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The Cosmic Cathedral

Electricians wire a state-of-the-art planetarium in this fast-track, design-build project.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, said Tony Mann, president of E-J Electric Installation Co.Long-Island City, N.Y.-based E-J Electric

Electricians wire a state-of-the-art planetarium in this fast-track, design-build project.

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, said Tony Mann, president of E-J Electric Installation Co.

Long-Island City, N.Y.-based E-J Electric performed all the lighting, power and communications work for the Rose Earth and Space Center, 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 facelift," said Mitch Olshewitz, 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."

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, said 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 said. "I stayed from that point to the completion in February of 2000."

The team began Phase 2 in November of 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 said. "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," said 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 said. "From an architectural standpoint, it's unparalleled. It's been referred to as a 'Cosmic Cathedral'."

The 460-ft Cosmic Pathway winds 1- times around the Hayden Sphere. The walkway leads into the Big Bang Theater, which presents a short segment narrated by Jodi Foster.

"The building of this ramp was an achievement in itself," Olshewitz said. "It is actually in circular steel sections, but it is not concentric."

E-J wired the exhibits and installed the neon lighting on the cosmic walkway, Olshewitz said.

"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 said. "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 museum plans to redo the exhibits along the Cosmic Pathway, he said.

"They are going to be changing the exhibits that are along the ramp at the end of this year," he said. "They're constantly updating the project to keep pace with events and science."

REACHING FOR THE STARS: THE SPACE THEATER The Space Theater, which is nestled inside the Hayden Sphere, attracts both locals and tourists to the Rose Earth and Space Center, Olshewitz said.

"The real draw to the planetarium is the Space Theater," Olshewitz said. "That's what most people come here to see."

The 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 said.

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 said.

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 domed screen.

"A lot of the lighting is actually hidden for obvious reasons," Olshewitz said. "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 E-J Electric, a 101-year-old contractor, performed the bulk of the electrical work on the Space Theater between March 1999 and September 2000, Olshewitz said.

"They were on a real fast track because they got behind and the project was delayed," Olshewitz said. "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, said 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 said. "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, Scarola said.

"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 said. "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 said. "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 said. "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," said Olshewitz on a walkway outside the entrance to the Space Theater. "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 said.

"The crawl space under the Space Theater is horrendous," Olshewitz said. "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 is 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 said. "It's a big open space, but with the installation of our work, we were really confined."

Scarola said 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 said. "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 said they 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 said. "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 said 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 are deadlines that are continuously targeted and met," Scarola said. "There's 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 said. "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 estimated 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 said. "We didn't have 110 guys here working 77 hours per week, but most of our men did work probably 50- to 60-hour weeks during that period."

E-J Electric successfully conquered the deadline, Scarola said.

"They were excellent," Scarola said. "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 said. "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 said. "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 said.

"I think attendance has exceeded expectations," Olshewitz said. "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."

John Ranagan, general foreman for E-J Electric, offered the following words of wisdom for electrical contractors working on large-scale projects, like the Rose Earth and Space Center in New York City.

1. Watch the dates that you agree to, especially if you don't have all the information. "If you're going to do a design-build and give dates, you can be in serious trouble," he said. Ranagan advised electrical contractors to allow more time than they need to allow for changes in the electrical and architectural design.

2. Make sure that you have a workforce readily available. "One of the problems that you end up having is manning the job. Because of the amount of work that you're adding, you need more personnel."

3. Coordinate the materials and the labor. "When you're on a fast-track job, you've increased your manpower to accommodate the work. The key issue is making sure you have the material on site so you can keep the escalated manpower working productively."

4. Work closely with the general contractor, the architects and engineers. "It's a key factor to have a working relationship so things that are designed actually work in the project itself."

5. Expect the unexpected. "Things will most likely be changed. On a job that's design-build, as the museum was, it's very difficult to plan on what's going in when you're only finding out at the moment of installation."

In addition to concealing electrical wiring, designers also had to blend the fire alarm system into the architecture of the Rose Earth and Space Center.

"One of the challenges as far as the design of the project was the fire alarm system," Olshewitz said. "You don't see any smoke detectors in the area if you look around because of the glass."

The museum worked with Simplex Time Recorder Co., Westminster, Mass.; Vision Systems, Hingam Mass.; and Alison Controls, West Fairfield, N.J., to protect the building from smoke and fire damage. The Vision Systems' VESDA system detects smoke while Alison Controls' Alison system senses heat.

"The VESDA system continuously breathes and draws air into it through the holes in the skin of the sphere," Scarola said. "Those particles are then analyzed."

The VESDA system is also used in the crawl space between the Big Bang Theater and the Space Theater. The Alison system, however, uses a deluge system to protect the perimeter steel along the high glass walls of the cube.

"Alison is a continuous wire that spans the entire circumference of the glass wall," Scarola said. "If there's any heat that's detected along the glass, in conjunction with a heat sensor going off in an adjoining occupied area, it triggers a deluge system in which valves open up, and the entire cube is flooded with water."

Olshewitz said the museum is afraid that the system will accidentally go off, but so far, so good.

"They haven't had any accidents," he said. "If it did happen, you would get a pretty good soaking. It would be a mini waterfall, as if someone opened up a faucet."

- The Rose Center for Earth and Space totals 333,500 sq ft. More than 1.2 million ft of electrical power and low voltage control wiring operate the lighting and electrical equipment.

- The center is clad in the largest suspended curtain wall in the United States. The wall is anchored by 1,400 steel "spiders" and 4,100 bolts. The wall has 2.5 miles of rod rigging.

- Almost an acre of glass in 736 individual panes, was used to construct the center's 95-ft high cube. The average pane of glass weighs 450 lbs. and is 5 ft by 10.5 ft.

- The volume of the cube is 1.9 million cubic ft and the volume of the sphere is 344,616 cubic ft.

- The Hayden Sphere weighs 4 million lbs., or 2,000 tons. It is 87 ft in diameter and its circumference is 273.3 ft. The sphere is supported by three pairs of inclined columns.

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