Building an Electrical Future for the AFL-CIO

By 1997, the headquarters of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in Washington, D.C., originally built in 1955, were in need of a major renovation. “Many alterations had been made to the 151,280-square-foot facility throughout the AFL-CIO’s history, but a major renovation of the building had never been undertaken,” said Mac Hayden, vice president of construction for Freestate Electrical Construction Co., Inc., Beltsville, Md. The AFL-CIO turned to a team of union contractors to provide an up-to-date, code-compliant, and well-designed facility that would reflect its purpose and direction. Group Goetz Architects, Washington, D.C., was retained to complete a building evaluation and space efficiency study, and to provide a master plan for a renovated facility that would support and accommodate the AFL-CIO’s recent reorganization. McCann, Inc., New York, N.Y., the project’s construction manager negotiated its contract awarded directly with the AFL-CIO, and in the summer of 1997, invited Freestate to bid on the electrical package. “Freestate was recommended to McCann by the local union, and three other electrical contractors in the D.C. area were also invited to submit proposals,” Hayden said. The company won the award in the late summer of 1997, based on its bid amount and the interview with the construction manager. The design team broke down the project into five phases, each of which had to be bid separately. Work began in August 1997, when the design team completed Phase I. Although Freestate didn’t design the electrical and communcation systems, Bill Regotti, the project manager, attended weekly meetings to assist in ensuring that the design would be technologically current and code-compliant. The first phase of the renovation addressed life safety issues and included replacing and upgrading the electrical service from 208 volts to 480 volts; connecting the elevators to the fire alarm system; installing the new, updated, and code-compliant fire alarm system; connecting the newly installed flow and tamper switches for the sprinkler system to the fire alarm system; installing a new annunciator, emergency elevator call downs, and emergency power panels in the fire control room; and installing a 600kW back-up power generator. Freestate also installed the 80kVA uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system for the newly built computer room. “Phase II was the shell and core renovation,” said Corey Wilkerson, project manager. In this phase, the building’s power systems were addressed. Freestate replaced the entire electrical distribution system throughout the eight-story building, including all panels, switchgear, and feeders, and replaced the two existing 2,000-amp switchboards with two 4,000-amp switchboards. After the utility updated its transformers, Freestate ran the increased power into the new switchgear, and connected it to the appropriate existing or upgraded mechanical and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems throughout the building. Other nonelectrical upgrades to the union headquarters included replacing the boiler system, adding smoke evacuation system fans to the fire stairs, and renovating restroom facilities to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. Phase III included the renovation of interior office space for the third through seventh floors, including the design and construction of a print shop, new conference rooms, coffee stations, and copy centers. Freestate installed or upgraded the general and emergency lighting, power receptacles, and fire alarm system for each floor, and provided the rough-in for the audio/visual, security systems, and telecommunication networks. Phase IV was a tenant renovation for the executive offices on the eighth floor. “The AFL-CIO wanted these offices to reflect the tradition and longevity of the union. Through the uses of wood, terrazzo, and wall coverings, a stately atmosphere was developed,” Hayden said. The existing Executive Counsel Room was developed into a meeting room that could be sectioned off with movable partitions, and the latest audio/visual capabilities were installed. The final component of the project, Phase V, addressed the renovation of the exterior façade and courtyard and the public spaces on the first floor of the building. A new vehicular drop-off, a canopied entry, and new signs were added, all of which were centered on a new landscaping plan that included a plaza and rose garden. The lobby interior was redesigned to open up the space and expose two tile mosaics, and to focus on the displays of artifacts exhibiting the history of labor and the union. A new cafeteria with kitchen and seating areas was added to the floor, along with a large boardroom and three other large conference rooms. These rooms were all designed to have state-of-the-art technology and audio-visual capabilities from which major events could be broadcast. “The plan is to have the first floor become the union’s outreach to its members and to the public,” Hayden said. Freestate’s responsibilities for this phase included installing a high-end lighting package and general lighting, the rough-ins for the extensive audio/visual and security systems, power distribution, and fire alarm systems for the boardrooms, lobby, cafeteria, and kitchen. “We also provided the new lighting and power systems for the building’s exterior,” Wilkerson said. In a separate package, Freestate was also awarded a contract to upgrade the general lighting to the two basement-level parking areas. The total value of the contract, including changes, was $4.2 million, and an average of 12 to 15 company electricians were on-site, with a peak workforce of 30 electricians. Before work could begin on any phase of the project, Freestate had to first assist the construction manager in budgeting and value engineering the systems to be installed. “It was an ongoing process that forced us to call on the years of experience our project managers have in performing renovation work in occupied buildings,” Wilkerson said. For example, Freestate performed the fire alarm upgrade to four buildings in the Sprint campus in Reston, Va. In just six months, the company used fiber optic communication technologies to support the installation of a new ADA-compliant analog addressable voice evacuation system. Freestate was also responsible for wiring more than 500 computer workstations throughout the building with Category 3 voice and Category 5 data cabling, all of which were connected to a multimode optical fiber and large copper backbone designed to meet current industry telecommunication standards. An average of six to eight technicians were on-site at all times. Freestate assumed the voice/data/video (VDV) portion of the contract only in the winter of 1999, two years after the original contract award. “We believe that we received the re-award of the contract for the VDV installation based partially on the performance of the electrical construction division,” said Ernie Moose, datacommunications division manager. Freestate’s VDV technicians had also provided temporary wiring services and material to the customer at the very beginning of the renovation, which may have also been a factor. A challenging environment “It was particularly challenging to assume work on a project that had been 65 percent completed by another company,” Moose said. The Datacomm division team first had to survey the entire project and compare the work performed with the plans. “We had to begin work immediately, have the manpower and materials available, and balance those requirements against our current customers’ needs,” he added. Both the traditional electrical construction and VDV teams shared a number of challenges on the project. “The existing power, life safety, and data systems had to be maintained with as little disruption as possible for the AFL-CIO staff,” Wilkerson said. Freestate overcame the problem through extensive coordination between its on-site and support staff, the construction manager, the AFL-CIO project manager, and the union’s information technology (IT) staff. “We met constantly with IT staff members to plan moves and changes and to ensure that personnel would always find fully functional workstations when they came to work in the morning,” Moose said. Furthermore, the project has undergone a lot of changes since its inception. “It’s been a challenge to keep up with the design and construction changes as they’ve occurred,” Wilkerson said. The company had to spend an extensive amount of time and effort coordinating changes with the customer and the rest of the construction team to ensure that the union’s needs would be met in a timely and efficient manner. Relying on experience In 1984, Mike Dugan decided to use his 14 years of experience as a journeyman electrician for his own benefit, so he founded Freestate Electrical Construction. The company’s main Construction Department was joined in 1988 by the Service Department, which now boasts 47 trucks with electricians that deliver emergency and preventive repair and maintenance services and perform small electrical installation projects. Freestate Electrical, which specializes in new and retrofit electrical and low-voltage construction in the commercial and utility markets, now earns about $67 million a year and has about 360 electricians, 20 field technicians, and 50 office support staff. In 1995, the Datacomm Division was formed as part of the Service Department to take advantage of the potential of the emerging telecommunications market. “In recent years, the telecommunications sector has been a more consistent growth market than traditional electrical construction,” said Dugan, president of the company. Such statements are proven out by the fact that in six short years, the Datacomm Division has grown from just two technicians performing relatively small jobs consisting of simple moves, adds, and changes, to total sales in 2000 of $3.7 million. In addition to the commercial and utility markets, Freestate has always targeted the wireless market. “We have been responsible for close to 99 percent of the Bell Atlantic mobile phone facility installations in the Baltimore-Washington area,” Dugan said. "Back in 1984 the wireless industry was in its infancy and there were very few contractors that could, or wanted, to do that kind of work. “It was impossible to predict at the time how enormous and potentially profitable the wireless industry would become,” he added. No company can achieve these levels of success in such a few short years without developing relationships with customers, industry partners, and employees. “For example, for more than 15 years, we have partnered with Rockville, Md.-based general contractor James G. Davis Construction, Inc.,” Dugan said. The two companies’ relationship is based on opportunity, trust, and the mutually recognized benefit of cooperation. Through relationships with its industry partners, Freestate Electrical strives to provide its customers with the best quality product for a competitive price. “We have been able to accomplish that goal through the professionalism of our project staff and electricians,” Dugan said. The company has managed to build a reputation of being able to quickly fulfill customers’ needs by recognizing that most of today’s new construction and retrofit projects are being performed on a strictly fast-track basis. “The bottom line is that we are in business for the customer, and giving them what they want when they want it is the only way to succeed in today’s highly competitive marketplace.” Because of his own field experience, Dugan recognizes the difficulties of working in the field and the stresses under which electricians operate. “Our administrative and project management staff exist to support the field personnel by providing all the information, material, and tools needed to perform the work at the highest levels of quality possible,” he said. Dugan stressed his belief that an informed and supported staff is both productive and proud of the work performed. “We can honestly boast an extremely high level of employee retention,” he added. Looking ahead “You have to be flexible,” Dugan insisted. Honest and open discussions are held regularly within the company about different ideas, which have led to the development of innovative installation techniques, opening the company to new markets and helping it to grow. “Just give employees the tools and information needed to perform the job, and they will do the work at a high level of quality.” With plans to continue to grow at an annual rate of 10 percent, Dugan’s formula for success includes continually training the company’s employees and improving their quality of life. To achieve that growth rate, Dugan is going to invest in the Datacomm Division by hiring qualified technicians and marketing the division’s services to potential customers. Freestate is also preparing to take advantage of various emerging market segments such as fuel cell technology, microturbines, utility deregulation, and solar energy. “In order to stay successful, a company has to maintain its flexibility and be willing to explore new opportunities as they arise,” he said. BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to Electrical Contractor. She can be reached at (410) 394-6966 or by e-mail at

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