Big Gets Bigger

Maron Electric, Divane Brothers join forces for mega convention center McCormick Place:

With more than 3 million visitors annually, McCormick Place in the center of Chicago is the largest convention center in North America; this already mega facility, with capacity to host numerous large-scale conventions at once, just got larger.

Owned by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), McCormick Place comprises three buildings, and with its most recent expansion of a fourth building, it now totals 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space, 1.6 million square feet all on one level. Also housed within the McCormick Place facilities are the Arie Crown Theater and the Hyatt-McCormick Place Hotel.

The West Hall expansion offers an additional 470,000 square feet of exhibit space and 250,000 square feet of meeting space, which will suit an expanding variety of events. Each floor of the new five-level facility includes a central concourse, which puts meeting rooms, exhibit halls and common areas in close proximity. It also includes a 100,000-square-foot ballroom (the nation’s largest), a rooftop garden built to accommodate up to 800 people, a centralized transportation center and dedicated roadways for freight logistics.

“We’re building a state-of-the-art facility from the ground up,” said Jon Kaplan, MPEA director of public relations.

With a consortium of 10 construction companies known as Mc4West—and the joint venture of local electrical contractors Maron Electric Co., Skokie, Ill., and Divane Brothers, Franklin Park, Ill.—McCormick Place will soon have more than 2 million square feet of space. The total cost is just under $1 billion. 

Constructing a team

From the onset, the design/build project to build this oversized convention center was a team operation. McCormick Place would require such teamwork to be a success.

Maron Electric Co. was called in to join the Mc4West team. The company invited Divane Brothers Electric—a company that Maron Electric had partnered with on numerous occasions since the mid-1960s—to join forces on this renovation, which altogether was a $122 million electrical project.

“Mc4 brought together the team and sold themselves that way,” said Eric Lindberg, Maron Electric senior project manager. This was an unusual early alliance that Lindberg said resulted from previous successful Clark Construction/Maron Electric projects.

“we teamed up with Maron and Divane and relied on them for budgeting [the electrical installation],” said Gary Schalmo, senior vice president for Clark Construction, the lead general contractor.

“We pulled our best resources from 10 firms,” Schalmo said. “As the general contractor, our job is to make sure you overplan and overman the job.”

Part of this meant ensuring there was more than enough manpower, project management and material-delivery scheduling.

The electrical companies bid on the project in 2002 and won the bid 2003. The sheer size of the project necessitated a joint venture between Divane and Maron.

“We still needed to operate outside of McCormick Place,” said Keith Fowler, executive vice president, Maron Electric.

“[And] we had fostered a great relationship together,” Lindberg added. Despite a history of working together well, it’s typical for some conflicts to arise when so many contractors are working together.

“We’ve been in this business for 80 years,” said Maron president Eric Nixon. “There’s never been a project that is totally nonadversarial. But this team has kept this job nonadversarial,” he said. “Everybody has been helpful and supportive.”

“Our project managers have been as good as we’ve had, and the Clark superintendent, Joe Salerno, and our own general foremen have been spectacular,” Nixon said.

Many of the concerns that are typical for a project this size never came to fruition, Fowler said.

Drawn together

Lindberg followed the project from the design phase. “We worked with a set of construction and permit documents, which were always constantly evolving,” he said.

All the same, he said, the plans were 80 percent laid out when construction started.

Maron/Divane developed a CAD department to put together drawings for the entire structure.

“We had two lead drawing coordinators and eight electricians for layout of drawings,” Lindberg said, in addition to eight on-site CAD specialists.

“When you’re doing a $120 million construction project in two years, you have a bigger CAD department on-site than in the home office,” Lindberg said.

Bringing the team together for design offered both benefits and challenges. The primary challenge, as Lindberg pointed out, was bringing Maron Electric and the electrical engineer onto the same page.

“The typical formula on other projects is the engineer works directly for the owner where, here, we were design partners,” Lindberg said. “It all went well, but of course, there were things we had to work through. We had to protect the budget from engineering overdesign, but at the same time meeting the owner’s criteria.”

As far as that criteria was concerned, Lindberg said, “The owner basically put out shell architectural plans with a written volume describing each room’s function, required foot-candle levels, specialized power requirements, etc., and we designed from there.”

“I think the unique opportunity is being embedded in it from beginning,” Lindberg said. “From the written word on paper to a complete structure, we had a good team here. [The general contractor] brought on quality trades. We all had our stumbling blocks, but they put together a good team.”

Estimating challenges

Site demolition began November 2003, and steel erection began November 2004. During that process, Maron/Divane, other subs and the general contractor were working on the design phase with the architect and engineer. Almost immediately, the rising cost of materials posed a problem. Maron/Divane were able to offset the growing cost of copper by buying futures.

“When we began the design process, copper was at $1.25 a pound,” Fowler said. “When we finished, it was at $3.40 a pound.”

In addition to buying futures, Maron/Divane offset the rising price of copper by improving the routing of feeders, moving panels and making better use of the risers.

Management and estimating of job hours are other problems for a large project. “You’ve got 300 electricians spread out over 2 million feet,” he said. “How do we track how well they perform?”

That challenge can be monumental, he said, but like Mc4W, they managed the situation with some amount of redundancy. They hired an outside consultant to do monthly surveys of the site and the work the men were accomplishing. Maron Electric then also did its own monthly survey, evaluating estimated hours and earned hours.

“It’s nice to have someone to check your work,” Fowler said.

The consultant toured the job site monthly and Maron Electric management did the same thing. The tours tracked how many light fixtures or panels were installed in a specific location, for example.

“When you’re estimating something of that magnitude, it’s hard to calculate lost man-hours, [due to] walking a quarter-mile from one side of the job site to another,” Fowler said. Materials often could be a 20-minute walk away.

Maron Electric kept all these variables in mind, Fowler said. “We wanted to monitor it really close to ensure our estimate was accurate.”

Material matters

To ensure Maron/Divane had access to the right supplies at the right time, the companies partnered with area suppliers.

“We told them, ‘We’re doing this project. Here’s the drawing. We have to buy and have delivered all this material. You guys have to put your heads together and pitch an idea to us,’” Fowler said. “We interviewed with numerous suppliers until we came up with a method that made sense.”

In order to handle all of the material demands, three local supply houses formed a tri-venture E2P with Paramount Electric Supply, Evergreen Oak Electric and Evergreen Supply Co.

Maron/Divane also broke the project into quadrants, with suppliers delivering to specific zones, said Greg Stoico, Maron Electric project manager. It was done without stockpiling materials on the job site.

Installation commences

“We got on the site June of 2004,” Fowler said. The first 16 months were devoted to working with the utilities company, Commonwealth-Edison, to bring power to the facility.

Later Maron/Divane installed 32 3,000A double-ended substations with built-in redundancy, which would ensure continual power without failures. Workers also installed 650 light and power panels.

The finished project will have many features other exhibit and conference halls do not have. It includes an 18-inch-thick exhibit hall floor with 30-foot-by-30-foot continuous embedded grid of electrical floorports to bring power to exhibit booths.

Maron ran 230,000 feet of wire in the floor of the exhibit hall alone. The 208- and 480-volt overhead bus duct allows power cords to be dropped from the ceiling. The massive catwalk system in the ceiling allows house electricians access to the bus duct to drop power lines where they are needed. The ballroom has a similar scaled-down version of floorports and bus duct to allow it to double as a light exhibit hall.

Maron/Divane also installed the fire alarm system, which was tied into McCormick Place’s existing system, as well as audiovisual, data, security and lighting controls.

Forward moving 

McCormick Place West is scheduled to open in July 2007, eight months ahead of schedule. This couldn’t be better news for the MPEA.

“The trades have done an incredible job,” Kaplan said. “This project not only makes the big even bigger, it makes the good even better.”

“The electrical group has really driven this job,” Schalmo said. “They’re pushing the [other subs] in front of them. They are one of the key reasons for this project’s success. They really stepped up to the plate and kept things moving.”

McCormick Place had a record year for conventions in 2006, Kaplan said, and the West Hall is already booked well into 2007. The National Confectioners Association—All Candy Expo will be the first major citywide convention to host an event in the new West Building in September 2007. The show is expected to attract 18,000 attendees who will spend an estimated $16.8 million while in Chicago.

When McCormick Place West is finished, Schalmo said it will be the good relationships between the owner, the city of Chicago and the various contractors and subcontractors that made the project a success.                EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at

About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

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