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Towers Rising
What’s it like to oversee one of the largest hospital construction projects in the country?


Hopkins' WIPES campaign

Sally MacConnell and Mike Iati are orchestrating every aspect of the dual-tower megastructure that will transform the East Baltimore landscape. Every beam, bolt, window and pipe—among other things—on the five-acre plot at Orleans and Wolfe streets must be accounted for. Then there's the human factor—workers on the site will eventually number about 1,000. "Construction technology has changed," observes Iati, "but out there in the field it's still men with sticks and rocks."

Planners began contemplating what to do about the aging campus of The Johns Hopkins Hospital more than 15 years ago. The schematic looked different then. A future cancer center was planned for the Phipps Building’s location, a children’s hospital would arise from what is now the Wilmer construction site and the buildings along Monument Street, dating from the 1920s and ‘30s and deemed too expensive to bring up to code, would be replaced by freestanding centers of excellence.

By the time the Weinberg Building opened, however, in September 2000, the vision had changed dramatically. The new plan brought the heart of the hospital—with a cardiovascular and critical care tower and a children’s tower—to a five-acre plot at Orleans and Wolfe streets. Now, with about one-third of the job complete, hundreds of tradespeople gather at the site every day. What’s it like to coordinate this $1 billion construction project? Dome asked Sally MacConnell, vice president of facilities, and Michael Iati, director of architecture.

Just how big is this building?
Iati: The scale of it is staggering. I drive in from the south of town every day and I can see it over the skyline now. The building is two 12-story towers and encompasses 1.6 million square feet. That’s four Weinbergs! You could fit the entire Billings Building in the front entry circle and it wouldn’t touch anything.

What’s it like being at the helm of this thing? I mean, people renovate kitchens and go crazy.
Iati: It’s like building a 60-million-ton watch. All these pieces have to fit together. Somebody is out there right now making sure that above the ceiling, ducts and pipes don’t collide and that there’s room for that electrical conduit to get between them. Between architects, engineers, contractors, the construction manager and the suppliers, all these things need to be coordinated. There are thousands of discussions that go on every day about how we actually put this thing together.

MacConnell: All my maintenance guys need to understand all of the things they’re going to need to do to maintain the building. Because on day one all of its systems—its HVAC systems, its plumbing systems, its medical gas systems—need to be installed properly and function as they were designed. That’s where it departs from being like your kitchen. Quite frankly, if the stove doesn’t work on day one, you call the guy back; whereas if the medical gas outlets don’t work, that’s a crisis.

How do you ensure that the building actually works as it should?
Iati: Any time you build a building like this, you buy a lot of standard products. But everything in many respects is custom. We built a life-sized portion of the building’s glass wall at a testing facility in Florida and subjected it to hurricane winds and earthquake forces to make it leak. Then we rebuild it, test it again, and when it’s weather-tight, then, OK, that’s what we’re building. There are also mock-ups on the construction site of critical areas of the building. Then there are the small details, like how do you clean the windows? We have to make sure that the guy who needs to dangle over the side of the building has everything he needs to safely attach to the building.

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When will you reach the peak of the project?
MacConnell: We expect the height of construction to be in late 2009. We’ll have close to 1,000 workers on the job site by that time. There are 10,000-some odd drawings for the building. It takes an army.

Iati: There are about 40 architects from Perkins + Will’s offices across the country working on the project. Then there are the engineers—structural engineers, plumbing and mechanical engineers, civil engineers, inspecting engineers. There are scores of people in a factory in Owatonna, Minnesota, who are making the glass. Metal pieces to support the glass are coming from a sub-contractor in Georgia. Then there’s a troupe in Canada making the pre-cast concrete panels faced with brick that are the exterior brick skin of the building. Our elevator equipment is coming from Germany. Some of our steel came from Belgium.

What’s your worst nightmare?
MacConnell: That we won’t be able to get sufficient HVAC and plumbing craftsmen to meet the schedule [of completing construction by 2011]. Because Baltimore-Washington is busier than it’s ever been [with a housing crunch brought about by the national military base reshuffling], there’s a limited labor pool. That’s the biggest thing by far. We’ll need to start seeing a lot more of these people by this fall, and we’ll know if we have a problem by spring 2009.

What are you proudest of?
Iati: For the first time, it will feel like we have a fitting entrance for the Hopkins Hospital. There are four entrances under the canopy—the critical care tower, the adult emergency department, the children’s ED and the children’s hospital. You know that a great deal of the community uses our ED as their urgent care center. So they don’t go to the back door. Everybody comes to the front door. This was a decision that went all the way to the trustee level and, in my opinion, is the right statement for Hopkins—given our mission, given our values. This is the front door. That’s really a cool thing.

MacConnell: This is an enormously important building. It’s the entry to Johns Hopkins Hospital for the next 100 years. If you hadn’t gone through our journey, it’s hard to appreciate what the environment will be like, but it will change the face of the hospital. It will be a much more humanizing place for the patients and staff. It’s very rewarding to feel like you’ve done everything you could to deliver the best project for Hopkins, its extraordinary clinical staff and for its patients.

— Mary Ellen Miller



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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