An Unconventional Project

Bill Hamilton

April 1, 2003

Scott Weiss is no stranger to large construction projects. As a vice president at Kamco Building Supply, Weiss has visited many big building sites over the years. Still, he was impressed when he first saw the new Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

"When we first saw the project, it was a tremendous hole in the ground," said Weiss. "The excavation was so large the crane work and construction equipment actually looked like Tonka toys in there."

No wonder. The new Washington Convention Center is the largest public works project in the District since the city was first constructed. It will be the largest building in Washington and is being built in the largest excavation in the Western Hemisphere. To get the space they needed without violating the District’s strict limits on building height, the 17-acre site was carved out to 50 feet below ground level. It covers approximately six city blocks in the downtown business district.

To give you an idea of how much space the structure will enclose, the Sears Tower could comfortably fit inside. In the main exhibit hall, four 747s could sit on two major league baseball fields or six football fields. The new center will use as much steel as seven Eiffel Towers.

Scheduled for completion this spring, the new Washington Convention Center will contain 2.3 million square feet of floor space, attract an estimated 2.5 million visitors, and is expected to bring $1.4 billion in community economic stimulus each year. The new center is almost three times as large as its predecessor, a concrete box of a building just a block away. When that 800,000-square-foot facility opened in 1983, it was the fourth-largest convention center in the United States. But by 1997, a nationwide convention-center boom left the District far behind, dropping its center to No. 30.

In short, the new convention center will be a monumental building worthy of the nation’s capital. Located in a neighborhood with interesting facades, the building will complement the surrounding townhouses with glass, brick, limestone and granite. At night, it will be a big lantern to the city. Grand light-filled spaces will usher visitors to meetings or exhibits.

Topping it all off will be the largest ballroom (52,000 square feet with a dinner seating capacity of 5,000) on the East Coast with a panoramic view of Washington’s impressive monuments. The facility is the culmination of more than 10 years of effort, from a financial feasibility study begun in 1992 to a groundbreaking ceremony in 1998 to the completion of the steel framework in 2001.

Working quietly and efficiently to conserve energy and keep everyone comfortable inside the building will be a variety of insulation products, including extruded foam insulation and a variety of commercial and mineral wool insulation products.

Owens Corning provided much of the insulation products for the building. Advanced Specialty Contractors, Jessup, Md, installed them.

Kevin Sisk, construction superintendent for Advanced Specialty Contractors, said they used more than 25 truckloads of material on the project. "There were about 400 rolls of duct wrap and the rest of it [was] pipe covering."

No stranger to large projects-Sisk also worked on the National Archive in Adelphi, Md., which included 10 buildings in a single endeavor-he admitted that the convention center is special. He said the challenges were the same as any other job, but were magnified by the fact that the convention center is two city blocks wide and six city blocks long.

"It’s just like it is anywhere else these days," says Sisk. "They are all challenging, but in this case the amount of material and the movement of materials is especially challenging. And everything is up in the air; quite high, as a matter of fact. A lot of the work on the job [had to be] done out of lifts; there is very little ladder work on that entire job."

Kamco Supply Corp. supplied the interior package and exterior framing. Weiss said his company supplied more than a million square feet of insulation products, including both fiber glass and mineral wool insulation. Applications include sound attenuation, fire safety and thermal performance.

"It’s an enormous undertaking," said Weiss during the construction process. "It’s going to take quite a bit of manpower to supply. It’s a good job for us. The steel framing and interior metal [totaled] about 3 million lineal feet. The drywall alone is about 6 million square feet.

"We haven’t even scratched the surface yet," he said early in the construction phase of the project. "We’ll be down there every day for at least a year and a half."

A Road Runs Through It

One special feature of the new Washington Convention Center will be an underground plaza goes right through the middle of the building. There will be exhibit and meeting space above the plaza, and a heated work area below. Exhibitors and others will be able to bring tractor-trailers into the center of the building to unload their displays and convention supplies.

Because parts of the plaza will be exposed to the elements and have a heated area under it, contractors poured concrete over foam insulation. Workers first poured a concrete slab floor, then added a hot-fluid-applied waterproofing membrane, topped that with foam insulation, and then poured a topcoat of concrete.

"It’s a roadway that’s also a roof," said Steve Gordon, sales representative for Owens Corning Foamular insulation. "That’s really what it is. They have to insulate the plaza deck because there is heated space under it."

Gordon says the job was originally designed for 60-pound board, but there were concerns about the compressive strength of the material. "We worked with the architect and engineer to change the specification. That was about a four-year project."

As a result, there’s about 400,000 square feet of foam insulation in plaza decks at the new convention center.

The foam insulation offers compressive strength of 100 pounds per square inch. It’s designed for use in high load-bearing applications and is ideal of under slabs, concrete floors and over foundation walls. The superior water resistance of extruded foam insulation also assures stable thermal performance.

Foam insulation is also being used in two other applications, as perimeter insulation around the foundation, and in the wall cavity behind the exterior brick veneer.

Strong Relationships

Large projects always require good working relationships among everyone involved. The new convention center is no exception.

"A job like this is an ongoing project; it’s not just a one-shot deal," said Weiss "There needs to flexibility in schedules, flexibility in delivery times, and there has got to be communication back and forth. We’ve had a long-standing relationship with [Owens Corning]. If there is a problem, we can get together with them and work it out."

The convention center was scheduled for completion by March 2003 with a budget estimate of about $800 million. And with an assist from insulation, convention goers are sure to be comfortable and cozy in the new building.