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Contractors Work Through Winter to Complete Univ. of Wyoming Building on Time

Wed November 17, 2010 - West Edition
Rebecca Ragain

Long gone are the days when new ventures were launched based on an agreement and a handshake. Today’s projects require complex paper trails: RFPs, involved bid procedures, contracts.

The University of Wyoming, Laramie’s new $25-million visual arts center is an exception to that rule, according to Kevin Heuer. Heuer is a project manager for Connell Resources, the earthwork subcontractor for the arts center project.

Connell Resources had bid on several projects that general contractor GE Johnson Construction Company was subcontracting; Connell Resources ended up being the low bidder for the dirt package.

Construction for the 80,000 sq. ft. (7,432 sq m) visual arts building was originally scheduled to begin in July. But by late summer, GE Johnson still couldn’t offer Connell Resources a contract because GE Johnson, in turn, had yet to solidify its contract with the university.

But winter was fast approaching. If work didn’t get under way soon, the project would end up being significantly more expensive, due to the complications of starting work during the bitter cold of a Wyoming winter.

“This budget had been going for about nine months, as far as bidding and trying to get the funds approved… Then, all of a sudden, in August, [GE Johnson said] ’This is it: We need you to go,’” said Heuer.

“The timing was so critical that we had to get started right away, even before anybody had a contract. That was really scary on everyone’s part... Everyone kind of had to take a leap of faith there.”

Connell Resources, based in Fort Collins, Colo., began work on Aug. 30. In pleasant contrast to some projects on which Heuer has worked, where the primary contractor asks for a quick start on earthwork but then isn’t prepared for the subcontractor’s crew when it arrives, Heuer said that GE Johnson “had everything ready for us.”

Connell Resources worked into early October, finishing approximately 75 percent of its $263,000 project; the remainder of the work will be done in the spring. Tasks finished in the fall include clear and grub; removing a minor amount of asphalt and concrete and piping; excavation; and the building of a detention pond.

The earthwork subcontractor has moved more than 30,000 cu. yds. (22,936.6 cu m) of dirt thus far, including excavation of 9,282 cu. yds. (7,096.5 cu m) with two Cat 623 scrapers. Crews loaded and hauled away 21,508 cu. yds. (16,444 cu m) with a Cat 330 backhoe.

“It took us about five days to use the scrapers and about 10 days with the backhoe and two trucks,” said Heuer.

In addition, a Cat 966G loader maneuvered dirt to a stockpile and a Cat 621 water wagon kept the soil moist. Other equipment Connell Resources used on the project included a Cat 140H motorgrader and a John Deere tractor and disc that scarified the soil prior to placing the fill.

Because of the tight timeline for the project, which necessitated finishing the concrete foundations before the worst of the weather hits, readying the building pad was a majority priority for Connell Resources.

After the building pad, the subcontractor built the detention pond, another essential part of the weather-sensitive project, designed to handle storm water worthy of a 100-year flood. For this part of the project, Connell Resources utilized a Caterpillar 330BL excavator, two Caterpillar articulated off-road trucks and a Caterpillar D6 dozer.

“The whole area was kind of a detention area, if you will. When they brought the building up to grade, it took a lot of reserve that held water at one time,” Heuer said about the need for the detention pond. “They ran the risk, if there was a torrential downpour, that the whole area would have flooded.”

GE Johnson started work on the project in early September, aiming for a completion date of next November.

“I’d say it’s pretty aggressive,” said GE Johnson Senior Project Manager Chris Holt, about the 14-month schedule.

By early November, GE Johnson and its subcontractors had finished putting in some of the asphalt, which serves as a staging area for materials, and poured half of the concrete foundations. Structural steel erection was scheduled to begin around Thanksgiving.

“We’re trying to beat the weather as best we can,” said Holt. “We hope to be roofing in February, which is obviously not ideal, but you do what you have to do.”

Another major milestone will be the installation of precast concrete panels on the building’s exterior, which is scheduled to begin in April. In addition to the architectural concrete panels, the building’s exterior incorporates masonry, stone and glass.

“It’s going to be a beautiful building,” said Holt.

The two-story structure was designed by a joint venture between Malone Belton Able, out of Sheridan, Wyo., and THA Architecture, based in Portland, Ore. Holt said that university faculty and staff contributed a lot of input during the design process.

“The university’s been excellent to work with,” said Holt. “It’s a pretty solid team.”

The building will house a number of art studios, a woodworking lab, a ceramics lab, a plaster and resins lab, classrooms and an art gallery for students’ work.

“It has a little bit of everything,” said Holt.

The design is based on LEED Gold standards. GE Johnson is accustomed to accommodating LEED guidelines; the contractor built Wyoming’s first LEED Platinum facility, a visitors’ center in Grand Teton National Park.

For the Laramie project, GE Johnson has brought in approximately 35 subcontractors, a mix of regional and out-of-state companies.

As Holt pointed out, Wyoming is a big state geographically but not in terms of population, so it is often necessary to bring in specialty subcontractors from outside the region. GE Johnson itself is based in Colorado Springs but has been working in Wyoming for nine years and has an office in Jackson.

Subcontractors include:

• GW Mechanical (Casper, Wyo.)

• Drake-Williams Steel (Omaha, Neb.)

• Standard Drywall (Jackson, Wyo.)

• B&W Glass (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

• Western States Fire Protection Co. (Black Hawk, S.D.)

• Rocky Mountain Prestress (Denver, Colo.)

Time will tell if winter will thwart GE Johnson’s aggressive construction schedule, but so far, the project is going well, according to the contractor.

Heuer, who happens to be a University of Wyoming alumnus, has been happy to see that GE Johnson appears to be “looking out for the interest of the University of Wyoming.” And of course, he’s also relieved that the general contractor came through on its late summer promise of an earthwork contract for Connell Resources.

“They followed through with what they said. That’s just so fun: to get back to when people had a handshake… It shows people still have some integrity and can do that,” said Heuer.

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