Two centuries after it was founded, electrical contractors are working to keep the Washington Navy Yard secure and functional while preserving the history that surrounds it. Construction and renovation have been part of the Washington Navy Yard for most of its history. But building projects here are far from typical. The very history makes building here a unique challenge.

Built in 1799, the U.S. Navy’s oldest shore establishment occupies the edges of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. It has been used for shipbuilding, manufacturing ordnance and torpedo research. Eventually, the factory focus was directed out of the Navy Yard, and many buildings sat empty or were renovated for office use.

Today, the Washington Navy Yard serves as the headquarters for the Naval District Washington. To keep it functioning through all the changes, it has undergone extensive renovation. The most ambitious renovation took place in recent years with oversight by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC). The NAVFAC walked a fine line between providing modern functionality and historic preservation as it managed the planning, design and construction of U.S. Navy shore facilities. Not only did the Navy need state-of-the-art facilities, it needed to preserve a historic context, saving the structures of yesteryear.

Two projects at the Washington Navy Yard recently incorporated historic preservation while meeting the need for modern IT capabilities and post-9/11 security: a new gate system and visitor center as well as a completely gutted and reconstructed office building with its century-old facade maintained. In both cases, the buildings supported research dating back to World War I and earlier. The office building had to accommodate a new generation of Navy personnel, who want infrastructure for the Internet and wide area networks (WAN), smart energy-efficient lighting, and security that matches the post-9/11 terrorism demands. As a result, there can be dozens of construction, reconstruction and renovations projects underway on any given year.

“We have construction projects going on here at all times,” said John S. Verrico, public affairs officer, NAVFAC.

Electrical contractor Power Services Inc. (PSI), Upper Marlboro, Md., preformed the installation for the two Navy Yard projects.

Building 172

Eighty-seven years ago, Washington Navy Yard Building 172 was designed for World War I-era mine and antisubmarine device experimentation. The building had also served as the Naval Gun Factory Training Center, then home to the Navy Relief Society, WNY Safety Division, Naval Services FamilyLine, Navy Ball, Sea Cadets, Young Marines and Navy Federal Credit Union.

While the brick building was long on functionality for weapons research, it was short on the kinds of demands 21st-century office workers put on a facility. The Navy needed a completely new kind of building. The plan was to preserve historic integrity while providing a home for the Navy Inspector General and his staff members. It needed Internet and security connections as well as to be disabled accessible.

Building 172 had already been renovated several times, but never the way it was in 2005 when it was singularly gutted and reconstructed from the ground up, while maintaining the historic brick façade. Reconstructing a building within a historic shell is no easy task. Power Services did everything from running feeders to the building, to running wires through modular system furniture that could move with tenant’s needs.

Joint-venture general contractor Barclay White/Coakley Williams Construction got the $2.8 million contract to complete renovation of the historic building.

The first challenge was working with a historic building with two major sections, PSI general Foreman Andy Robey said. The initial building, built in 1918, was constructed with concrete. In the 1950s, the Navy added an addition to the building that increased its size by about a third. This addition was constructed with wood and was not as structurally sound as the concrete section. Robey noted that part of the second floor was supported by a 17-by-12-inch post. Construction workers installed steel posts to shore up the building’s addition.

“When I got there, there was a 4-by-4 foot hole in the center of the building, which had been boarded over at some point,” he said.

Before construction could begin, the existing interior was completely stripped down to the frame, while preserving the unique Egyptian Revival architecture of the exterior.

Dawn Moore, U.S. Navy assistant resident officer in charge of construction, realized that this would be an unusual job when demolition unearthed a 150-year-old foundation of another construction underneath Building 172.

“Whenever you start doing demolition [on historic buildings],” Moore said. “You can find unforeseen layers underneath.”

The previous foundation was located in what would become the building’s elevator shaft.

“Once demolition was complete, we poured a new floor with the electric raceway below the flooring,” Moore said.

That included IT telecommunication wires.

“All the power was under the floor,” Robey said.

PSI installed a 24-by-24-inch zone cabling box connected to the distribution system. Workers drilled holes in the floor and tied electrical and telecom lines into the building.

Several unique features were added to this project. Workers constructed floor-to-ceiling partitions rather than walls throughout much of the two-story office building. This allowed staff the flexibility of using the available space in a variety of ways. Because the building consists of systems furniture, the additional challenge was to connect the moveable walls and furniture. The only hard-wall office, Moore said, is for the inspector general. In keeping with disability access, the Navy installed an elevator in the addition section.

The new windows were the only change to the exterior of the building, and they allowed for greater force protection in the event of an explosion. That change required permission from the National Historic Council, Moore said.

Electronically controlled high-density file systems, up-to-date IT access and projectors were also added.

To increase energy efficiency, NAVFAC asked PSI to install a main control panel for all HVAC controls and motion sensors for the lighting. Between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., the lights switch on automatically. During evening and night hours, the lights turn off, unless motion is detected in the room causing the lights to come on.

“Energy conservation is a Navy-wide effort,” said Verrico.

Whenever the Navy undergoes a major renovation, it looks to energy savings as part of that project. Within 18 months, the building may have looked the same on the outside, but everything inside was new.

O Street gate

Construction was also underway at checkpoints to the base. There are four gates to allow entrance to the thousands of people who work at and visit the base. The O Street gate is specifically provided for visitors.

This gate has been in need of renovation and improvement, as has the visitor center, which was previously a trailer where visitors could obtain badges for themselves and their cars. With these badges, visitors are allowed movement inside the base. Nearby, an existing building known as Building 126 housed the police department, which needed a larger space of its own.

Octavia Terrance, assistant residing engineer-in-charge of construction, oversaw the project that included both the building and the O Street gates. The existing gate system was old and outdated, she said, consisting of a security officer and one swing gate that would allow visitors to enter.

Like building 172, this new visitor center revealed clues to its long history once demolition and renovation began.

“There were a lot of old items in the ground,” Terrance said.

What they didn’t find was even more significant; the building had no foundation. Workers shored up the building and then constructed a new foundation before going any further. In the meantime, the soil under the building was rich with heavy metal contaminants, old bricks and scrap metal. They started in spring 2004 and completed their work at the end of 2005.

Soil problems plagued them into the gate area as well.

“There were permit problems to get rid of the soil,” Terrance said, and there was considerable digging involved both for the building foundation and the switch barriers for the gate.

Here, also, digging produced interesting results. PSI dug into the street for the duct bank work and found three inches of asphalt, 12 to 18 inches of concrete and cobblestone underneath that, Robey said. Workers ran duct banks as well as a new feeder system and telecommunications line to replace the telephone pole standing in front of the building to three guard booths. They also ran the feeder to the building and cut through 18 inches of brick to bring the cables inside, Robey said. For each guard booth, they ran two 2-inch lines for power and telecommunications and a 125-amp panel.

They also installed seven hydraulic wedge barriers into the concrete, Robey said. The new gate comes with force protection, a pedestrian turnstile and several guard shacks.

PSI ran conduits for the wedge barriers and took all telephone and data connections underground into the visitor center where a telephone pole had stood before. The new gates, Terrance said, are not only stronger, but they operate very quickly.

In fact, the gates can go all the way up and down again in about eight seconds. With the extra security of a separate gate, visitor center and parking lot, the Navy Yard has an added layer of security. The guard shacks are equipped with cameras and monitors and they also connect to a CAC room.

“We do a lot of work there at the Navy Yard,” said Jim Wright, PSI outside superintendent, and each job has its own challenges. “They are trying to maintain the historic side.”

PSI takes part in that challenge while helping usher in a long future as the Navy Yard enters its third century. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.