Chicago-area Company Uses Size and Speed to Win BigDesign/Build Projects

A combination of size and speed are foundations for great professional athletes. The same physical attributes help propel electrical contractors into the upper echelons of their profession. Continental Electrical Construction Company of Skokie, Ill., a subsidiary of Encompass Corp., Houston, Texas, uses its size and speed to win and execute large commercial, industrial, health care, residential, and institutional projects in and around Chicago. Encompass Services Corp. is the largest facilities services provider in the country with annual revenues approaching $4 billion. On a local level, Continental’s size is represented by the more than 550 electricians it employs in its voice and data, security, environmental controls, and light and power divisions. Each of the company’s divisions also exists as an engineering and design entity. The company’s speed is centered in its design/build capability. Many of Continental’s project managers on the electrical side are electrical engineers. The voice and data division’s project managers are registered designers. “Today we are on a faster track than ever before. More and more, we have customers who want an electrical contractor who possesses a full suite of services and design ability in each discipline,” said Bruce Harris, director of Continental Electric’s Telecommunications Division. “They turn to a design/build contractor to expedite the process.” Walsh Construction Company of Chicago enlisted Continental Electric when it needed an electrical contractor for the expansion of one of the largest convention centers in the world: the McCormick Place Exposition Center in downtown Chicago. This project covers over 1 million square feet of new construction involving three buildings: a five story, 63,000-square-foot building; a six-story, 1 million-square-foot parking garage capable of handling 3,000 cars; and a four-story, 100,000-square-foot conference and meeting facility. While Continental had a preexisting relationship with the general contractor, it still had to compete with other electrical contractors in the bidding of the project. The City of Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority owns this municipal facility, so price was an important consideration in awarding the project, as well. “Competency and a thorough understanding of the project were the main considerations in our winning the bid,” said Steven Witz, vice president of sales and marketing for Continental Electric. “We have the horses to do the job. The scope of the work was telecommunications intensive, which gave us a little bit of an edge over the competition. “Also, the general contractor recognized us as a design and build contractor, which is a significant aspect toward the project.” While the bid selection process began in 1998, it was a full year before Continental landed the contract. “It was our job to find the place where the functionality of the consulting engineer’s blue sky package and the bottom-line figures converged,” said Continental Electric’s designer/project manager Brian Haug. “We furthered the design of the project, trying to cut costs. We spent a lot of time coordinating with the other building trades on this. “We worked extensively with the mechanical contractor to redesign the mechanical system and make it more cost effective for us and them.” Haug draws a distinction between the terms “value engineering” and cost cutting. “The two terms are not necessarily synonymous,” he said. “Value engineering means working with the other trades to find a more cost-effective solution to the mechanical, electrical, fire alarm, and other systems, while cost cutting often just eliminates options.” With Continental Electric’s design assistance, the mechanical contractor found ways to strategically locate the rooftop heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system to reduce electrical costs. The company also combined two units into one to save on labor and materials. The electrical contractor used its design expertise to engineer savings into the facility’s switchgear package. Continental redesigned the electrical distribution system and reduced the number of panels the consulting engineer specified in the drawings. “A lot of times you can refine the original conceptual design as you narrow in on what your loads are and how the distribution is going to go throughout the building installation,” Haug said. One of the main design and build aspects of the project was in the lighting package. The owner hired an engineer to interpret the design criteria. Continental’s challenge was to develop the layout and lighting fixture package to satisfy both the original requirements and the engineer’s interpretation. The McCormick Place expansion project is telecommunications intensive. Approximately 10 percent of the $6 million electrical package is devoted to voice/data. Continental’s design on the data side began as a two-page written narrative from the owner. Continental had to turn the concept into drawings. The No. 1 design criteria on the telecommunications side was to overcome the challenges the length of the building presented. The 750-foot-long building necessitates the installation of multiple telephone hubs, to avoid exceeding the restrictions of maximum footage for telecommunications cabling. The design calls for fiber to run between the telecommunications closets, and copper to be distributed out from there. Since this project is an addition to the existing McCormick Place, Continental’s designers were able to use the existing facility as a guide. They also had to tie the new facility’s voice/data system into the adjacent Hyatt Hotel and the exposition hall across the street. “This is not like a regular office building installation,” Bruce Harris said. “We had to make sure the data communications closets were positioned so that we did not exceed the maximum footage provided by the standard. All of the conference rooms have an inordinate amount of data ports—one every 300 square feet.” Continental also assisted in designing the security package for the McCormick Place expansion, and will install it during the later phases of construction. The security package has fluctuated in scope and scale from extensive to bare bones. Currently the security package calls for pan-tilt security cameras throughout the 1 million-square-foot garage, key card access on the doors, and emergency call stations. Plans call for everything to tie into one of the existing control facilities. The electrical contractor’s customers appreciate the design/build capability the company brings to this project. “Continental Electric’s expertise helps us to avoid cost overruns,” said Pat Donley, vice president for Walsh Construction. “They consistently secure the most economical approach and are current with the latest technological solutions in electrical and telecommunications systems.” Ground breaking on this project started in late 1999. A mild winter kept construction moving on schedule. Continental Electric expects the project to take them well into 2001, but it is also part of a master plan for downtown Chicago, which could open more doors for the company. In the suburbs Continental is a full year into construction on the Renaissance Place project for the Davis Street Land Company and its general contractor, Tarlton Corporation of St. Louis, Mo. The Renaissance Place project covers an entire city block in downtown Highland Park, Ill. Continental designed this project from scratch, without conceptual drawings. “We did a lot of budgeting and preliminary design work. We try to help the owner and bring all the players together to provide value,” said Witz. This multi-use facility incorporates leased office space, retail, and residential apartments. One of the main concerns of the village of Highland Park was the resolution of parking issues before the project moved forward. Construction could not begin on the four new buildings until the existing block was cleared and a 175,000-square-foot parking garage was built underground. All supporting utilities had to be engineered and coordinated through the parking garage, which serves as the main wire chase for both telecommunications and power for the buildings above. The main electrical utilities feeding into the building had to be concrete encased. “Trying to concrete encase conduit in the overhead is more difficult than direct burial in the ground,” said Haug, who also served as designer and project manager. Continental designed the power, emergency power generation, electrical power distribution, telecommunications, and security systems. “A mixed-use project in the suburbs differs from a mixed use project in the city,” said Harris. “In the city you build vertically, while in the suburbs many times you build horizontally.” Continental recently completed a design/build on the electrical and telecommunication systems for Northwest Point, a mid-rise commercial tower and parking garage in suburban Elk Grove Village, Ill. The company did the preliminary design work and the construction of the core and shell for this office building. The building’s owner wanted the electrical system to have a general application design that would allow easy adaptation for its tenants. Instead of having conduit and wire rising through the building, Continental designed the building’s electrical system around two bus way risers. These encapsulated copper plates allow them to plug in disconnect switches for the tenants, which allows for more flexibility. “If you can rise straight through the building without having to do a lot of turns, the bus way risers are more cost effective than a conduit system, and it is certainly more flexible for future use,” said designer Haug. Continental Electric’s customers appreciate the value-added benefit of the company’s design capability. “Continental Electric has assisted with the design, budgeting, and value engineering for projects such as Virgin Records and Participate Dot Com and other projects for Clune Construction,” said Bill Abromitis, vice president for Clune Construction Ltd. “They provided the best service and helped our company over a longstanding relationship.” While the value of an electrical contractor with design/build capability is immeasurable, the cost is measurable. It costs Continental’s customers nothing. “We do not charge for design,” said Continental’s Witz. “It is a terrific deal for the end-user. They reduce fees from consulting engineers by doing it this way, quality control is tight, and we are working in a format which allows us to implement changes quickly. The faster the owner gets a building completed, the faster they can start earning their money back.” Continental Electric has another division which does not play a role in the design/build process, but often benefits from it. That is the company’s service division. Service work on a building often flows to the contractor that constructed it. “Generally, we do the maintenance work after the contracts are complete. There are plenty of buildings in downtown Chicago where we have five to 10 electricians inside the building 365 days per year,” Witz said. He concedes that service contracts do not automatically follow the company’s design/build work. In the case of the McCormick Place expansion, Witz expects the municipal facility to be maintained by city-employed electricians. But in many cases, the owner realizes tenant build outs and ongoing building maintenance follow the design/build contractor. After all, who is better qualified to maintain the building’s electrical system than the contractor who designed and built it? DeFillippo is a freelance photojournalist based in St. Louis. He can be reached by phone at (314) 421-5817, by e-mail at, or at his Web site,

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