Devil in the Details

Story by Gene Storm | September 28, 2010

There is an old saying, "The devil is in the details." That is the challenge in bringing to fruition a major expansion and renovation of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, a venerable 40-year-old institution that celebrates art, history and culture in Alaska'slargest city.

Those details include making the vision of an internationally renowned architect a reality while melding a global array of participants and products into a cohesive project with a price tag in excess of $100 million. Alcan General Inc., the Anchorage-based contractor brought into the project during the design phase in May 2005, is meeting that challenge.

"We wanted to include the construction contractor during the design phase so that constructability would be integrated as part of the design," said Brian Davies, a member of the Museum Building Committee. In 2004 the MBC had selected London-based David Chipperfield Architects as the design architect.

Davies, a retired oil company executive, is one of 18 MBC members. He describes the committee as "a dedicated group of volunteers who have put in thousands of hours over the last 10 years." They meet monthly as a group to review progress, schedule and budget while separate MBC subcommittees focus on design issues, contracts and construction.

For contractor AGI, the early participation in the project allowed for essential contributions as the design team moved into the production of construction documents. The 86,000-square-foot building addition features a one-of-a-kind glass facade and the use of a self-consolidating concrete as both a structural element and in artistic design features.

"I believe our most useful input was on the cost-estimating side. In addition to final pricing, we provided several preliminary rounds of pricing the façade, concrete and the mechanical/electrical trades," said Stephen Jelinek, the AGI president who is in charge of the project.

"The façade and concrete requirements make this a one-of-a-kind project, so it was important to the project team to know we were within budget. This is the only place in the world where this façade has been constructed, and the quality of concrete required has never been constructed in Alaska,"he added.

Another essential part of the collaborative effort is with Kumin Associates Inc., the architect of record responsible for developing the construction documents that express the Chipperfield design. Daphne Brown, a KAI principal architect and project manager, is charged with making sure the design satisfies the technical, climatic, structural, and seismic requirements in Anchorage.

"This is such a unique building for Alaska. We credit the success of the project to the owner's foresight in selecting the contractor early in the design to build a true working design/contractor team," Brown noted.

Communications essential to the success began early in the project.

"During the design phases, we held weekly 7 a.m. teleconferences to ensure the different team members from England, the East Coast, the Midwest, and the West Coast — and occasionally Hong Kong — could participate," Brown said. During this time, talking daily with design architect Chipperfield's project team was critical.

Team workshops also were held every four to six weeks in London,Anchorage and Seattle. Some of the early workshops in Anchorage allowed the design team to work closely with the owner, museum staff and the MBC.

Meanwhile, the contractor was providing the groundwork for its contribution to the team effort. That included AGI representatives traveling to Davenport, IA, to tour the Chipperfield designed Figge Art Museum to gauge the technical challenge of working with the self-consolidating concrete, a new material proposed for the Anchorage project.

Unique Glass Curtain Wall

The glass curtain wall façade design and engineering are also unique to the Anchorage museum project. The panels are 4-feet wide, 1-foot deep and of varying heights with the tallest being 26 feet. The German-manufactured, low-iron glass in the panels is very clear without tint. A specialized facility in China produced the panels in the sizes required.

To ensure the façade met the rigors of Alaska, a full-sized panel mockup underwent extensive testing at a laboratory in Florida. After passing a battery of tests that included water infiltration, seismic, thermal and wind exposure, the panels went into full production.

The exacting requirements for the specialized concrete pours are inkeeping with the attention to detail throughout the Chipperfield design.

"The columns are to be flawless, yet made out of a material that is inherently full of flaws," noted Jelinek. Approximately 38,000 square feet of the finished floor requires another special concrete. The final pour, measuring 1/2-inch, will use a special self-leveling product that incorporates a dye into the mixture. It will be finished with a light grind and a topical sealer.

"The design and construction elements of this building have very little construction tolerance; some would say no tolerance," Brown added. "This has provided significant challengesfor all."

The sound business decisions early in the project and the elevated level of communications have helped all of the team members in meeting those challenges. A high level of respect has also evolved.

Jelinek views his company's working relationship with both the MBC and Kumin as excellent.

"The MBC appears to have made every correct decision along the way, including the contracting method with us," Jelinek said. "They are an ally of the whole project team.

"As the architect of record, KAI has to put David Chipperfield's vision on a set of drawings that we can construct. KAI has the toughest part of the project, being the intermediary between the contractor and a world famous architect, and they are succeeding."

Brown noted that the high project standards have brought out the best in both the design team and the contractor's team.

"We have great respect for the design architect, the contractor and all the subcontractors for complete attention to detail. The contractor and their subs are working together to make sure all the design elements align, fit and work," Brown said.

MBC member Davies also praised the contractor's role in the project.

"Alcan General is exceeding expectations of the MBC in its cooperative and collaborative working style and in the quality of the new building. They have successfully handled complex international coordination of materials and services from Germany to China to Alaska," Davies said.

Construction change orders, the bane of meeting deadlines and budgets, are almost non-existent on the project.

"Change orders other than owner-initiated changes have totaled less than 1 percent to date," Davies added.

State of the Art

When all phases of the project are complete, the museum will include an Arctic Studies Center, new state-of-the-art galleries for temporary exhibits, a planetarium, heated sidewalks and concrete for the public common forecourt, and a birch forest fronting the new building. The 86,000 square feet of new space will be complimented by 10,000 square feet of remodeled space in the existing facility. The remodeled area will accommodate science displays and the incorporation of The Imaginarium, an interactive children's science exhibit into the museum.

Additionally, the process to obtain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation for the building has begun. The Green Building Rating System is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance, environmentally friendly buildings.

The project team communications and cooperation are allowing for the attention to those sometimes devilish details. That effort is bringing the Anchorage museum project to fruition. It will be evident in the expanded andenhanced museum experience both inside and outside of a building crafted with precision to meet a vision that complements Alaska.

Author Information
Gene Storm, an Anchorage freelance writer and photographer, has covered Alaska construction projects for PB&E for nearly 20 years.