Varco/Mac Tunes Up the Kennedy Center

In 1971, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts became the new home of the National Symphony Orchestra. Standing impressively beside the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., this monument to the arts is currently undergoing a long-overdue and long-term renovation, which is estimated to cost $150 million upon completion. Overhauling the 25-year-old roof in 1996 was the first step in the renovation process. Phase II was the renovation of the Center’s main Concert Hall. Work began in February 1997 and was completed a mere seven months later. “The project had to be completed quickly so that work did not interfere with the scheduled grand reopening and the Orchestra’s performance schedule,” explained Sonia “Sunny” Vargas, president of VARCO/MAC Electrical Construction, Annapolis Junction, Md., which is a nearby suburb of Washington. The Eisenhower Hall, the Opera House, and the Grand Foyer are also in line for face-lifts and systems renovations. For VARCO/MAC, the project began in late 1996 when the general contractor, Clark Construction, Inc., Bethesda, Md., invited the company to competitively bid on the Concert Hall renovation. “We have worked for more than 10 years with Clark Construction on various projects and they typically invite about three or four electrical contractors to bid on a contract,” Vargas said. VARCO/MAC received the contract in January 1997 and began work almost immediately. “We believe that the long-term relationship we’ve developed with the general contractor and the performance record we have for successfully completing fast-track projects were direct factors in being awarded the job,” said Vargas. VARCO/MAC has performed work on more than a half a dozen major renovation projects in the area, including Children’s National Medical Center, and Suburban and Holy Cross hospitals. The first hurdle to clear was filling in the information missing from the new drawings for the Hall, which the Washington-based architect Quinn Evans, Inc., supplied. “The drawings showed what the end result was supposed to be, as determined by customer, but there were no details as to what we would find behind the walls when work began,” said Larry McDaniel, project manager. So although VARCO/MAC did not design the renovated electrical system, it had to perform extensive field engineering to determine the final placement of the new raceways and conduit. LiteMakers, Inc., Long Island City, N.Y., was chosen to be responsible for refurbishing the Concert Hall chandeliers. “The design of the 11 original fixtures was changed to create seven, larger fixtures, each of which having an increased number of tiers and lamps,” said McDaniel. The customer specified LiteMakers as one of four acceptable decorative lighting fixture manufacturers. The total contract value of Phase II of the Kennedy Center restoration was $16 million, with the electrical portion worth about $2.5 million. The renovation was completed on time for the inaugural celebration held in October 1997, which was attended by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mo.). An average of 25 electricians on two separate crews worked on the project, which peaked at about 35 electricians as the completion date neared. The first part of the renovation meant removing the 11 chandeliers from the 60-foot ceiling and packing them up for safe shipping to LiteMakers. These chandeliers had 8,976 crystal bells, which were a gift from Norway and considered a national treasure. “We also had to remove 45 suspended small fixtures, with a total of 1,935 crystal bells and 42 facia sconce fixtures with 1,512 crystal bells,” McDaniel said. After removing the light fixtures, the second step was to get behind the walls and above the ceiling, and salvage as much existing raceway and conduit as possible. “We removed all the old branch circuit wiring and feeders from the existing conduit and raceways and installed thousands of feet of new conduit to fulfill the new system requirements,” McDaniel said. Company electricians then installed all new branch circuit wiring and feeders to carry power to all the light fixtures that were being refurbished. About 420 circuits were installed for the lighting dimming board and up to 20 new power panels were installed to distribute the additional power being brought into the Concert Hall. “Power levels were being increased by about 25 percent for the extra circuits required to handle the additional loads for the new stage lighting and the more modern lighting systems being installed throughout the Concert Hall,” he added. In addition to rewiring the branch circuitry and new power panels, the company designed and installed “disguised” raceway around three balcony seating tiers, which was necessary to accommodate the wiring for both the new theatrical lighting and the control and data cables needed for the lighting’s computer system. “The theatrical lighting is now pre-programmable for an entire performance,” Vargas said. VARCO/MAC also brought in all the new power and lighting for the backstage area where performers practice, dress, and store their instruments and equipment. “The entire area was gutted and new wiring, branch circuitry, and lighting fixtures were installed,” McDaniel said. In addition, the company installed the stage’s new “acoustic cloud,” which is a multi-sectioned canopy with pieces that can be positioned individually, depending upon each performer’s acoustical needs. Winch motors that would raise and lower the new chandeliers, each weighing between 3,000 and 4,500 pounds, also needed new branch circuit feeders and control wiring installed for them. “The old chandeliers were never lowered, meaning lamps were changed or the fixtures cleaned by erecting scaffolding,” Vargas said. Each winch handles just one chandelier, is controlled by computer, and is mounted in attic space above the ceiling. The company was also responsible for installing all the wiring and panels for the Concert Hall’s new fire and security systems. “We used Ark Systems, Inc., based in Columbia, Md., to design a new fire alarm system that would integrate with the other existing systems throughout the Kennedy Center,” McDaniel said. VARCO/MAC also installed the Concert Hall’s new audio/visual and sound systems. Facing unique challenges “Logistics was an interesting challenge faced by our crew,” said McDaniel. VARCO/MAC electricians had to access existing conduit or install new conduit behind walls that were virtually intact. In addition, field personnel had to be very careful to maintain the integrity of the existing plastered ceiling, which is designed to accommodate acoustical needs. The construction team also had to bear in mind the Concert Hall’s unique acoustical considerations when installing new conduit. “Sound follows metal,” McDaniel explained, “so we had to create ways to ensure that no metal parts abutted each other throughout the raceway and conduit system, or echoes could be created that would destroy a performance.” Time constraints were another challenge. “The renovation took place in between major, scheduled, Concert Hall events,” McDaniel said. To meet deadlines, the company ran two shifts of eight hours each, five days a week. The on-site project management team also had to closely coordinate their activities with the other trades. “On-site job meetings were held weekly, and even daily as changing conditions demanded,” McDaniel said. Coordination issues included ensuring the delivery of the refurbished chandeliers and their reinstallation, the delivery and wiring of the acoustic cloud, and making the Hall available to the orchestra for rehearsals. The Kennedy Center remained open throughout the renovation, with other performances being held in other venues. “Public tours were still scheduled, and Center staff needed to be able to work with little or no disruption,” McDaniel said. VARCO/MAC scheduled as much of the noisiest work as possible for the night shift and held regular meetings with field personnel to reinforce the need to limit noise and to maintain a professional demeanor. “It was an exciting opportunity to work on one of our country’s foremost monuments,” Vargas said. “Millions of people visit the Kennedy Center each year and enjoy performances by our own renowned National Symphony [Orchestra], as well as by visiting orchestras from around the world.” The company has been invited to bid on the next phase of the total renovation, the timing of which is still undecided. A company grows Vargas purchased the company in 1991, eight years after it was originally founded. Since its inception, VARCO/MAC has grown from a small service-oriented company with sales of about $500,000 to a mid-sized firm with average sales of $20 million, 135 electricians in the field, and 15 office personnel who provide administrative, engineering, estimating, and project management support. VARCO/MAC is currently separated into two divisions: • The Construction Division provides traditional electrical construction services and low-voltage installations for new construction and renovation projects, data center installations, and fire alarm, nurse call, and telecommunication systems to the commercial and institutional markets. • The Service Division, formed in 1986, provides 24-hour emergency service, preventive maintenance, and small to mid-sized project installations. “We provide expert, professional electrical services and perform major contracts in all areas of new electrical construction, renovation work, design/build, and ongoing electrical maintenance service,” Vargas summarized. Vargas’ goal is to partner with customers and to develop long-term relationships with them to provide total solutions and systems. “Partnering is not a new concept, but we have found that a relationship based on mutual respect, trust, and cooperation is more successful and benefits everyone,” she said. Vargas takes the same approach with the company’s industry partners. “Through a relationship based on mutual trust, we partner with our vendors in preparing bids to provide our customers with the best and most cost-effective solutions,” she said. With company employees, Vargas tries to maintain a certain level of personal interaction and to provide an open, accessible working environment that encourages their input. “Employees that realize they are valued and are part of the decision-making process develop a vested interest in the success of the company,” she said. To help develop that feeling, VARCO/MAC has many continuing education opportunities. “Training leads to career enhancement, advancement, and satisfaction.” Plans for the future Vargas has always been open to trying new ways of improving company operations, and she is willing to take risks and use innovative methods. “We plan to constantly evaluate the changing marketplace and to target new, changing, or growing sectors accordingly,” she said. In particular, the company plans to continue to increase its share of the high-tech market segments, such as co-located data centers. “Each job that we take that involves new technologies helps the company to broaden its scope and enables it to grow.” Although the company has taken some larger-sized leaps of growth in past years, VARCO/MAC plans to maintain a target of small, controlled increments of growth in the long run, and to continue to gain the trust and respect of both customers and the marketplace. “In the past few years, we have been fortunate to have been awarded increasingly larger and more intricate contracts. The completion of these projects has given the company its reputation of being able to handle large-scale projects successfully,” Vargas 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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