Sept. 1, 2003
New York City's Rose Earth and Space Center challenged electrical contractor E-J Electric and specialty lighting distributor Barbizon Lighting with a

New York City's Rose Earth and Space Center challenged electrical contractor E-J Electric and specialty lighting distributor Barbizon Lighting with a tight deadline.

What began as a simple renovation for a New York City electrical contractor blossomed into a $210-million, fast-track design-build project. The electrical portion alone jumped to $21 million by the end of the job, says Tony Mann, president of E-J Electric Installation Co. The Long Island City, N.Y.-based electrical contractor performed all the lighting, power and communications work for the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a state-of-the-art museum built on the site of the world-famous Hayden Planetarium. Built in 1935, the Hayden started to show a few sags and wrinkles after years of heavy tourist traffic. Rather than making surface improvements, Ellen Futter, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, decided to have it torn down and rebuilt.

"When they were undertaking this project, the original thinking was to bring in the new technology and equipment to give it a completely new face lift," says Mitch Olshewitz, E-J Electric's senior project manager. "When the president of the museum was discussing this with the architect, she asked him, `What could you give me if money wasn't a problem?' Then they came up with this new design that she thought was stupendous."

The $210-million facility at New York City's American Museum of Natural History opens the eyes of visitors to the vastness and wonder of the universe using spectacular theater shows and interactive displays. With few artifacts to show, the planetarium's exhibits rely on pushing technology to the limit. Video walls, 3-D computer modeling, and sound loops are used to reach audiences that range widely in age, interest and education.

Replacing the Hayden Plan-etarium's original 1930s Art Deco structure, the Rose Center includes the Cullman Hall of the Universe, the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth, and the centerpiece of the 333,500-sq-ft seven-floor facility: an 87-ft sphere that houses the new Hayden Planetarium. The white, aluminum-clad sphere appears to float in a 95-ft-high glass cube. Located directly beneath the sphere, the Hall of the Universe houses interactive educational displays.

More than 1.2-million ft of electrical power and low-voltage control wiring, operating a wide array of lighting equipment, provide the visual and aural stimulation behind these educational efforts.

Phase 1 of the project began December 1996 with the demolition and installation of service for the north side of the museum. John Ranagan, general foreman, says he was on site for the demolition. "The old museum was demolished and taken away and then they started digging and excavating for the foundation," Ranagan says. "I stayed from that point to the completion in February of 2000."

The team began Phase 2 in November 1998. Because the museum was built on a design-build basis, the electrical team had to be flexible with the ordering and installation of materials.

"It was hectic and hard to plan ahead because we didn't have drawings in advance," Ranagan says. "You were doing the installation at the same time as they were thinking of what they were putting in."

In April 1999, the need for materials and manpower escalated with the additional work.

"When we were at our peak, we had about 110 electricians and a management staff of about seven people," says Olshewitz, who has been on the planetarium project since October 1997. "They were all part of the team. Without a team effort, you can never achieve this."

A giant solar system, complete with the 87-ft Hayden Sphere and colorful hanging planets sized to scale, now serves as the focal point of the building. The Rose Center for Earth and Space is housed in a glass cube behind the American Museum of Natural History.

"In order to expand it, they had the idea with this whole concept of a solar system," Olshewitz says. "From an architectural standpoint, it's unparalleled. It's been referred to as a `Cosmic Cathedral.'"

The 460-ft Cosmic Pathway winds 1 1/2 times around the Hayden Sphere. The walkway leads into the Big Bang Theater, which presents a short segment narrated by Jodi Foster. E-J wired the exhibits and installed the neon lighting on the cosmic walkway, Olshewitz says.

"If you open up these panels, you will see a series of wire, conduit and MC cable that the general public has no idea that you support," Olshewitz says. "It takes a lot of intense coordination because even for the neon lighting, you have ballasts that have to be housed a certain way and space requirements."

The customized lighting system for the museum and Space Theater offered some of the biggest challenges. Barbizon Lighting, a specialty electrical distributor in New York City, provided system integration, lighting equipment, project management and technical recommendations on four different lighting systems.

The Space Theater, the Space Theater's Pre-Show area and the Hall of the Universe hold three of these systems. The fourth, called the Events Lighting system, provides control and power distribution for portable lighting equipment used on a temporary basis. In addition, Barbizon provided complete installation documentation, technical recommendations for installing the equipment and system programming for the four systems.

Under the direction of project manager John Gebbie, Barbizon also worked in conjunction with a number of consultants; the construction manager, Morse-Diesel International; and museum personnel to provide value engineering on certain aspects of the project.

"Many electrical contractors are unfamiliar with the specification and maintenance of theatrical equipment, or how to wire these instruments on a truss, so this is where we provide valuable help," says Jeffrey Siegal, systems integrator at Barbizon. "We deal with factors such as proper mounting, access for maintenance and emergency lighting codes."

Specialty and theatrical lighting fixtures are available with a wide range of lamps, color, focus, control and accessory options, and are now installed as permanent architectural accent lighting or "architainment lighting."

"We see a great deal more dimming being done in architectural spaces today and a greater use of permanently installed theatrical or special effects lighting to add visual impact to these spaces," Siegal says. "We see that today's architects are more open to use a building for both color and texture."

The museum called on Barbizon to do construction administration, review contractor submittals and answer all types of installation questions, which happened often on this project.

"There was tremendous amount of coordination between all the trades and the design teams for this project," says Jonathan Rensick, president of Barbizon. "It was up to us to interface so there would be a smooth construction process as far as the lighting systems were concerned."

The Space Theater The Space Theater, nestled inside the Hayden Sphere, is the real draw to the planetarium, Olshewitz says. Its state-of-the-art video and sound system comprised a significant part of the job for E-J and other subcontractors. Workers installed speakers at various levels around the theater as well as on the underside of each of the 425 seats; 75 base floor speakers were also mounted to the floor.

"It's supposed to give you the sensation of vibration when a space flight is actually leaving," Olshewitz says.

The owners originally envisioned fog drifting through the theater to help set the scene of outer space, but this idea was later scratched because the fog outlets were too close to the seats, he says. They did, however, add a Pre-Show area, where visitors can watch a video on outer space on flat-screen monitors before heading into the Space Theater. When the audience files into the Space Theater and takes their seats, the lights dim and Tom Hanks' voice resounds through the speakers. Onscreen stars twinkle and the audience visually experiences a black hole and explores the galaxy. After the audience's quest, lights come up and the catwalks around the theater become faintly visible through the domed screen.

"A lot of the lighting is hidden for obvious reasons," Olshewitz says. "At about the halfway level of the sphere, there is this shelf that goes around and catwalks that provide access to the lighting and the sound speakers."

Rolling with the changes The 101-year-old E-J Electric performed the bulk of the electrical work on the Space Theater between March 1999 and September 2000. Olshewitz says when E-J Electric started on the job it was on fast track because of delays. "We actually started here in March and started testing in the beginning of September."

Changes upon changes rippled down to the electrical team, causing them to work under an intense, fast-track schedule, says Tom Scarola, mechanical, electrical and plumbing project manager for New York City-based Morse Diesel International, the construction manager on the project.

"As the project developed, so did the owner's concept of what the building should do or how it should perform," Scarola says. "In doing so, there were tremendous impacts to the electrical scope of work. In many cases, it was after shaft openings were already resolved or coordinated."

For example, event lighting was developed after the initial design, he says.

"Event lighting required power to be located in all different types of locations so they could bring in theatrical lighting and provide power for any anticipated equipment brought in for special events," Scarola says. "Those were tremendous challenges as they occurred."

The electricians also had to work carefully to blend the electrical work into the architectural design. "It's probably the most challenging and toughest from a coordination standpoint because to support this building, you can only run your work in defined spaces," Olshewitz says. "You don't see exposed ductwork and racks of pipes. They are all being run through tunnels."

The infrastructure, the power and all of the communications and fiber-optic cabling is laid out in a series of access pits and interconnecting tunnels under the Hall of the Universe, the exhibition area right under the sphere.

"The wiring all turns up to the various exhibits, whether it's communications, fiber optics or power," he says. "The systems are all integrated together to achieve the finished result."

The envelope hanging below the sphere houses all the mechanical and electrical piping.

"Right below where I'm standing is a crawl space where all of the services come in," says Olshewitz. "All the electrical piping, the plumbing piping, the mechanical systems and the HVAC duct work are squeezed into the crawl space."

The ellipsoid underneath the walkway to the Space Theater could only be made a certain size, he says.

"The crawl space under the Space Theater is horrendous," Olshewitz says. "That's where the structural web is that supports the whole theater itself. The crawl space varies in height between 5 ft to low points of about 36 in. It's a maze of ductwork and mechanical and electrical piping."

The electricians had to often work on their knees in the crawl space.

"We were literally working with fractions of inches on this job trying to design our pipe runs," he says. "It's a big open space, but with the installation of our work, we were really confined."

Scarola says the lack of room presented a major challenge to everyone on the project.

"The project architecturally was unique, and fitting all of the work in became a coordination nightmare," Scarola says. "There was limited ceiling and equipment space and limited shaft space."

The electricians had to have most of their work done in the theater and crawl space before vendors, such as Zeiss, a German manufacturer of projectors, came in to install specialized equipment. Because of the degree of complexity and the nature of the lenses and components being assembled, the Zeiss technicians had to work in a dust-free environment. That meant that the workers had to put in long days and nights to wrap things up and clean the area from top to bottom.

"The air conditioning and the filtration systems had to be operational, and the place had to be cleaned," Scarola says. "We had a weekend to do it, and people worked 24 hours a day for three days straight. Twenty to 30 people were just cleaning surfaces to maintain the degree of cleanliness that is required for assembly of these components. It was quite an operation pulling that together."

Scarola says the design continually changed and vendors came in late, but the target time frame didn't budge. The electrical team still had to get everything ready for the New Year's Eve party, then for the media releases and finally for the public opening.

"These were deadlines that had to be met," Scarola says. "There was no forgiveness in them. It's hard to publicize the opening to the public on Feb. 19 and not be ready for it or a Millennium party, when the Millennium isn't going to move." Dec. 31, 1999 became a drop-dead date.

"It ended up as a very aggressive, fast-track job that had to be open in time for the grand New Years Eve party," Olshewitz says. "That just exacerbated the whole process itself. We were working double shifts and overtime."

In May 1999, E-J's electrical team was put on an "accelerated program." Olshewitz estimates that E-J put in 240,000 total man-hours on the project.

"We were working eight- to 11-hour days six and sometimes seven days a week," Olshewitz says. "We didn't have 110 guys here working 77 hours per week, but most of our men did work probably 50-hour to 60-hour weeks during that period."

E-J Electric successfully conquered the deadline, Scarola says. "They were excellent. It was a very, very difficult job especially in layout and coordination."

On New Year's Eve, the major parts of the building were ready to be showcased. Those areas that weren't finished were draped off and concealed.

"For their party, they had a functional building as far as lighting, power and controls," Olshewitz says. "The actual Space Theater itself was in full operation, which was one of the high points. The Hall of Universe was probably 90% complete, but they had enough complete to give the people a pretty good show."

VIPs, including contributors and benefactors, celebrated the Millennium at the Rose Earth and Space Center.

"The New Year's Eve party was very important because a lot of the contributors and benefactors of the facility itself were invited," he says. "They wanted to show them what their contributions paid for and ask for additional money."

Private and New York City funds helped make the architectural sketch of the building spring to life. About six months after the grand opening, the Rose Earth and Space Center has continued to attract big crowds, he says.

"I think attendance has exceeded expectations," Olshewitz says. "There's a lot of tourists here every single day. There are areas that are still being designed that have not been completed. It's an ongoing process. I'm sure they will continue to make changes here."

High-profile construction jobs running on a fast-track schedule are a double-edged sword for electrical distributors. When successfully completed, they are a never-ending source of serious bragging rights. Every time any electrical distributor drives past one of these trophy jobs, his or her spouse, son, daughter, grandchild or even the most casual of acquaintances will probably have to endure a speech that begins with, "Our company won the bid for the electrical supplies on that job."

When things go well on a big job for an electrical distributor, it goes miles with the electrical contractors on that project in establishing the company as a dependable source of supply. But when things go badly on a big job, they can go very badly indeed. The lighting fixtures come in scratched, with the wrong finish and missing all of the mounting hardware. A rookie inside salesperson misreads a fax and ships a truckload of 1/2-in. conduit instead of 1-in. conduit. A truck loaded with critical supplies for the job breaks down on a Friday afternoon, leaving the dozen electricians who need to pull a double shift over the weekend to meet a Monday morning deadline steaming on the job site.

The list goes on and on. Stuff happens, mostly it seems, at the worst possible time. Electrical distributors can make or break their reputations in the final weeks of a job. That's because an electrical contractor will often remember a job most by what happened in its final phases during the last few weeks. This is the time when he or she is hustling to complete the job and move onto the next piece of business. It's also the time when some minor annoyances such as broken or defective products can screw up what was a job that ran smoothly for months or years.

Says one electrical distributor who built his company on large construction projects, "One of the biggest headaches is finishing up a job - the nitpicking stuff, the last two or three weeks.

"Customers don't remember the year or two that you spent when everything went smoothly, just the problems that cropped up in the last two-to-three weeks - defective lenses, broken ballasts, the $100 item out of a $500,000 job."

The Hayden Planetarium renovation described in the following article exemplifies the tight coordination between the electrical distributor, electrical contractor, architect and other tradespeople that's necessary on a trophy job. E-J Electric, a Long Island City, N.Y.-based electrical contractor, Barbizon Lighting, a specialty lighting distributor based in New York and the other construction trades on the job had to have the main exhibits ready for a Millennium bash on New Year's Eve. Thousands of man-hours later, they have an interesting story to tell, as Amy Ziegler, staff writer, CEE News magazine and Joe Knisley, contributing author, found out when they visited the project. I think you will agree.

Electrical distributors who have survived trophy jobs and lived to talk about them agree on many of the major points of business philosophy and the value-added services necessary for jobs of this scope:

- A "project team" consisting of employees from every department of your company that will touch the project in any way.

- A "project team" that meets at a moment's notice to solve any problems that develop on the job.

- Employees that understand the importance of the job to your company and to the customer and who are all on the same page in the "battle plan" to complete your company's role in the job.

- A 24-hour hot line.

- Home phone numbers and cell phone numbers for salespeople and anyone else involved with the project.

- A "project manager" whose sole job responsibility while the job is underway is ensuring the job runs smoothly.

- Dedicated driver and a truck to shuttle products to the job site.

- On-site storage trailer.