Every year we take a look at what the various markets may have to offer us.  We break it down by commercial, industrial, biotech, medical, military, gaming and hospitality,” said Clark Thompson, president and chief executive officer, Neal Electric Inc., Poway, Calif. “If you can understand the process in someone’s business, you can bring some value to it and do things electrically that will support their process. That’s why we try to go after certain market segments and end up experts in each of the segments.”

Neal Electric brought its experience of working in casinos to a hospitality project—the renovation of San Diego’s US Grant Hotel that was originally opened in 1910 by the son of the 18th U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant. The land on which the hotel sits was once the home of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

“In 1875, Ulysses S. Grant signed the executive order to put us on our 640 acre reservation in east county of San Diego,” said Daniel Tucker, tribal chairman, Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. “It is ironic that almost a hundred years later we turned around and made the hotel our home.”

The US Grant is an important San Diego landmark. Presidents including Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy have stayed there along with aviator Charles Lindberg and actor Clark Gable. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broadcast a nationwide address from the hotel.

“It is a building that the community was interested in seeing revitalized,” said Kevin Reynolds, president, Reynolds Project Management Inc., whose company was hired by the Sycuan Band to oversee the two-year, $52 million renovation that was completed in 2006 with Swinerton Builders as the general contractor and Neal Electric as lead electrical contractor. Audio Associates of San Diego, La Mesa, Calif., did the audiovisual installation of the project.

By the 1960s, downtown and the hotel had fallen into disrepair. The hotel was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and retrofitted and renovated in the 1980s by a San Diego developer. Sold a few years later, it had a series of owners and was again in need of renovation when it was purchased in December 2003 for $45 million by the Sycuan Tribal Development Corp. (STDC), the business development arm of the Sycuan Band.

The construction team faced many obstacles. The building’s historic fabric needed to be preserved and the project budget required a minimum amount of demolition. The hotel’s only service elevator provided vertical transportation for all materials to the tower. This required close coordination between Swinerton and the owner’s vendors.

“The other issue was the timeline,” Reynolds said. “The hotel was closed down for the renovation, thus extinguishing the revenue stream for the owner, which required that the project be completed as quickly as possible.”

Originally, the remodel was to be done one floor at a time with the hotel open, but because the utilities were set up per wing, when a room or area was shut down, the entire riser, all the way up, shut off. Another challenge was that there were four different architecture and design teams, so with each change, all concerned had to make adjustments while staying on schedule.

Swinerton’s construction contract was for $28 million, and Neal Electric’s contract was for $3.5 million.

“Neal’s ownership of their work and design/build involvement was a critical component of the project,” said Bryce Schlosser, project manager, Swinerton. “They were an important member of the team.”

Successful design/build

The construction team’s strategy was to hire mechancial-electrical-plumbing contractors on a design/build format.

“It was a benefit because, during the design process, the contractors performed surveys of the building, which translated into good project documents,” Reynolds said. “Neal Electric had good experience with this process as well as with hotel projects. In some cases, Neal’s design/build efforts helped to push along the design of the project. This was a challenge and a success story for Neal.”

In addition, Neal Electric had worked previously with the Sycuan Band.

“Sycuan is a good client,” said Dan Lovin, gaming and hospitality manager, Neal Electric, “and they shared the benefit of only paying for labor costs and materials that we installed. With all the changes, we were able to continue working throughout the project since we did not have to take the time to write up change orders and have them approved. It made the job go faster.”

One of the project’s biggest problems was the building’s historic nature.

“We wanted to minimize the demolition, cutting and patching, and that took a little bit of creativity on Neal’s part, especially regarding the exterior of the hotel,” Reynolds said.

“We built sheet metal templates so you could use a router to quickly cut out the drywall,” Lovin said. “We put the template device on the wall and without removing the drywall, cut a hole, put the fixture in, then had to fish the wiring to that location without removing the wall. That was a big challenge,” he said.

Neal Electric’s responsibilities included replacing some of the electrical infrastructure, making modifications to the power and installing and modifying nearly all the lighting for the building—both interior and exterior.

“We did the lighting systems, power, accent lighting for the original artwork over the beds, dimming system for the public places, new downlighting to accent the crystal chandeliers that were part of the original hotel from 1910. In the main ballrooms, we renovated the lighting and the dimming systems and renovated the kitchen and restaurants with today’s technologies,” Lovin said.

Neal Electric also installed the fire alarm for Siemens Building Technologies Inc. Fire Solutions, which provided all the engineering and components.

As a subcontractor to Swinerton, Audio Associates of San Diego designed the half-million-dollar audiovisual system for 32 meeting rooms.

“The owner wanted a first-class system in all the meeting rooms,” said Pete Spencer, president, Audio Associates. The company used products from Creston Electronics Inc. for the control circuitry, amplifiers from QSC Audio Products Inc. and Peavey MediaMatrix from Peavey Electronics as the router.

“[The building was] built in sections over the years, and while we had room layouts to work from, there were no real construction drawings. To install the speakers, we had to run cable through a pitch-black ceiling,” Spencer said.

Another hurdle for Neal Electric was to light the exterior of the hotel, which had never been lit before. The final architect on the project was ASCG Inc., Anchorage, Alaska. Deniece Duscheone, who functioned as the representative for ASCG, was interior designer for the project and her company, S.K.I.N., San Diego, was the lighting designer for the exterior of the hotel.

“We decided to use LED lights to create ambient light that would highlight the architectural features of the building,” Duscheone said. Approximately 137 Palco and Pulsar Lighting LED lights were installed.

Neal Electric couldn’t use the existing power in the rooms, so on the exterior, they had to core drill through the concrete on the eleven floors to run power and Category 5 cable (for the lighting controls) up both the east and west towers. Additionally, workers had to route the low-voltage, Category 5 cable over to the location of the computer that would control the color changes and other aspects of the LED lights.

“We were trying to fish everything through existing walls,” said Pete Meda, general foreman, Neal Electric, “and we couldn’t do a run longer than 200 feet as required by the LED manufacturer. If we did, we had to add another power booster box.”

“To install the lights in the center of the hotel, we could work it from one side of a window or the other,” Meda said. “But ... we had to pipe around the corners and work in hanging baskets like the ones used by window washers.” For assistance on that task, Neal consulted with Olympique, a building-care company in Lake Forest, Calif.

To make it easier for future maintenance crews, Duscheone’s partner, Christopher Marsca, and Neal Electric’s Dan Lovin designed a racking system to hold the LED lights so it would be possible to easily slide the lights, mounted on a strut, on and off hard-to-access areas of the exterior.

Accolades and awards

The US Grant is part of The Luxury Collection of Starwood Hotels & Resorts and was honored in 2007 by inclusion on the Conde Nast Hot List that features new hotels and resorts, restaurants, nightclubs and spas whose design, service and amenities transcend industry standards. Swinerton Builders won the AGCC Constructor Award—akin to the Oscar for contractors—for Meeting the Challenge of the Difficult Job in April 2007. California Construction magazine gave an Award of Merit for Renovation to the project as part of their Best of 2006 awards.

The tribal chairman is pleased, as well, with the results and with the work of both Neal Electric and Audio Associates.

“They did a tremendous job,” Tucker said.              

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks.com.