L.A.'s New Landmarks

Los Angeles has two new landmarks, dramatic additions to a town replete with drama. Both are designed by PritzkerPrize-winning architects: Walt Disney Concert Hall by Los Angeles-based Frank O. Gehry and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels by Spain’s Jose Rafael Moneo. The new structures flank the town’s cultural center, the Music Center, and both occupy full city blocks. Construction of both required exhaustive coordination, careful planning and creativity by California-based electrical contractors including SASCO, Dynalectric, Morrow-Meadows Corp., Sage Electric Co. and CSI Electric.

The 293,000-square-foot Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, has sweeping curves of stainless steel designed to look like a ship with its sail at full mast—not a description one usually associates with a building. Plans for the 2,273-seat concert hall were launched in 1987 when Lillian Disney donated $50 million as a tribute to her late husband, and the groundbreaking took place in 1992. Various delays and lack of funding prompted a five-year delay, but individuals and corporations stepped in so that the $274 million project resumed in 1999 and opened in October 2003. Besides the concert space, the hall includes: Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), a 266-seat multiuse venue and a 3,000-square-foot art gallery; administrative areas; backstage areas; lobbies, shops and galleries; restaurants and cafes; exterior gardens; a children’s amphitheater; and an urban park. It was a $10 million job for Los Angeles-based SASCO Electric.

“The greatest challenge was due to the architectural design,” said Gary Harper, then project manager for SASCO. “There was not one straight line in the building.”

Jimmie Roblero, SASCO group president, added: “It was a six-year job for us. We did the brain of the system, all the electricity going to all the devices, plugs, switches and controls. The dimensions of the exterior and interior and the layout is what was most out of the ordinary.

“We were able to do the job through coordination, coordination drawings, coordination overlays,” he added, “and multiple meetings with multiple subs regarding routing—sometimes several times a day, other times once a week.”

The most essential contribution to the project coordination was a unique computer-assisted drawing system used by Gehry, the general contractor and major subcontractors.

The most essential contribution to that project coordination was use of a unique computer assisted drawing system by Gehry's office and by the general contractor and major subcontractors. “We added a time dimension to the CATIA-based 3-D models to create a 4-D model, time being the fourth dimension,” said Derek Cunz, project manager, for the general contractor, Minneapolis-based M.A. Mortenson Co.

CATIA (Computer-graphic Aided Three-Dimensional Applied Application), originally developed for the aerospace and automotive industries by French software manufacturer Dassault Systems, was the foundation of the database, the contract document.

“Early in the project, we met with folks from Stanford’s Center for Integrated Facilities Engineering (CIFE),” said Cunz, “about tools they were working on. CIFE in collaboration with Walt Disney Imagineering developed the 4-D application. It had never existed before. We took the program to the next step by using it to construct a building.”

The program allowed Mortenson to tie CATIA to their schedule and communicate that to the entire construction team. The 4-D models were used to preview the scope of work for the upcoming 90 days once a month in a subcontractor meeting.

“The locations of all the items in the hall were defined by the 3-D computer database which defined the geometric controls of the project,” said Cunz. “We worked with subs using the 3-D technology so they could do their work.”

SASCO had to work with the 3-D models in order to plan and implement the project. “Everybody had to interface with the database,” said Cunz.

“So if they were putting in a light pole, they had to know where it was in the model,” he said, “because there weren’t any dimensions in the drawings that tell where to put it.”

Harper added: “The specialized program made it possible to come up with dimensions not noted on blueprints, so it was possible to do the layouts for lighting and wall locations.”

While SASCO was the prime electrical contractor, other electrical contractors also worked on aspects of the project. Morrow-Meadows’ task was REDCAT, a $2.4 million, 15-month theater construction for which they used a crew of 22. While a seven-level subterranean parking garage serving as the Concert Hall’s base was completed in March 1996, it was decided during the construction delay to construct REDCAT out of part of the space. Construction began in November 1999.

“We were limited to using the existing structure of beams,” said Travis Halstead, general foreman, Morrow-Meadows. “It was a challenge being that it was a post-tension parking structure and they had to cut out and protect all the cables. We were in coordination meetings with architect Frank O. Gehry and Frederick Russell Brown & Associates, electrical engineers, for three months before we stepped on site,” he said. “We had to redesign electrical at least 15 times, something I usually do perhaps three or four times.”

Sound isolation was their additional challenge, no easy task considering the constant flow of cars.

“With our normal system we use spring connectors like caddy clips. They vibrate and with high-pitched noises of the sound system, any kind of vibration can cause metal to vibrate. So our team thought of using expanding foam for sound isolation, interlocking everything. Anywhere metal crossed—whether it was conduit or studs, we used expanding foam to dampen any kind of vibration,” said Halstead. “We used three layers of drywall with dead space and some soundboard. Our conduits would adapt from EMT to flex back to EMT in order to deaden the sound because sound will travel through EMT like an intercom system. By going to flex it would dampen the noise.”

Sage Electric Co.’s contract is another example of the complexity, the required attention to detail and the need for creativity in the hall’s construction. Their task over a six-month period was the Patina Restaurant, a $700,000 project that included installation of cold-cathode lighting in the main dining room ceiling, a project spearheaded by one of Sage’s owners and general foreman, Mark Custodero. It also included the Founder’s Room, a, $250,000 project that involved installation of a one-of-a-kind chandelier in a 50-foot high ceiling, one with a skylight. The chandelier was made of hanging black cords with clear globes at the ends that extended to 15 feet. The globes were made of glass imported from Germany.

“Imagine you’re in a volcano and you’re inside looking out through the top,” said Art McHugh, Sage Electric Co. project manager. “Inside the opening was a frame and we had to install the chandelier from it. The globes were strung out at all different locations so at night it is like a constellation effect.”

CSI Electric, a subcontractor to Siemens Building Technology System, did the all-electronic, digitally controlled energy management and building automation management system, a $500,000 project. “It was a very complex structure. Layout and all the coordination efforts were difficult because of the architectural complexity of the building,” said Steve Watts, president, CSI Electric.

While the Walt Disney Concert Hall was still under construction, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, built of an architectural concrete in a color reminiscent of the adobe walls of California missions, opened in 2002. It is the first Roman Catholic Cathedral to be erected in the Western United States in 30 years, the centerpiece of a $160 million multi-religious conference center. There is a 20,000-square-foot plaza, a 300-foot nave within the cathedral that allows for seating of 1,900 people and 1,100 in moveable seating, multiple devotional chapels plus housing for Cardinal Roger Mahony, his assistants and his visitors. It was funded entirely through private donations.

The design by Spanish architect Moneo is so geometrically complex that none of the concrete forms could vary by more than one-sixteenth of an inch. For electrical contractor Dynalectric, it was an $11 million project. Construction by general contractor Morley Construction Co. began in May 1999. “The major challenge,” said Henry Turner, project manager, Dynaletric, “was that the feed to audio, HVAC and lighting had to occur within a structure that has significant architectural features such as 4-foot-thick concrete walls, ceiling heights in excess of 85 feet with no interior columns. It was a lot of planning on our part. One of the extreme challenges was to get things where they needed to go before the concrete was poured. We planned exactly how we were going to get our conduit feeds and wire inside walls and made sure as the building was constructed that we provided ourselves with a pathway into the ceiling area. Catwalks had to be constructed within the ceiling area to access the electrical lighting and junction boxes.” Those entering the cathedral today might peer up at the slatted wood ceiling, but everything in the attic space is painted black so the features disappear.

“Looking around the cathedral, you see no outcropping of speakers along the walls and this is a result of the speaker incorporation into the design of the bronze chandeliers that drop 80 feet from the wood ceiling above,” added Turner.

The scope of the project made every aspect of the work a challenge. Moneo’s design called for flooding the devotional chapels with natural light through slanted shafts and into the main area of the building by way of glass-sheltered, Spanish alabaster mosaics panels, the largest single use of alabaster windows in the world. The alabaster becomes opaque when it is exposed repeatedly to temperatures of 130 F or above, so glass covers the panels for protection from heat and ultraviolet rays. The slanted windows that form the exterior walls of the cathedral are backlit by dimmable fluorescent lighting, providing a radiant glow both inside and outside the building.

CSI Electric, again as a subcontractor to Siemens Building Technology System, performed the same type of task as they did at the Concert Hall, installation of a $300,000 energy management system. “We installed temperature and air flow sensors for the control of the A/C equipment,” said Watts, “and because the building construction type was poured-in-place concrete, location of sensors including thermostats at multiple glass areas required a tremendous amount of planning prior to conduit installation. The nature of this project left no room for mistakes. Once the concrete is poured you don’t get another chance.”

The height of the structure also posed challenges for Dynalectric. “All four of the elevators elevations in the cathedral have lighted glass windows that go up 85 to 90 feet,” said Turner. “During the process of construction, there weren’t floors to get you to those windows, so our installation had to take place inside the steel structure that holds the glass. There are 1,100 light fixtures that are in those glass windows, controlled by a Lutron dimming system.”

Then there was the campanile (Italian for “bell tower”), located in the northeast corner. In the Middle-Age tradition, the 156-foot tower is detached from the cathedral. It is topped by an all-glass, lighted 25-foot cross.

“We had to install the lights for the cross and make sure they were functional during the process of construction,” said Turner, “because we realized that once the construction scaffolding came down we had no future access to it without building more scaffolding. There is virtually no access to the cross from the outside. All those things had to be planned. Fortunately we managed to do the job in 40-hour weeks with very limited overtime.”

Dynalectric and CSI Electric both won awards of excellence from NECA. During construction of both landmarks, Angelenos and tourists alike often stopped to watch, taking snapshots and staring in awe—both at what they could see and at the sheer accomplishment. EC





CASEY, author of "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors" and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks.com.  

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks...

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