Hunt-Zachry JV Uses Design-Build to Construct the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center
The $325 million transformation of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center into one of the nation's premiere event venues - boasting prime, contiguous exhibit space of more than half a million square feet - is the largest single project ever tackled by the City of San Antonio, and it is being completed ahead of schedule and on budget.
"The project is coming along famously, just beautiful," said Michael Sawaya, Executive Director of Convention and Sports Facilities for the City of San Antonio.
When asked by the construction contractor what he would improve about the project if he were to do it all again, Sawaya's response was, "Nothing."
The contractual completion date for new construction is April 30, 2016, but the design-build contractor, a joint venture of Hunt Construction Group, an AECOM Company, and Texas-based Zachry Construction Corporation, is on track to begin turning over the expansion by December 1, 2015, and to have interior renovations/modernizations convention-ready by February 14, 2016. The second phase of the project will continue through 2016.
The convention center project is part of a "re-visioning" of the downtown area that also includes developments in the adjacent Hemisfair Park, the creation of a new civic park, and improved connectivity with the nearby Alamodome and transit systems, Sawaya explained.
The expansion and improvements to the convention center will elevate it to the highest tier of facilities recognized by the convention industry and ensure San Antonio's ability to compete on a world-class level and attract business for decades to come.
"The project will satisfy the evolving convention industry with innovative design, flexible space, and advanced technology," Sawaya said. "The transformed facility offers contiguous exhibit halls (522,000 square feet), 70 optimally-distributed meeting spaces, 87,000 square feet of column-free multi-purpose space, the largest ballroom in Texas (54,000 square feet), and a modernized design that will meet the national convention market's future needs."
Additionally, downtown hotels, shops and restaurants stand to benefit from the increased convention business.
In August 2014, Austin-based Capital Excavation completed a $37.3 million contract to re-align Market Street parallel to Commerce Street on the convention center's north side, creating better connection to the east side of San Antonio and direct downtown access to Interstate 37. That project also included construction of a pedestrian/bike path on Commerce Street that runs under I-37.
Hunt-Zachry's $304.8 million contract includes 847,969 square feet of new construction, renovation of 73,800 square feet of existing space, and 398,932 square feet of demolition.
The city decided to award the project as design-build in an effort to complete the project on an accelerated time line, Sawaya said. "We also believed it would provide a better end result and afford us more controls."
Although the city hadn't used design-build too many times in the past, City Manager Sheryl Sculley is a huge proponent of the project delivery method, Sawaya said.
"She had used design-build when she worked on convention center construction projects in Phoenix, and she felt this project was prime for it," he added. "What can you say? She was right. It's ahead of schedule and under budget."
Using the design-build process allowed the Hunt-Zachry joint venture contractor to "design the most efficient space within the budget," said Mike Shelstad, Project Director. "That was the beauty with having us involved early. We have a long history with Populous (architect of record), and we worked together to create a better value for the client."
Populous, a Kansas City, Missouri-based global architectural firm that specializes in the design of sports facilities and convention centers, developed the design with San Antonio-based Marmon Mok Architecture, focusing on flexibility, connectivity and sustainability. The expansion connects directly to the existing pre-function areas, establishing a circulation loop that conveniently links all exhibit halls, meeting rooms and ballrooms. In addition, interactive way-finding and digital signage allow meeting planners to better brand their events efficiently.
A cantilevered room suspended over Market Street and indoor courtyard space provide a blending of the indoors and outdoors, which is also carried out with the addition of balconies with sweeping views of San Antonio. To further convey San Antonio's rich culture, the city invested in public artwork to be displayed on the convention center's north entry, which is visible from I-37 and the River Walk.
The Populous/Marmon Mok design essentially moves the footprint of the convention center east, opening up the Hemisfair Park area and exposing the River Walk to convention attendees.
The facility was originally constructed in 1967 in preparation for the 1968 World's Fair, and three or four more additions and renovations were made over the years, said Jeff D. Knippel, Capital Programs Manager for the city's Transportation and Capital Improvements Department (TCI), which is managing the project.
"The whole premise of the project was to get rid of some of the earlier additions and make larger, more open spaces that are desirable for new conventions, as well as upgrade all of the hookups to IT and power that today's conventions demand," Knippel said.
For example, in the old, west side of the facility, columns were situated 60 feet apart. In the new space, columns will be 90 feet apart, and about 87,000 square feet will be completely column-free.
"The strategy is to get the east side built first, and Hunt-Zachry is delivering on that early, by December," Knippel said. "It will take about 30 days to get the administrative folks currently running the convention center moved into that east side, and then they will begin demolition of the west side in the March time frame."
Part of the demolished area on the west side will be made into a new entrance, but the majority of it will make way for the expansion of the existing Hemisfair Park and its development as a mixed-use area.
The biggest challenges on the project are related to the existing convention center's piecemeal construction over the years, Knippel said, namely, the unforeseen obstructions of huge chunks of concrete that weren't excavated when previous additions were made, and convoluted utility configurations.
"We had drawings, but they didn't necessarily accurately reflect some stuff that had been demolished and covered over," Knippel said.
Shelstad added that, when the hemisfair park structures were demolished, the work didn't include removal of any foundations or piping. "They just demolished what they needed. We had to make a 5 to 7-foot excavation to build the new foundation, and we came out with tons and tons of concrete and pipe."
Although the old structure was rather a hodgepodge of varying types of construction, the new expansion consists of "primarily steel with foundations on piers, curtain walls at the entrance, and EIFS, stone and metal panels on the faÃ§ade," Knippel said. "We did find some obstructions with the location of our piers when we first started putting steel down. Because it was a starting point for the entire steel structure, we had to completely reschedule the whole sequencing of that steel structure and move crews to a different location while we tried to locate piers in the original spot. Hunt-Zachry's ability to overcome that challenge helped to maintain the schedule."
A significant amount of technological enhancements had to be incorporated in the renovated areas, including: USB power outlets in public areas; graphic interface for the building management controls; wider use of electronic access controls on doors; larger programmable electronic displays for signage; DMX lighting controls for more programmability at the ballroom and pre-function areas, including lighting color changes for the spaces; and exterior DMX lighting controls for branding the exterior color of the building upper soffit area.
Additionally, Hunt-Zachry utilized an electronic plan room to more efficiently coordinate and manage all of the changes and revisions flying back and forth between all parties in the project delivery team.
"We have 75 contracts out there, sub-tiers under that, and about 650 workers, so we are running all aspects of the project now, " Shelstad said.
The electronic plan room is stored in the cloud and downloads to iPads in the field, making it easy to share the latest updates with the entire construction team.
"They all have a hard set of documents, but sometimes those don't make it out to the field," Shelstad explained. "Having the electronic plan room ensures everyone has access to the most current in the field, and it minimizes reworks."
For example, one of the contractors was beginning to frame out the cantilevered room as per the original docs, but when he checked his iPad, he realized a change had been made.
Careful Planning Averts Holy Mess
Another challenge was tying the entire width of the new addition into the 1999 expansion portion of the convention center, Shelstad said. "We had to take down the existing wall, put up temporary walls and continue construction without impacting existing conventions. We had to coordinate with their event schedule and work around it. It's one of the busiest convention centers, so that was really a challenge."
In early July, San Antonio hosted the largest convention in its history when 65,000 members of the Seventh Day Adventists Church convened at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for 10 days.
"We had to accelerate to put in a temporary path on the south side of the project, as well as work with City Traffic Control to allow the attendees to travel between the convention center and Alamodome," Shelstad said. "On Market Street, where we've taken over two lanes for construction of the cantilevered room, we had to minimize work at that location to give those two lanes back to help facilitate the conference."
Additionally, Hunt-Zachry had to halt or re-schedule noisy activities such as drilling for columns or operating jack hammers when meetings were held in adjacent rooms, Knippel said.
Hunt-Zachry managed to accommodate the convention "with no noise issues and no impediments," and still remain on track to finish ahead of schedule, Sawaya said. "I couldn't be more satisfied," he added. "They have kept this project moving along with zero customer issues and no interruption of business, so that's a major accomplishment."
The convention center is designed to meet or exceed LEED Silver sustainability standards, and the city will seek that designation once the project is complete in 2016.
The city embarked on environmentally friendly efforts before construction even began by rescuing and relocating trees from the path of the convention center expansion, at no cost to taxpayers, Knippel said. "As of May, a total of 122 trees have been saved. Some were relocated to various city parks and facilities, and others were sold by the tree contractor, which is how we got the work for "˜no cost.'"
Teamwork, Relationships Ensure Success
The Texas Music Educators Association will be the first organization to enjoy the expansion when it holds its annual conference February 15, 2016. Demolition of the west wing and completion of the west-facing entrance will begin in the spring. The final project completion date will be in the fall of 2016.
Hunt teamed with a well known local contractor to help facilitate the intricacies of working in a smaller market, Shelstad said. "Zachry brings a local presence, someone who is familiar with the subcontractor market and how the city works for permitting, small business requirements, their certification process, etc."
Additionally, the Hunt-Zachry partners worked well with each other, the owner, and the entire project delivery team.
"Because everyone trusts each other, it makes the project better than it could have been," Shelstad said. "We spend a lot of time and effort being open and clear on communication and showing all of our cards. We established an open environment in an effort to let the owner know we had their best interest in mind, and that has gone miles."