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Astro Fans Cheer ’Take Me Out to Enron’

Sat July 01, 2000 - West Edition
Cathy Bell

Sports fans in Houston are thrilled with Enron Field, the city’s recently completed baseball stadium. City officials, along with representatives from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, cut the ribbon on March 30, one day after the stadium hosted its first game. The project was finished on time and under budget.

The 42,000-seat sports facility, home to the Houston Astros, sets a new standard for design, as well as for innovative construction techniques. The $248.2-million project broke ground on Oct. 30, 1997. Construction began in January 1998. Brown & Root was the principal contractor, along with Barton Malow and Empire Construction.

“It fits the downtown area very well,” said Jerry Dinkins, an associate with Schindewolf & Associates, which served as the owner’s representative for the construction phase. “It has revitalized the area — the stadium is a knock-your-eyes-out design.”

Enron Field features a natural grass playing surface and unsurpassed views from virtually every section of the park. But the crowning glory of this stadium — and the construction effort — is the retractable steel and glass roof.

“We studied the roof for a year — how to build it and make it work,” said Dinkins. Together with contractors, they devised a system of gantry cranes and false towers that would allow the roof to be assembled in place, rather than assembled on the ground and then lifted into place.

“We wanted to stay away from big lifts and make the process as simple as possible,” said Dinkins. Roof lifts do present sizeable risks. A similar retractable-roof stadium project in Milwaukee, WI, suffered a devastating accident on July 14, 1999. High winds were blamed for the collapse of the 1,890-metric-ton (2,100 ton) crane, dubbed “Big Blue,” as it lifted a 360-metric-ton (400 ton) section of the stadium’s retractable at Miller Park. Three ironworkers were killed, and the accident set the scheduled opening of the baseball stadium back a full year and caused $100 million in damage.

To bypass the use of lifts, the top of the east and west walls of the Houston stadium were outfitted with rail tracks. Four temporary towers were set in place to provide access to workers setting the trusses. As a section of the roof was completed, crews would simply slide the finished portion down along the track and begin work on the next section. The process was repeated until the entire roof was complete.

“We have had no significant problems with the operation of the roof,” said Dinkins. The trusses were fabricated by Hershfield Steel in San Angelo, TX. The entire roof took eight months to complete.

The steel and glass structure weighs more than 4,500 kilograms (10,000 lbs.). It measures 12-meters (40 ft.) at mid-span and features three panels, two of which measure 36 meters (120 ft.) by 163 meters (537 ft.) and one that measures 73 meters (242 ft.) by 178 meters (589 ft.). The west end of the roof includes a glass area 1.14 acres in size. The roof rises 61 meters (204 ft.) above short center field and operates at 7.3 meters (24.1 ft.) per minute. It closes completely in only 12 minutes.

However challenging the roof construction was, Dinkins said scheduling and coordination of all the different tradesmen involved still looms in his mind as the greatest challenge of the project.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare to bring the right trades in and not have them get in each others’ way, and it never let up until the big game at 7 p.m. on March 29,” he said. “Up until then, we worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day to get it done.”

Dinkins, who worked in construction management for the city of Houston for 32 years, took the job as owner’s representative after he retired. He plans to work on the city’s NFL stadium project when he completes the punch list at Enron Field.

“Everyone in Houston is delighted,” said Dinkins, summing up the Enron Field project. “I think it came out better than everyone imagined.”

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