CLIFF EDGES THE PORTION OF THE PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY that threads its way along the ocean from Santa Monica to Malibu, Calif. Nestled in a canyon on that cliff sits the Getty Villa, a museum built in 1974 by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty and modeled on the Villa del Papiri, a first-century Roman country house in Herculaneum that was buried when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.

In the late 1990s, a $275 million expansion of the site and renovation began in the original J. Paul Getty Museum, which now houses the Gettys’ collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. The project was completed in January 2006.     

The original site had a center for the study of classical art and culture. The Villa is designed like a Roman house with an inner courtyard, a formal outer peristyle garden with covered walkways, a long rectangular pool and an herb garden. Paths link buildings cut into the sides of the canyon. 

Construction involved replacement and upgrade of the electrical infrastructure, installation of safety and security features, and doubling the size of the original complex with the addition of a new entry pavilion, a 450-seat outdoor theater, a cafe and store, two-story office building, and two parking structures. In total, 76,000 square feet was added.

In redesigning the site, architects Machado and Silvetti Associates of Boston changed the path of entry to the museum building through an assemblage of concrete buildings that resemble a small hill town. More than a thousand trees and 100,000 new plants and shrubs—inspired by those found in the ancient Mediterranean—were added to the site.

The Getty Villa was an unusual assignment for the California electrical contracting firms of Morrow-Meadows Corp., City of Industry and Apollo Electric Inc., Brea. Challenges included working on concrete buildings with architectural facings within the confines of the difficult site, installing raceways and equipment while retaining the look defined by the architect, and working in phases prompted by delays.

“It was a difficult project. We had a thousand electrical change orders, while on some jobs I have as few as 100,” said Mike Barry, general foreman, Morrow-Meadows.

Partners play off strengths

Morrow-Meadows rewired all existing buildings and installed new, custom and refurbished light fixtures.

“It started out as an $8 million job and ended up as a $14 million one, which explains the number and value of the changes,” Barry said. “It went from a 1½-year to a 6-year project.”

The project length was affected in part by a stoppage of new construction (while renovation continued) for two-and-a-half years from 2000 to 2003, prompted by a lawsuit filed by neighbors. At that time, it was also decided to combine what was originally intended to be a two-phased project into one phase.

Apollo Electric worked on new construction and did the high-voltage distribution from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) substation to the project site, the south parking structure, the north parking structure and the laboratory buildings, an $8 million job.

“It was a difficult site to maneuver,” said Kelly Shay, vice president, Apollo Electric. “With so many different areas of construction going on at the same time, the big hurdle for all the subcontractors was to get material from one place to another. There was limited space to use for staging areas. You had to go a mile away to get pipe and boxes and the various components of material items, then bring them down to the workstation, then work among concrete trucks, backhoes and other pieces of equipment. Logistically, it was a huge undertaking, and the site changed daily.” Shay said.

That is why general contractor Morley Construction had a logistics superintendent who did nothing but track and try to organize deliveries. It was quite a challenge to get 40-foot-long trailers up and down the road to deliver big pieces of equipment, have cranes offload it and orchestrate all that in a very small amount of space. Because of that, all of the labor rates tended to be more than under normal or standard construction.

“It’s not that the dollar per hour changed. It took longer to install each individual piece,” Shay said.

Case in point: the installation of the new electrical system. When the museum was built in the 1970s, two 4,160 volt services were installed. They would not, however, have been sufficient to handle the increase in demand, so the existing system was gutted and a new 34.5kV service, capable of handling the DWP’s available fault current, was brought in. Apollo Electric worked to the 34.5kV to the central plant and then set up a 12.5kV loop around the site. And it was a challenge.

“The area was very hilly and routing conduits around the site and existing vegetation was difficult,” said Hank Dahl, then senior project manager, KSG Consulting Engineers, who worked with Apollo Electric and Morrow-Meadows.

The existing museum buildings needed rewiring. 

“We had to bring all the raceways back through the existing buildings, which was difficult in some places,” Dahl said. “We had to plan on missing shear walls and bring conduits from 300 feet away, because the main electrical room was in the garage on the far south end of the museum.”

Morrow-Meadows’ Barry had to do some on-site detective work. “It was a lot of search and destroy and required having a vast knowledge of the job itself,” he said. “We had to investigate the building to look for pathways. We couldn’t go off of drawings of the existing building because we were looking at two-dimensional pictures. Straight lines look great on a piece of paper, but we had to get out there and physically look at where we were going to go and how we were going to get there.”

Once they got them in the building, aesthetics were critical. “Everything had to be concealed. Nothing could be exposed,” Barry said. “If there was a room where we could come up into that had a closet and a ceiling, we would set up junction boxes and continue our path. Some of the walls were torn out, so we had enough room to put our conduits in before the metal or drywall was put on.”

More than 48,000 square feet of the complex is devoted to 28 galleries. KSG and Morrow-Meadows had to provide power to each one, but hiding the sources took ingenuity.

“We brought power directly into each gallery hidden behind architectural panels and doorways, which made the electrical distribution more complicated,” Dahl said. “Because the panels were hidden, we didn’t always have the width for a normal size panel. So we had to have special panels and special lighting control panels made that could fit into spaces of 14 inches or less and that still held all of the circuit breakers and all of the relays of normal panel and relay cabinets.”

Some of the distribution equipment was hidden in the gallery floors, which are covered in terrazzo tiles in a variety of patterns. Junction boxes were installed beneath cover plates, individual tiles of the floors, so workers at the museum can remove a plate with a suction cup to reveal the equipment needed to provide power, security or environmental controls to a display cabinet or a statue.

Culver City architects, Studio Pali Fekete architects (SPF:a), the executive architects who implemented the ideas of the design architects, were also part of the team. “Anytime you retrofit a building is a challenge, especially a concrete structure, and the same could be said for the new structure, which is also concrete. There were a lot of coordination efforts involved,” said Damon Surfas, architect, SPF:a.

The general contractor agreed. “It wasn’t just some metal framing and dry wall and you’re done,” said Ed Doyle, project manager, Morley Construction. “The complexity of the crossovers and of the details and the custom fixtures used on the project challenged everyone. It was a very complex, very detailed job with high-end finishes. How things fit together was crucial, so there was a lot of coordination with everybody. On most jobs, tasks like putting in a light switch are a simple slam-dunk. On this job, we had to do the rough-in in the concrete, then translate that through stone or marble or a specialty wood surface that was going to be placed on the surface afterward. All the coordination took quite a bit of time on everybody’s part,” he said. “Almost anything that got installed was 10 times more complex than the average job.”

Morrow-Meadows’ Barry gives an example: “For the newer construction, we were basically dealing with multilevels and lengths of all runs to get from one point to another because there weren’t areas to put in junction boxes or exposed conduits.”

On the grounds, boxes were also hidden beneath removable stones to conceal the power source.

“We had to rewire into the gardens, dig up areas and core down into electric rooms and reattach to feed all the new lighting in the gardens and outer peristyles of the museum,” Barry said.

Lighting fixtures were also on the Morrow-Meadows schedule. “Normally, you think of fluorescent fixtures as a 2x4 fixture or a downlight or ones on the wall or pole light, but many of the fixtures, the chandeliers or torches on the walls, were custom fixtures with arms coming out,” Barry said. “Some of the custom figures were huge. A lot of the fixtures were finished with a special Getty bronze. There were 300 different fixture types,” he said, “and sometimes there were over 60 or 70 of a fixture type. There were hundreds and hundreds of fixtures.”

Delays on the project also affected the supply of the fixtures. “It was a big challenge maintaining continuity over the different phases,” Dahl said. “If we started with a fixture in one phase, we wanted to use that same manufacturer and fixture in the next phase, so we had to keep track of what was approved and already installed. I bet we had over 30 submittals for lighting fixtures just because of the phasing, the changing and the length of the project. Sometimes we’d approve a fixture, and by the time we were ready to use it, the fixture was no longer being manufactured.”

Today, the renovated Getty Villa is itself a work of art in addition to what’s inside. And the contractors feel part of it.

“Everyday I try to learn something in this business,” Shay said, “and on a job as unique as this one, I couldn’t help but learn.”

Mike Barry added, “The end result is fantastic.”

Those at the museum appreciate the efforts.

“It was challenging for Apollo and Morrow-Meadows to place devices in locations that at the end of the day were aesthetically appropriate,” said Corbin Smith, head of the Villa Project Team, the J. Paul Getty Trust. “They did a superb job.”         EC

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