Great Heights

Project managers at Baker Electric knew in 2001 that powering Des Moines’ new world-class sports and entertainment campus would be a major event. For starters, the property owner, Polk County’s Board of Supervisors, was under intense public scrutiny for developing the $217 million multipurpose Iowa Events Center. It would be the state’s most expensive public facility to date but would etch an impressive profile against the Des Moines skyline.

The Iowa Events Center would be the culmination of Polk County’s vision to fuse the city’s past with its future to form a sports and entertainment campus that would make Des Moines a high-profile host city for state, regional and national events.

“We’ve done several athletic facilities at local colleges and high-rise office buildings, but nothing to this magnitude. We knew we wanted this project. It was going to be a jewel in Des Moines,” said Don Stockton, vice president, Baker Electric.

Prior to submitting an estimate for electrical systems in 2002, the project was “pulled off the streets” to address design gaps. By the time the second round of bids in spring 2003, project managers Stockton and Ray Anderson had already identified many of the challenges facing the Iowa capital city’s multivenue center.

Most of the challenges stemmed from a plan that shoehorned Wells Fargo Arena, a 430,000-square-foot sports facility, and Hy-Vee Hall, a 250,000 square-foot exhibition building, around the existing Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium in a tight four-block plot near the Des Moines River.

The events center site was further complicated due to separation from a major feeder road adjacent to Interstate 235, currently undergoing a monumental 5-year, $430 million rebuilding project. Crews had precious few months before the southbound thoroughfare reopened to thousands of vehicles a day.

“There were critical milestones to meet, but we knew, as did the entire construction team, that there was no fudge factor on the road deadline. The Iowa Department of Transportation was dictating the date when that street would open and you had to meet it,” Stockton said.

Connecting history with the future

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Baker Electric has been a premiere electrical service provider in central Iowa with a portfolio featuring commercial, institutional and industrial work. Despite an emphasis on design-build projects, the $18 million electrical contract for the Iowa Events Center was the largest project to date for Baker Electric on a bid basis.

When construction commenced in 2003, Baker Electric, like all vendors on the project, was considered a prime contractor to the Board of Supervisors, a working structure framed in a standard project-labor agreement. In lieu of a general contractor, the partnership of two firms, The Weitz Co. and Turner Construction Co., functioned as a construction management team.

The three-pronged project started with a $5 million remodel of Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. One of the largest arenas and exhibit halls in the country when it opened, Vets has served as the city’s sports and entertainment hub since it opened in 1955. For the remodel, Baker Electric performed a high-voltage and distribution upgrade as well as wiring and lighting for a new kitchen addition.

Vets Auditorium is connected by skywalk to Hy-Vee Hall, a two-story venue for tradeshows and conferences that also features the Iowa Hall of Pride, a state-of-the-art interactive center celebrating the achievements of the Iowa High School Athletic Union.

Making up the rest of the massive brick and stainless-steel triumvirate is the 17,000-seat Wells Fargo Arena that anchors the east side of the events center campus and adjoins Hy-Vee Hall and Vets by a skywalk and service tunnel that spans Third Street.

The award-winning design of the Wells Fargo Arena contains general fan seating as well as 36 luxury corporate suites, 20 lounge boxes, 600 club seats and a full-service restaurant. Wells Fargo Arena also is the permanent home of the Iowa Stars hockey organization, the top-level affiliate of the NHL’s Dallas Stars, and will host the annual state wrestling and state high school basketball tournaments each spring.

Since its completion, the arena has hosted several major music concerts including Paul McCartney and Bon Jovi, as well as performances by motorcycle stunt teams and skateboarding expert Tony Hawk.

Powerful triple play

With so many amenities under one roof, the Iowa Events Center required a massive number of electricians and amount of equipment. At its peak, there were 100 Baker Electric electricians on-site along with two supervisors, one assigned to the exhibition hall and the other to the arena. They installed more than 210 miles of conduit ranging from .5 to 5 inches. The combined electrical wiring for the three facilities would stretch from Des Moines to Austin, Texas, for a total of 895 miles (or 4.47 million feet of wire in all sizes from No. 12 to 600 MCM).

Six high-voltage Cummins-Onan switchboards distribute power to the Iowa Events Center facilities delivered from three utility feeders rated at 13.2V. The switchboards and a power monitoring and control system are housed with the entire mechanical heating and cooling system in the “central plant” located in Hy-Vee Hall. All high-voltage power for the arena is then transported over lines traveling along a 200-foot-long service tunnel connecting Hy-Vee Hall to the arena.

There are seven dry-type unit substations (four in Hy-Vee Hall and three in the arena) equipped with power monitoring and electronic circuit breakers with Ethernet-connected trip units and meters. Each of the substations has a 4,000-amp output. These substation transformers step the power down to 480 volts for the arena’s ice-making equipment and lighting. It is then transferred to 200 standard panelboards and stepped down further to the 120-volt circuits that power hundreds of receptacles.

The switchgear distribution, fire alarm and security system, and lighting controls were integrated into a PC-based Johnson Controls building automation program. Through a series of 100 Square D PowerLink lighting control systems installed by Baker Electric, events center staff members were provided fingertip control and preprogramming capabilities for illuminating for everything from meeting rooms to corporate suites to the arena’s floor.

With the goal of meeting TV lighting standards for high school, collegiate and pro sports and providing a high-end theatrical experience, Baker Electric selected the internationally recognized Iowa-based Musco Sports Lighting Co.’s ShowLight system for the arena. This system also delivers “blackout mode” to enhance dramatic team introductions.

“Providing total blackout is imperative in sports today. We can take the arena lights and all surrounding ambient lighting from total dark to total bright in two seconds,” Anderson said.

Baker Electric also installed a Square D power monitoring and control system.

“This system provides the ability to analyze power consumption, which gives them a baseline to set event rates,” Anderson said. “Plus, if they’re overloading in any given area that would affect the entire campus, they can access the PowerLink system and shut down power by priority.”

A 1,500 KW Cummins-Onan generator was installed to provide temporary power for life-safety systems only. According to Stockton and Anderson, the county declined a second generator in the bid process due to budget constraints.

On target despite challenges

Baker Electric anticipated many of the project’s challenges, but there were some interesting twists and turns. The initial construction phase was made more complex with a sizable change order to relocate corporate neighbor, Allied Insurance’s, high-voltage transformer and secondary distribution.

The move allowed for more setback of a retaining wall dividing the company’s property from future truck traffic to the county’s adjacent loading docks.

Monetarily, lighting wasn’t the largest part of the electrical budget, but it became the greatest source of heartburn.

“The lighting was a major job. It was difficult only because there were so many types of fixtures, and we had so many designers and vendors to collaborate with,” Anderson said. “It took me nearly nine months just to get my submittals all approved for the light fixtures.”

Some of the primary lighting designers and architects included Flack + Kurtz, New York, HOK Sport in Kansas City, Mo., and local Brooks Borg Skiles. As a primary contractor, Baker Electric invested more resources than normal coordinating those and many other lighting entities, but it paid dividends, resulting in a seamless integration of systems and off-site storage for approximately 177 different types of fixtures.

In addition to the large volume of fixtures, there was the matter of working within the arena’s five-level architecture. The distance from the floor to the roof deck is about 140 feet in the air. It was Baker Electric’s responsibility to distribute high voltage to four mechanical rooms located between the catwalks and the roof.

“Crews had to do all that work on catwalks and lifts stationed on the floor. It was a phenomenal challenge for every contractor,” Stockton said.

The challenges also went underground with the installation of 100 community utility boxes (CUBs) in the floor of Hy-Vee Hall. The 3-by-4-inch steel boxes containing power, water, voice and data were an amenity that would eliminate the need for drop cords. Crews were tasked with excavating areas to accommodate the 36-inch-deep boxes and trenching in the connecting lines.

“When we backfilled, we couldn’t just dump our spoils. It had to be trucked away and refilled with a dirt/asphalt mix compacted in layers and the CUBs had to sit flush with the concrete coming in,” Anderson said.

Despite all the logistical challenges, Baker Electric actually stayed ahead of its construction schedule. Hy-Vee Hall opened its doors in fall 2004 and the arena held its first event in July 2005.

With Baker Electric’s work complete, Global Spectrum Management and Polk County have assumed maintenance responsibilities for the campus. While still not known exactly how many employees will be assigned to change the more than 20,000 light bulbs in the arena, one thing is certain. It is sure to be an event. EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at




About the Author

Debbie McClung

Freelance Writer
Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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