Detroit Wins Big with Ford Field

By Curt Harler | Mar 15, 2007




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Contractors score with systems and services:

An all-American city known for its automobiles and music, this major Midwestern locale continues its downtown facelift with the recent addition of public sports stadiums; Detroit can now count Ford Field, one of the best-planned sports centers in America, as the latest accomplishment on the road to gentrification. The implementation of the electrical work, handled adeptly by a team of professionals, was critical to the overall success of the new construction project.

Detroit began planning the sports complex in 1999. In April 2002, the first half of that dream opened on schedule when Comerica Park became the new home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. Four months later, the NFL’s Detroit Lions played the first game at their new Brush Street home, Ford Field.


Ford Field replaced the revered Pontiac Silverdome, the Lions’ home since 1975, at a cost of $300 million. Money for the project came from public funds and the sale of the naming rights, a reported $40 million the Ford family will pay over a 20-year period.

The electrical contracts for the facility were as brilliant and progressive as the funding. No fewer than three Detroit-area contractors won bids on the project: Motor City Electric Co. (MCE), Detroit and GSI Inc., Troy, Mich., both still in existence; a third company, G&S Electric, has since disbanded.

The electrical contractors were part of a project that gives any sports fan goose bumps. Ford Field has an overall capacity of 65,000 seats for football and 80,000 for basketball. In addition to hosting Superbowl XL in February 2006, Ford Field set a world attendance record for a basketball game: 78,219 people saw Michigan State University play the University of Kentucky in December 2003.

Future events include the Motor City Bowl, an annual football bowl game; WWE Wrestlemania 23 in April 2007; the NCAA Basketball Tournament regional semifinal and final games in 2008; the Final Four in 2009; and the 2010 Frozen Four (NCAA collegiate hockey championships).

Constructed on a 25-acre site, the 1.8 million-square-foot facility features caisson foundations, concrete and steel frame and structural steel for its roof. Contractors used 58,560 cubic yards of concrete to build it. The field is located approximately 41 feet below the stadium’s concourse level to ensure the stadium does not dominate the Detroit skyline.

Integral to the stadium’s design is a six-story warehouse, formerly owned by the J.L. Hudson department store. Located on the south side of the building, it houses all the facility’s club seats and lounges and 115 of the 132 suites in the stadium. The bulk of the grandstand seats are located along the remaining three sides of the stadium.

Contracting team

MCE handled the stadium portion of construction. Founded in 1952, the company bills $150 million each year. The company’s portion of the Ford Field project contract came in at about $25 million. Tom McGrail, MCE executive vice president, said the company handles a vast array of electrical construction functions.

“We do construction line work to street lighting, to everything in between. Our telecommunications division does
everything from jacks to backbones, fiber and logic for telephones systems,” he said.

Working with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 58, Detroit, MCE handled all the stadium’s electrical work.

“That included the core and the shell, the entranceways and the concession stands. We did the power distribution system, all the lighting, 17 luxury suites, all the sports lighting and the sound systems,” McGrail said.

He described the pace of the job as “aggressive,” taking some 23 months to complete. Though weather protection was one of the job’s considerations, he said Ford Field’s height was a concern to his electricians because that was where they did most of their work.

“Our people were working at almost 200 feet—top to bottom—while working on the electrical and sound systems,” he said.

High-wire act

In the early phase of the stadium’s construction, 30- to 40-foot-thick roof trusses were set on stanchions 20 feet tall. MCE electricians did all their work on the truss segments while resting on the stanchions up 50 to 60 feet in the air.

Once they finished, the workers attached the trusses into segments and lifted them into place using hydraulic jacks.

“Near the end of the job came our next big challenge, hanging the large speakers,” McGrail said.

Some of the speakers and their supports had to be positioned about 150 feet off the ground near the stands. Workers were required to climb up into the steel and hoist the speakers and the supports with ropes up over the edge of the stands and back into their positions. The power distribution system was also tricky. Because it is an underground system, timing was critical. It had to be placed as contractors finished excavating some 300,000 cubic yards of material from the lower bowl and field levels.

GSI Inc. handled the low-voltage wiring and the communications systems for Ford Field. The company was formed as a result of a purchased division of one of the other electrical contractors that worked on the Ford Field project, the former G&S Electric. The company provides its installation and maintenance services with IBEW Local 58 in Detroit and Local 252 in Ann Arbor. GSI specializes in the design, installation, maintenance and management services for networking, security and electrical systems for commercial facilities. 

Tim Roddy, director of Business Development, said GSI’s telecommunication division handles the gamut of its electrical contracting niche.

“We do cabling infrastructure—both copper and fiber—from backbone to desktop,” he said. “We handle design and budgeting, all CAD work, building and maintenance.”

The low-voltage part of the project was substantial for GSI, and its part of the contract came in at around $22 million.

Voice and security

GSI did the cabling during construction and configured 30 telecommunication closets and all the telecommunications for each workstation in the facility and press boxes, with some 1,000 locations, Roddy said.

Technicians also built coaxial and fiber optic networks for both the NFL and Fox Networks and laid the cabling for more than two dozen camera locations. GSI also did all the cabling into the warehouse and built the control system for all of Ford Field’s cameras, head-ends and uninterruptible power supplies.

GSI’s separate security division installed all cameras, inside and outside of the field, which amounted to approximately 96 devices, according to Ron McPherson, director of GSI’s Security Systems Division. The deployment of closed-circuit television at the premises is closely tied to the physical security of the facility.

“You walk to the door, the camera captures your badge and identification photo and somewhere else in the facility, a screen pops up with a graphic map showing where you have access,” he said.

The construction area is roughly 1 million square feet and comprises nine different structures built between 1913 and 1963. Contractors demolished 200,000 square feet to create a public plaza at the stadium’s main entrance and atrium spaces inside the facility.

Of the rest, about half is dedicated to the concessions, toilets, locker rooms, press box, suites and club seats, etc. The other half is used for common-area circulation and tenant areas being developed as a mixed-use destination for downtown Detroit, including a 200-room hotel, two restaurants with themed dining and various supporting retail operations.

Because its work dealt with both the stadium and the warehouse, GSI personnel had to coordinate with two contractors, Hunt/Jenkins (a partnership of two individual contracting firms, Hunt Construction, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Jenkins Construction of Detroit) and White/Olson LLC (a partnership between White Construction, Detroit, and JM Olson Corp., St. Clair Shores, Mich.).

When the end-user added another 30 percent to the telecommunications and security portion of the contract during construction, without increasing the length of time needed to accomplish it, GSI didn’t balk but forged ahead.

“We had six months to do the telecommunication and security and one year for the electrical contract,” Roddy said.

Thanks to superior electrical contracting and expertise, and a looming penalty for being late, the job got done on time and with the quality always expected for a noticeable public venue.    EC

HARLER, a frequent contributor, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He can be reached at 440.238.4556 or [email protected]. Weinstock is an assistant professor of journalism at Grand Valley State University.




About The Author

Curt Harler, a frequent contributor to SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He also can be reached at 440.238.4556.





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