This cash flow difficulty led to more challenges. “Because there was not enough money, nor enough debt ceiling to bid the entire project as one,” Ezell explained, “we went back to the architect and asked him at the 11th hour to divide the design up into a base building and alternatives that could be priced separately. There were a lot of details that did not get addressed in that very quick cut of the design that then have come up in the field, which led to a series of change orders, based on the inefficiency of breaking up the design at the last minute.”

Ezell explained that because they were still raising funds for the project and wanted to keep it in the news, there was also a regular need for media and potential donors to access the site during construction, which always led to special coordination problems.

The center was designed by Helmuth, Obata & Kessabaum, St. Louis, the same architectural firm that designed the museum’s building on the National Mall. The design involves a series of connected hangar-like structures.

Twenty-one steel trusses arching 10-stories high are a signature architectural feature of the central aviation hangar, which covers 293,707 sq. ft. (27,286 sq m). The arches that support the roof also have the additional task of bearing the weight of the aircraft that hang from them.

Each arch is designed to support more than 20,000 lbs. (9,072 kg), spread equally between the two halves of each arch. A total of 42 thrust blocks were built for the 21 trusses. The finished hangar is 103 ft. (31.4 m) high, 986 ft. (300.5 m) long and 248 ft. (75.6 m) wide.

Ezell said, “The size of the structural steel support arches in the aviation hangar led to some erection and choreography challenges in the field. Very, very large cranes were required.”

The central hangar has three levels of aircraft –– two levels suspended from the trusses and a third on the floor. Elevated walkways run parallel to the two tiers of the suspended aircraft.

A second hangar, the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, is 80 ft. (24.4 m) high, 262 ft. (79.9 m) long and 180 ft. (54.9 m) wide, with a total area of 53,067 sq. ft. (4,930 sq m).

Other features to the center include a 479-seat IMAX theater with a six-story high screen, the 164-ft. (50 m) Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, which allows visitors to watch air traffic to and from Washington Dulles International Airport, and three multimedia classrooms/learning labs.

According to Ezell, no specific vendor, such as IMAX, was called out in the construction documents for the theater.

“At the time of the design there were several viable manufacturers,” she said. “The final configuration of the theater, however, was dependent upon the final vendor being selected, which left some unknowns in exact characteristics too late in the construction process. This led to some change orders that were certainly not foreseen.”

The contract for the first phase of construction was awarded to Hensel Phelps in April 2001.

According to the company, 30,000 cu. yds. (22,936 cu m) of earth was moved during excavation, and 40,000 cu. yds. (30,582 cu m) of concrete were used in the project.

The building included 6,500 tons (5,897 t) of steel, 122 42-in. (106.7 cm) in diameter caissons, 87,000 sq. ft. (8,083 sq m) of masonry, 800,000 sq. ft. (74,322 sq m) of roofing, and 209,000 sq. ft. (19,416 sq m) of metal panel.

At the peak of the contract, a total of 600 people were working on the site, with approximately 80 contractors and vendors contributing to the project.

Site preparation was completed by Cherry Hill Construction Co., package 1; New Construction Inc., package 2; Shirley Construction Co., package 3; and Environmental Quality Resources, LLC, package 4.

Ezell noted that site work for the project was done through contracts managed by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), but building construction was managed by Hensel Phelps, with the Smithsonian being the customer in both cases.

“The site work being channeled through the VDOT was part of the gift to this project from the commonwealth of Virginia,” she explained, “but the interfaces between site work and building work were a little bumpy from time to time. The GC did not have oversight of the site and infrastructure contracts, so there were two sets of contractors working on the site at all times, and not always working to the same set of safety standards or the same work schedules and the like, so that was certainly an on-site challenge that was a little bit unique.”

Maintaining a stable environment has proven to be another challenge. Ezell said, “Because this is a museum, the mechanical system is extremely important and an extremely expensive part of the contract. Museums require that their artifacts be kept at a very stable environment. Whether it’s artwork, tapestries, airplanes or rockets, you still need to maintain a reasonably stable environment so that degradation caused by corrosion does not set in. And maintaining a stable environment in a space as large as this was a big challenge during the design and construction process, and they’re still balancing the air handling systems.”

Fundraising is ongoing for Phase II, which will include construction of the restoration, archives, collections processing and collections storage units.

“Unfortunately, it’s not like a manufacturing process where you can set a schedule and know you’ll be able to raise X amount of dollars by X amount of time,” Ezell explained, “It’s a very unpredictable business. The best we can say is that we’re actively engaged and very aggressively pursuing the funding that remains. We’re raising funds not just for the construction, but also for the move-in, exhibitions, educational programs and the like. The sum that’s left to be raised is $98 million.”

The center will ultimately house 760,000 sq. ft. (70,606 sq m) of space to exhibit more than 200 aircraft and 135 large space artifacts, roughly 80 percent of the national collection. Currently, displays include about 80 aircraft and 60 large space artifacts.