Under the Sound: Refreshing the Seattle Aquarium

Located on Piers 59 and 60 overlooking Elliot Bay, the historic Seattle Aquarium receives about 700,000 visitors annually. In June 2007, a $41 million renovation—the first major restoration given to the older than 100-year-old building in 30 years—was completed. Work included the removal and reinstallation of existing water, sewer, gas and fire services as well as moving the electrical and mechanical equipment rooms to a more central location.

The aquarium has 18,000 square feet of exhibit space, including the new, visually astounding 120,000-gallon Window on Washington Waters fish tank. The 40-foot-high tank, filled with a variety of marine wildlife from Washington’s Puget Sound, is made of a single slab of uninterrupted acrylic and has a 13-foot-by-167-foot-by-39-foot-wide viewing window placed at an angle, requiring visitors to peer up at it as if watching a movie.

The second new exhibit, “Crashing Waves,” is a 40-foot-long artificial wave pool, which every few seconds sends hundreds of gallons of white water rushing though, leaving the pool’s marine inhabitants to plaster themselves to the exhibit walls.

The aquarium’s existing and venerable exhibits were left in place and “spruced up a bit,” according to Tim Kuniholm, the aquarium’s director of marketing. The aquarium also includes a gift shop and restaurant.

Outside, 12,000 square feet of exterior timber aprons were replaced with a new concrete lateral frame structure and the facade was removed, restored and then reinstalled as a nonstructural facade, keeping its historical integrity intact.

While Turner Construction was still in the process of bidding to become the project’s general contractor, the company requested that Evergreen Power Systems Inc. (EPS), Seattle, provide raw budgetary numbers for the electrical and low-voltage systems to roll to the final bid.

“Our two companies have worked together for at least 20 years and have a deep understanding of each other’s needs,” said Jim Mackey, EPS president.

Because of its preconstruction services, EPS was on Turner’s short list of qualified bidders for the electrical portion of the project and received the $2 million contract based on the company’s bid, a previous joint-venture project and its fast-track project experience.

Thanks to its previous working relationship with the interior architect, Mithun Inc., EPS could immediately begin the design/build process for the specialized audio/video lighting, pump and filtration systems, and exhibits.

“The exhibit drawings were conceptual, and it was left to field interpretation in coordination with the owner and architects to create the final design and drawings,” said Justin Branson, EPS’ project manager.

In addition, EPS worked with the owner and the aquarium designer, BIOS LLC, to determine the lighting system layout that would create the optimal lighting scheme and final appearance for the new exhibits.

Building systems

EPS was responsible for the aquarium’s renovation and installation of the fire alarm and security system conduit as well as for the power and distribution, audio/video and lighting systems. Not less important for its simplicity, the building’s new life safety system required standard fire alarm cabling to be run for various horn strobes, smoke and duct detectors, and pull stations. The company also installed automatic door closers, an elevator access control system, and 10 annunciators for firefighter use.

“The new components are interfaced with the existing system through the main fire control panel in the electrical room and is integrated with the city emergency service system,” Branson said.

EPS would have been happy to install the entire security system. But the aquarium has had its own specialty security company for a number of years, and EPS installed the actual devices. However, EPS was responsible for running the conduit for the designated card access devices and surveillance cameras at the entryways.

Aquarium power was revamped and required EPS to install new 600A and 225A services and tie them into the existing 1,600-amp system.

“From the 400-amp, 480-volt panels, electrical service is fed through three 75-kW transformers, which then [stepped] power down to eight 208/120 volt panels for use in equipment, lighting, exhibit tank pumps, devices and so on,” said Ryan Pernela, foreman.

The aquarium’s lighting renovation was divided into several sections: general lighting, consisting of a combination of spotlights, track lighting, fluorescent can, and custom pendant fixtures controlled by two Lutron lighting control panels; in-tank lighting, consisting of 20 50-watt white LED floodlights or spotlights that are randomly aimed at different kinds of aquatic life on display and integrated into the theatrical lighting control system; and the above-tank theatrical lighting.

“The above-tank event and stage lighting was provided by Payne Sparkman and designed to provide theatrical scene control,” Branson said.

Each light is individually controlled through the deployment of a Kevlar shade. The proprietary program controls the shades during the demonstrations staged by divers in the Windows on Washington tank.

“Kevlar shades were chosen for the application because lights designed for underwater use, such as an aquarium exhibit, have a 15-minute restrike,” Pernela said.

In addition, EPS installed the underwater intercom system that the divers use to talk to the audience while they are in the tank, the plunger that is used to simulate wave action in the wave tank, and the 100-horsepower seawater pump, and the 20 automated valves that operate the seawater system that provides the constant water filtration and replenishment for the exhibit tanks.

“Evergreen lived up to every expectation that we had,” said Robert Anderson, the aquarium’s facilities operations manager. “The company did not hesitate to solve problems and they effectively communicated and interacted with the entire crew to ensure a safe and efficient installation.”

Challenging history

As with so many projects, meeting the construction schedule and its constant changes was a major challenge for the team.

“It took a great deal of coordination and delicate trade stacking to ensure workflow,” Branson said.

However, open communication during frequent meetings and the desire by all parties to transform the aquarium into a flagship attraction for the city ensured that a high level of enthusiasm and attention to detail were maintained throughout the entire process.

From the viewpoint of actual construction, there were more than enough challenges to go around. The building is 100 years old, and much of the renovation work under the pier was completed at the whim of the local tides and weather. Also, the aquarium was open during the entire construction period, and space was limited in terms of access, parking and materials staging.

“Extensive concrete work was being performed inside the building on a parallel path with our electrical installation, adding another layer for the need for close coordination with the other trades,” Pernela said.

The biggest challenge though, according to Branson, was the Window on Washington Waters exhibit. The large scale of the 120,000-gallon, two-story tank made the project similar to constructing a building inside a building. Plus, most of the other tenant improvements and exhibit projects could not be started until the Window exhibit was near completion.

“There simply was not enough room to stage multiple projects,” Branson said.

By the time work could start on the non-Windows exhibit improvements, the timeline was so constricted that all the trades had to agree to approve overtime to ensure construction would be completed by the grand opening.

In addition, the Window exhibit used a prototype underwater light, creating challenges for EPS in specifying proper power supplies.

“The original fixtures were designed for installation on deep sea submersible vehicles, not an aquarium exhibit,” Branson said.

Heat buildup, restricted working space, and the safety of divers working in close proximity to transformers and controls had to be dealt with. EPS addressed the issues through system design and close coordination with representatives from both the deep-sea lighting manufacturer and the aquarium.

Regardless of the challenges encountered, EPS’ average of eight to 10 field electricians, and its peak of 20, along with the rest of the construction team, met the grand opening deadline of June 22, 2007. Since the project’s completion, EPS has maintained a close relationship with the aquarium and continues to perform extensive ongoing service and renovation project work in the space.

“We have kept EPS as our contractor of choice because we can rely on them to perform the work safely and cost-effectively,” Anderson said.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.

About the Author

Darlene Bremer

Freelance Writer
Darlene Bremer, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributed frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR until the end of 2015.

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