Call it the future of healthcare for North Dakotans today and generations to come. Call it the largest publicly funded building project in the history of North Dakota. If you do, you’re right on both counts.

The University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks has educated more than 40 percent of the state’s doctors. Construction of the new $124 million School of Medicine and Health Sciences building, which began in 2013 and was completed this fall, is set to expand that scope.

“The project came about because the state of North Dakota realized they had an insufficient number of physicians and other healthcare professionals to take care of both the current population—which includes an increasing aging population—­and the projected growth in population,” said Randy Eken, associate dean for administration and finance, UND. “As a result, the legislature committed to educating additional healthcare workforce students with the belief that there would be a higher probability that those trained at UND would stay in the state. The legislature realized as well that it wasn’t a goal that could be achieved at the existing facility.”

The 325,000-square-foot building will house all of the School of Medicine’s departments in a single structure and allow an increase of its medical school enrollment by 64 students, its health sciences enrollment by 90 students, and post-graduate residency enrollment by 51 residents. At the center are “Main Streets” under an atrium on the first and second floors where students and faculty travel between study and lounge spaces; classrooms; research laboratories; a digital library; a simulated operating room; and simulated exam rooms. It’s a design intended to encourage a collaborative atmosphere.

Prescribing the team

JLG Architects, Grand Forks, partnered with global firms Perkins+Will and Steinberg Architects to design the building and collaborated with PCL Construction and Community Contractors (CC), the companies chosen by the UND, to provide construction manager-at-risk services for the project.

When PCL asked Premier Electrical Corp. of Minneapolis to bid the project, Premier Electrical contacted Rick Electric, Inc., in Moorhead, Minn., on the North Dakota border.

“We were 350 miles away,” said Jim Harmon, senior project manager, Premier Electrical. “We approached Rick Electric since we had worked with them previously and decided to do it as a joint venture, to interview together, and work as contractor/­subcontractor, dividing parts of the project.”

“We split it up with clean divisions of work by specific sections, plan sheets; agreed on the division of work; and put our bids together,” said Greg Rick, president, Rick Electric, Inc.

Premier Electrical was responsible for the switchgear, feeders, branch circuits, power panels and power branch wiring. Rick Electric handled the high-voltage underground to the building and access control, lighting systems, security cameras and fire alarm.

Since the project had a fixed budget of $124 million from the state of North Dakota, construction manager-at-risk was chosen as the delivery method, with the construction manager committed to delivering the project within a guaranteed maximum price. PCL and CC were brought on board at the same time as the architects, which allowed for all parties to be on the same page in terms of constructability.

“Having a construction manager on board allows for more cost certainty than a traditional approach, where someone would design it, contractors would bid it and then build it,” said Brad Hendrickson, construction manager, PCL. “It allowed us to work with the designer and the owner at the same time as the design was being completed and to progress the design, which took 18 months. When we had the final design and a guaranteed maximum price, the state had the certainty that it wasn’t going to cost them more than they were willing to invest.”

Premier Electrical and Rick Electric came on later in the process but before design documents were complete, which enabled them to provide feedback on constructability and cost.

“That helped a great deal to have those partners be part of the design process from very early on, which helped with continuity start to finish,” Hendrickson said.

Facing challenges together

The design of the building presented particular challenges for the electrical contractors (ECs).

“It’s a large building and has a lot of unique architectural features, including large atriums in areas and angled walls, which made it difficult to wire the building to get from A to B,” Harmon said. “We couldn’t just go normally in a straight line. We were able to put a lot of wiring below the ground-floor slabs and conduit in the slabs. The feeders to the power panels run primarily below the ground-floor slab, then vertically rather than from distribution to the lighting panels out on the floor. The runs were predominantly vertical from the floor slab or below it. We had to find areas we could run vertically in walls and chases.

“We used [building information modeling] for coordination with other trades and the Trimble system to lay out the concrete slab and underground because of the post-tension cabling system and the size of the building. With it we could take our CAD drawings and locate points on the job site. We didn’t have to go out there and measure from the grid lines with a tape measure. Once you get the Trimble set up to a point on the architectural/electrical/mechanical drawings, you can use that to find any other point,” he said.


Having a construction manager on board allows for more cost certainty than a traditional approach where someone would design it, contractors would bid it and then build it.
—Brad Hendrickson, PCL


Kent Voelker, general foreman, Premier Electrical, was happy with how the schedule played out.

“The building schedule was not the usual to save time, and it worked,” he said. “We had different crews doing different things at the same time. We were already working on the east building, roughing in walls, pulling branch wire while they were still pouring concrete. Later in the job, we had people still roughing in walls, other people following the Sheetrock [or] the painter and putting in receptacle devices and finishing, and others roughing in walls in other parts of the building.”

The North Dakota winter was another factor to contend with. PCL arranged the schedule to ensure the crew could be digging in the ground or working outside. Late in the year, Premier’s crew was working outside pouring slabs and had to take frequent breaks to warm up in the –43°F temperatures and take precautions to keep things from blowing away in the steady 40–50 mile-per-hour winds.

Instead of on-site storage in these conditions, Rick Electric, Inc., rented a warehouse near the university to store the close to $1.5 million worth of lighting fixtures it had ordered.

“Considering our winters, we would have had to dig out snowbanks to get to a certain trailer to find the lights inside, so I spent the money for the heated warehouse a mile away,” Rick said. “We’d load up the fixtures we’d need for the day or the next day and saved ourselves from having a lot of damage that might have occurred if we had them stored on-site.”

Construction efficiency was escalated since the various trades had access to iPads, enabling them to check the smallest details of any of the systems and to check installation against the architect’s designs.

“If you were going to carry around blueprints for a project this size, you’d need a golf cart,” said Chris Koppang, electrical foreman, Rick Electric. “On the iPad, I could look at the plans for mechanical, plumbing, sheet metal and see what they had in that area so we could stay away from them. It was a 100 percent nonpaper project for me.”

Details of the treatment

Since the School of Medicine’s existing facility had an emergency generator that had problems with maintaining voltages—which created issues with testing research procedures—the university needed a more reliable system. Premier Electrical installed two 2-megawatt diesel powered backup generators for the building.

“If they lose utility power, we can bring on one or both generators and pick up 100 percent load of the building,” Voelker said. “Also, as part of that scheme, we have a 160 [kilowatt] UPS [uninterruptible power supply] system with batteries, so the specific lab equipment can take power from the UPS system so that, if the utility fails, the university will never see a blink in power. The UPS capacity far out-reaches the time it would take our generators to start. UPS can go on full load for 15 minutes, but our generators will come on in less than 11 seconds. The critical research equipment in the laboratories should never see an outage.”

Rick Electric, Inc., installed lighting in the 43,000 square feet of laboratory space. Instead of a closed-in ceiling, the design called for suspending 6-by-20-foot clouds 3 feet apart in a 50-by-100-foot room.

“Hanging the lights between the clouds was challenging, as was getting them lined up,” Koppang said. “We had to lay them all out before the ceiling went in. As part of our prep work, we dropped cables down for them, working with the other trades.”

While Rick Electric, Inc., handled the lighting for the rooms, Premier Electrical did the outlets and hooked up the laboratory cases. 

Rick Electric, Inc., also brought the high-voltage feed underground to three pad-mount transformers. The company excavated a trench up to a mile long under streets on the campus, after which the crew installed eight PVC conduits that were 4 inches in diameter and 20 feet long. Premier Electrical was then responsible for any wiring inside the building.

PCL furnished and installed scaffolds in each atrium area so that ECs and other trades could work on a platform.

“We’d work from top down,” Koppang said. “As we finished each level, the scaffold would be removed and the platform lowered, so the trades could continue their work. It was kind of challenging because, typically, you rough-in all the way down and then finish, but this scaffold system didn’t work that way. 

“Some of the atriums were open from the ground up to the roof. Others were open from the ground up a few floors. It was challenging just to get from one point to another. We couldn’t run feeders in a straight line to get from the switchgear to the panel. If we wanted to get from the east end to the west end, we couldn’t just go straight across but had to go zigzagging around the openings or below the ground floor slab and then rise vertically.”

Rick Electric, Inc., provided power to the fire alarm system that uses laser beams to detect the presence of smoke and integrated it with the door openers and the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system. The company worked with the fire alarm vendors on the sequence of operations.

“Anytime you have a space open to multiple floors, the alarm system has to be very sensitive as to keeping smoke from getting everywhere in the building,” said Andrew Bartsch, electrical engineer, Obermiller Nelson Engineering Building Systems Consultants.

The building’s needs were so unique that Simplex Grinnell designed a fire alarm system specifically for the project.

“It was a large project,” Hendrickson said. “Premier and Rick met every one of our scheduled dates. They were an absolute thrill to work with.”

(Editor's note: Additional interior photos provided by Greg Rick.)