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Episode 137 – Topping Out: Constructing an Innovative Elevator Test Tower

Episode #137
Original Air Date: 09.20.2021

34 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Ben Norton

Join us as we take a look at a remarkable project to construct the tallest elevator test tower in the Western hemisphere. A 420-foot (128-meter) Innovation and Qualification Center, TK Elevator’s new North American headquarters at The Battery in Atlanta, is home to 18 elevator shafts. The three-building headquarters complex which includes the test tower will eventually be occupied by more than 900 employees. Our guest Ben Norton is the Vice President and Division Manager for Brasfield & Gorrie, the general contractor for this construction project. Ben has worked at Brasfield & Gorrie for 20 years and has been worked on multiple construction projects, such as the Emory Health Science Research Building, and the Georgia Aquarium Predator and Sea Lion exhibits.

Ben talks about the triple constraints on this project, and he explains the innovative slipform construction process, which was employed to ensure the accelerated pace of the tower construction. This process was a constantly moving, 24-hour operation which resulted in the construction of the tower structure at a rate of more than 7 feet per day. This tower structure was eventually completed ahead of schedule in less than 56 days.

From COVID issues to weather difficulties, as well as navigating pipelines and hitting solid rock at 15 feet down, hear the story of how they overcame multiple obstacles and challenges to achieve project success. Finally Ben shares his lessons learned, his biggest surprises on this extraordinary project, and some valuable words of advice for project managers.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...anybody getting into their career should just be ambitious and have a drive to learn as much as you can.  Always have humility and eagerness to learn and hunger to learn, but also be gracious and always a positive attitude, always respect their team."

- Ben Norton

"...everybody knows about the slipform and the concrete, but the truth of that project is that it’s an extremely complicated steel project.  I’ll often refer to that tower as a ship in a bottle because nobody saw the amount of steel that was in the concrete shaft."

- Ben Norton

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The story of a remarkable project to construct the tallest elevator test tower in the Western Hemisphere. Ben Norton explains the innovative slipform construction process which was employed to ensure the accelerated pace of the tower construction. Hear about how this project team overcame multiple obstacles and challenges to achieve project success.

Table of Contents

01:21 … Meet Ben
02:48 … Project Vision and Purpose
04:03 … The Battery in Atlanta
05:38 … A Unique Construction Project
06:27 … TK Elevator Headquarters
08:22 … First Thoughts about the Job
09:02 … Slipform Construction Process
12:45 … Speed of Construction
14:00 … Project Timeline
15:24 … Scope, Time, and Cost
16:34 … Challenges on the Project
18:28 … Slipform and Steel Challenges
19:30 … Weather Challenges
20:51 … Pandemic Challenges
24:46 … Biggest Surprises on the Project
27:05 … In Retrospect
29:50 … Social Connectivity
30:46 … Advice for Project Managers
32:16 … Get in Touch with Ben
32:54 … Closing

BEN NORTON: …anybody getting into their career should just be ambitious and have a drive to learn as much as you can.  Always have humility and eagerness to learn and hunger to learn, but also be gracious and always a positive attitude, always respect their team. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  And we’re so glad you joined us today.  We have a really cool story to tell you.  I am Wendy Grounds, and in the studio with me is Bill Yates.  So today we’re going to be talking about the tallest elevator test tower in the Western hemisphere.  This is TK Elevator’s new North American headquarters at The Battery in Atlanta.  It’s a 420-foot-tall Innovation and Qualification Center.  This three-building headquarters complex which includes the tower will eventually be occupied by more than 900 employees.  And I’ve driven by this tower, and it is phenomenal.  It’s really big.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it’s so exciting.  You could see it going up.  And for those who are not familiar with TK Elevator, this company is one of the four largest elevator companies in the world.  They have 50,000 employees globally.  They do 8 billion in annual sales.  That’s euro.  So it’s a large company.  We’re delighted to discuss that with Ben today.

Meet Ben

WENDY GROUNDS:  Ben Norton is the Vice President and Division Manager for Brasfield & Gorrie, which is the general contractor for this construction project.  Ben, welcome to Manage This.  We’re excited to have you in the studio today.

BEN NORTON:  Thank you for having me.

WENDY GROUNDS:  First of all I wanted to find out, how long have you been with Brasfield & Gorrie?  And just tell us some of the projects that you’ve worked on.

BEN NORTON:  Sure.  So this January will make 20 years with Brasfield & Gorrie.  It’s gone by very fast.  Some of the projects that I’ve worked on:  the Georgia Aquarium, most recently completed the Predator exhibit, and the Sea Lion exhibit that was completed about five years ago.  The Emory Health Science Research Building.  Also Marriott and a SpringHill Suites down at the GICC, convention center down by the airport.  St. George Village in Roswell is a large retirement facility.  A lot of work at Agnes Scott through the years, and University of Georgia.  And also recently wrapped up Passion City Church.  So a lot of different market sectors there to talk about.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, yeah.

BILL YATES:  Now, you mentioned University of Georgia.  But you actually went to Clemson University; is that correct?

BEN NORTON:  That’s correct.

BILL YATES:  Do you care for their football team, or you don’t really follow them?  They’re not very good; right?

BEN NORTON:  Clemson’s or Georgia’s?

BILL YATES:  Well played.  Yup.  All right.  We could dedicate a whole podcast just to college football and rivalries. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, yeah, but I’m going to move you along.

BILL YATES:  Okay.

BEN NORTON:  There’s no real rivalry there.  It ended a long time ago.

Project Vision and Purpose

WENDY GROUNDS:  All right.  Ben, we want to jump right in and hear about the project with TK Elevator Tower.  Can you tell us the vision for the project and the purpose behind this tower?

BEN NORTON:  The Test Tower has 18 elevator shafts in it.  And it’ll be used to try trials for new concepts and product pilots, including their high-speed elevator technology, as well as their twin system, which is basically two elevator cabins in the same shaft.  Now, the Test Tower will also conduct robust tests to ensure compliance with stringent safety requirements on standard elevators, and different compliance, different state regulations throughout the country.  To showcase the elevators in the Test Tower, what’s really cool is the IQC will feature a complete glass exterior façade that faces The Battery in Atlanta.

BILL YATES:  Oh, cool.

BEN NORTON:  It will allow all visitors annually to see kind of all the operations of an elevator that’s normally behind the scenes, behind the concrete or drywall shafts.  In addition to the elevator Test Tower, the IQC has an event and meeting space at the top of the lower part of the building and at the top of the building.  So really breathtaking views up there, looking at the whole region.  It’s going to have a high-tech digital showroom, software labs, engineering offices, and training facilities, as well.

The Battery in Atlanta

BILL YATES:  For those who are not familiar with the Atlanta area, describe The Battery.  Of course the Atlanta Braves play at Truist Park.  So describe where this building kind of fits into that.

BEN NORTON:  So I would say that The Battery Atlanta is really a mixed-use facility, anchored by the stadium, from residential to retail to office to hospitality between the Omni Comcast Building there.  This parcel of land was owned by the Braves Development Company.  And so this is really a partnership that made sense, that TK Elevator had looked at a lot of different sites for this type facility.  The thing that was always interesting to me is if you look at their other test towers in Germany and China, they’re typically in rural areas, not in a urban entertainment district, and usually separate from other functions.

So I think they were pretty innovative in their thought process to be leaders in the market of combining meeting space, engineering, training, along with this Test Tower, along with their corporate headquarters; and consolidating all these parts and pieces of their company that were spaced out throughout the country into one place to enhance their synergy and collaboration.  But also, what a marketing tool.  What a landmark to bring clients, designers, people who had probably never heard of TK Elevator, the layperson not in the construction industry, who’ll probably get very familiar with that brand just from seeing the building.  So I think it was pretty creative and will pay dividends in the long run. 

A Unique Construction Project

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Now, Brasfield & Gorrie, huge construction firm.  But you guys don’t do elevator shafts, these kinds of projects every day.  Was that a little bit different for you?

BEN NORTON:  It was different.  We do do elevator shafts all the time.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, just not…

BEN NORTON:  Yeah, just not a shaft by itself up in the air.  Yeah, this was definitely a different building, unique building. You know, Brasfield & Gorrie, we work in many different markets.  But I think sometimes people’s perceptions is, man, if that’s a complicated, unique job, that’s something that Brasfield will be interested in.  And that’s definitely the case.  And so this one definitely fit the bill.  You know, The Battery Atlanta was important to us with relationships, and it’s within walking distance of our office.  Cobb County’s our home, and so anything we can do to success of that area is top of our list.  And so this was definitely a unique job to be a part of.

TK Elevator Headquarters

BILL YATES:  I want to back up for a second.  So TK Elevator, my understanding is they’re one of the four largest elevator manufacturers in the world.  And this is their North American headquarter building that you guys are constructing here.  Is that correct?

BEN NORTON:  It’s actually, there’s two on this lot at The Battery.  There is Three Ballpark Center, which is an office building developed by and owned by Braves Development Company.  TK Elevator as anchor client has leased the floors there for their corporate headquarters office space.  Across the drive, kind of the plaza, is what they call the IQC and Test Tower.  So that’s the Innovation Qualification Center and Test Tower.  And so that’s all those functions I was stating earlier.  So that is their North American headquarter location, but it is right there with all their other functions of R&D, testing, and training.

BILL YATES:  One reason I bring it up is so we’re based out of Atlanta, Georgia.  The Home Depot is headquartered here.  We’ve done a lot of project management training down at their corporate facility.  And I’ve always felt sorry for the people that worked in the store just across the highway, the retail store, because I’m like, man, there’s corporate right there.  So you’re doing this massive important project for the company, while their headquarters and the very important people are right there.

BEN NORTON:  That’s correct.

BILL YATES:  So it’s just extra pressure for you as a project manager.

BEN NORTON:  I think, you know, our company culture was more of support than pressure.  I mean, that’s always in the back of the mind that there’s a lot of people looking at this.  But it’s also, from crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s and planning and all those good things, it got tons of attention for being a unique job.  But it also, from tour requests or seeing unique construction and its easy access from the office is a convenient job to go take a look at.  And you couldn’t miss it.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Oh, yeah.

BEN NORTON:  When you were driving around.

First Thoughts about the Job

WENDY GROUNDS:  You’re quite right.  It was a unique job.  When you first heard about it, what were your thoughts?  I think there was some new type of construction process that you had to use?

BEN NORTON:  Yeah, I think personally, you know, I would say enthusiasm, eagerness, just from a personal standpoint of enjoying challenging jobs, something new, something different, figuring it out, salesmanship and presentation of being the right fit for the job.  I knew that it would be a signature project for years to come that would be a staple in the Atlanta skyline, and that being a part of that would be important.  And so those kind of things are what I was thinking about, you know, initially.

Slipform Construction Process

BILL YATES:  I want to get nerdy with you just for a second.  We’ve got some construction project managers that are going to kind of laugh and roll their eyes when I ask this question.  But I do not know what slipform construction is.  And I know that was a key part of this project that the 420 feet went up really fast, and a part of that was because of the approach you guys took.  So can you describe slipform to us as a process?

BEN NORTON:  Sure.  So slipform construction is really describing the formwork type system and a placement of the concrete.  When the job came about, back to your other question, obviously the big feature is this concrete shaft, 420 feet in the air.  A lot of people don’t know that it goes 60 feet in the ground, as well, that you don’t see from the street level.  We looked at that just from a project management standpoint, general contractor standpoint of what would be the best for the job schedule.  How do we want to build this job?

And the other method would be a jumpform type system.  What’s unique about the tower is tolerances were of extreme importance to the technicians and the facility who would be doing a lot of this testing, that you couldn’t have a way out of plumb walls or even in and out of walls, I should say.  Knowing those requirements, knowing that it was a critical driver in the schedule, that nothing really could happen until that tower got up, we started exploring these different systems.  Brasfield & Gorrie had not done the slipform process before.  We had several employees that through their career had done some work in that.  So us as concrete contractors were more than excited to learn something new and figure it out.

I would say to the slipform process in general, it’s used a lot more in other parts of the world than the U.S.  And I would say in the U.S. it’s used predominantly in the power industries, agricultural industries, due to lack of cold joints, speed of silos, things like that.  You would see it in elevator shafts in the past.  You just don’t see it as much.  Now, you don’t see elevator test towers that often, either, so the application of it, it deems that way.  In Germany they used the slipform operation for their past test tower.

But what we really finalized and looked at on the slipform, to answer your original question, it is a formwork system that basically rides on a series of rods and hydraulic jacks that is the wall forms of the tower, of the concrete wall.  They are not, you know, a 10-foot, 20-foot-wide section of wall.  They’re a smaller height.  And then it has working platforms that hang off of that form system.  The part is that it’s continuously moving.  You can control the speed of it.  But it’s a science of the placement of the concrete, the concrete mix design, the speed of the curing, what’s going in the wall.  Takes a little while to get that right and understand and planned.  But the intent is that you’re constantly moving, 24-hour operation.

BILL YATES:  Wow.

BEN NORTON:  Because you’re not trying to have cold joints, but I would say that we didn’t have a cold joint requirement.  Our interest in it was threefold.  It was speed, it was safety, and it was tolerance.  It proved to be extremely safe.  We had two hanging platforms that had people rubbing the concrete while it was still wet to get a good finish as you were coming up, but also we were doing advanced placement of steel connections, knife plates, to the embeds to pick up time when you started doing the steel afterwards.  We were doing a lot up on that platform.  It was just a really unique process to watch and be a part of.

Speed of Construction

BILL YATES:  And the speed was just, I mean, it’s jaw-dropping when I’m thinking, okay, you guys, all right, 60 feet in the ground, 420 feet up, in 50-something days?

BEN NORTON:  I think we averaged eight feet a day.

BILL YATES:  Okay.

BEN NORTON:  But we had some as fast as 13 and some as slow as seven.  What was unique about that later test tower as opposed to agricultural silos or storage is it had a tremendous amount of embeds because what people don’t see that everybody knows about the slipform and the concrete, but the truth of that project is that it’s an extremely complicated steel project.  I’ll often refer to that tower as a ship in a bottle because nobody saw the amount of steel that was in the concrete shaft.

I mean, there was four floors on top of the concrete shaft of steel of observation levels.  And you couldn’t put that steel on until all the steel underneath inside the slipform shaft came up.  So if you can imagine the 18 elevator shafts I stated earlier, you know, the stairwells were made out of concrete.  We brought those up.  With the layout from the designer they worked to bring up the walls of the stairs as concrete.  But the majority of all those shafts are formed through the steel.  So there’s upwards of 28 floors inside in the other shaft.

Project Timeline

BILL YATES:  Okay.  I’ve got to ask you a really dumb question.  But I’m thinking, all right, we have a major league baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, that were playing, I mean, you could hit a nice golf shot and put it from your jobsite on their field.  Was the construction going on during the off season?  Or when were you guys going up 420 feet and making this crazy progress?

BEN NORTON:  There was a lot of planning put into the start, when the actual slipping would start.  But the project start got going in July of ‘19.  We started in beginning or middle of December, started to receive the material, shake it out, build the material.  There was probably a month of prep, bunch of stuff in advance before we actually built the form on the mat slab and started sliding.  We started sliding in January.  And so it was not baseball season.  It was the dead of winter.  And that proved some challenges.

BILL YATES:  Sure.

BEN NORTON:  But we actually finished the shaft right before the COVID outbreak and everything.  I mean, the COVID had just started, and everything was about to shut down.  And we had made our last pour.  We had some Austrian consultants from the slipform system that literally had to leave to get back home before they got shut down and wouldn’t be able to get back in.  And they’d been over here for a couple months.  So we got lucky in the timing of that, that it wasn’t baseball season and COVID wasn’t affecting some consultants.

Scope, Time, and Cost

WENDY GROUNDS:  Ben, tell us a bit about the triple constraints on this project?  I know our project managers want to hear about the scope, the time, the cost.  Can you give a little information about the budget and how that played out?

BEN NORTON:  So just from a scope perspective, the TK Elevator Test Tower is 420 foot tall.  It’s around 216,000 total gross square feet of research testing and training facility.  The IQC building’s attached to an integral part of the elevator research and testing tower.  I would tell you currently the hard cost of contract construction cost is around 109 million, I believe, is where we are today.  So I don’t know about the full cost of their program of their office building, their furniture and equipment, things like that.  So that’s our hard construction cost.

The timeline, it began in July of ‘19.  It was originally scheduled to be done toward the end of July.  Through additional scope and some coordination that time has been moved to middle of October.  Right now we’re tracking on schedule, if not a little ahead.  But there’s a lot of owner activities that are outside our scope that are being coordinated right now to get into that timeframe.

BILL YATES:  So about a two-year project.

BEN NORTON:  About a two-year project.

Challenges on the Project

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, I think you’ve been hit with many challenges and obstacles.  You were talking about COVID and the weather and things like that.  So what are some of these obstacles or challenges that your team has had to overcome?

BEN NORTON:  There were so many challenges on that project.  Majority of them known, and how we were going to attack them.  There hasn’t been too many unknown.  But there’s probably been ones that yield the best results that we might have changed the plan to accomplish.  Some of our biggest challenges, a lot of people in the public probably couldn’t see from street level.  But the lot where the tower is goes 60 feet in the ground.  And that was basically, you hit rock at about 15 feet down.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Oh, wow.

BEN NORTON:  So you had solid rock, and you had tight site constraint right up against Circle 75, and you’re landlocked with 285, and the Hampton Inn on one side.  We had a Brasfield & Gorrie project, you know, there’s seven inches divide the two project sites between the Three Ballpark Center and IQC.

BILL YATES:  Seven inches?

WENDY GROUNDS:  Seven inches, oh, my gosh.

BILL YATES:  Then you’ve got the Colonial Pipeline.

BEN NORTON:  Well, that’s what I was getting to was…

BILL YATES:  Okay, yeah.

BEN NORTON:  Not only did you have to cantilever shoring or find complex shoring systems, which one was the right one to work,  we had a combination of traditional lag and shoring, we had cantilevered shoring, and we had soil nailing.  And so finding the right solution in time and the blasting of the rock, you throw in the Colonial gas line that was seven feet from the north side of the box, and Atlanta Gas Light was there also.  Atlanta Gas & Light actually turns and goes south along the Hampton Inn side, which dictated a lot of what we were doing from a temporary road, how you got around the site, and the shoring on that side. 

So there was shoring for the whole basement, not just where the tower sits.  But the complexity of the blasting and the shoring and the tight site there was a huge first hurdle to get out of the ground.  That was a big challenge.

Slipform and Steel Challenges

I think the other challenge, we’ve already talked about the slipform, which we made sound much easier than it was.  But, you know, the challenge was back to the steel.  All that steel was dictated by elevator design and what they were trying to accomplish from their test elevators.  And a lot of that wasn’t known immediately at the time.  So there were changes that happened along the way that were much needed, that we understood the needs of our owner that they’re not going to build a test tower every five years. 

Like this job needed to be set up to be flexible for their needs, and it needed to be right from the beginning to give them the best product that they would be able to move.  It wasn’t set up for, you know, the tests 20 years from now might be completely different than the tests that we have right now.

So some of the thought processes their engineers had and what they needed, it sometimes came across as, well, we’re making changes, but deep down understanding why the changes were being made and what was needed.  Understanding that and what’s involved with the steel layout and the embeds and all the different nuances inside the tower, extremely challenging.  I think that the weather…

Weather Challenges

BILL YATES:  Yeah, so you said the construction was going on, and the slipform, and the building up that 420-foot tower got pretty heavy in January?  I’ve lived in the Atlanta area for a while, and it tends to be wet and cold and nasty.  I mean, you may have one amazing day break out and have wonderful sun, everybody wants to live in Atlanta, and then it returns to normal winter.  I mean, you guys had a lot of rain to deal with; didn’t you?

BEN NORTON:  We absolutely did.  I mean, a lot of rain.  Luckily, we only had a couple dustings of snow and ice, not too many long days of that.  But definitely dealt with a lot of rain during the slipform process.  And, you know, it’d be different if we were doing a lot of horizontal concrete placement.  But it didn’t slow us down.  It was just really tough for the workers that were up there, and supervisors, that they worked through it all.  Yeah, some of the cold weather, the cover and the canopy fabric that we had on the working platform, surprisingly enough, from the heat of the concrete, made it somewhat bearable.  We did things that could do to make it okay.  But definitely a challenging work environment for the guys to work for.

And also the 24-hour process, you know, we had three shifts that were trading off.  A lot of thought was put into that, from crane operators to everybody, that you weren’t working seven days a week, too many hours on somebody.  So that worked well, how we planned that out.

BILL YATES:  The logistics on that slipform approach, you’re just constantly pouring.  It just blows me away to think about pulling all that together.

Pandemic Challenges

WENDY GROUNDS:  And then the pandemic.  Did you have any problems with that?

BEN NORTON:  I didn’t get there yet.  So the obstacle, so, you know, we accomplished the obstacle of getting out of the ground, not rupturing a gas line, not making the news, getting off to a good start, the tower has got great tolerance and good quality, no low breaks on concrete, embed placement.  And then all of a sudden we’re about to start the steel structure, and this thing called COVID hits.  And so, you know, like any other contractor around the country and world that’s dealing with it was like, okay, what else can be thrown at us?  So definitely a challenge.

BILL YATES:  You know, one of the questions that I did want to ask you about that was, okay, it wasn’t just we’re Brasfield & Gorrie, and this will be our response to the pandemic.  This is what we’re going to do at the jobsite.  You had TK Elevator.  You had to think about your customer.  And you also had local and state and federal government guidelines that are – it felt like at first it was changing every day.  So as you’re trying to coordinate that, it’s like, okay, I need to stay in compliance, not just for my company, but also for my customer, and also for government, et cetera.  So how did you know who to listen to?

BEN NORTON:  Well, there were a lot of people smarter than I was, that Brasfield & Gorrie went into quick action and created basically a COVID response team at the corporate level and senior management level.  That team met daily and were presenting communications to my level to disseminate to our teams and our clients of what we were doing.  And those first couple weeks were a lot of information flying around.  I look back to that, and it was a lot of clients, customers, everybody wanted answers.  Nobody had any.  So just want to know what you’re doing.

And everybody, I think, was trying to feel it out and come up with their own plans and trying to understand it.  Brasfield & Gorrie works across many different states.  You throw in the difference of state responses, there’s just a lot of different moving parts there to get through.  I think that when it came to this project, TK Elevator, what was very interesting about them and some of our other clients were very receptive to understanding what we were working on, things we were thinking about, things we were putting in place, but also collaborating on their plan.  Because they were just like us, of needing to know.  TK Elevator’s one of our largest subcontractors, not only our customer on this project.

BILL YATES:  Oh, right.

BEN NORTON:  But, you know, our safety and COVID response was affecting them of how they operate their business and installing elevators.

BILL YATES:  See, that’s a big point.  I don’t know that we brought that out yet, Ben.  That’s such a key point.  You’re doing this massive project for a client.  That client happens to be a key partner because you guys go do construction projects that involve elevators, and TK Elevator is one of those that provides that solution.

BEN NORTON:  It is a unique situation where Brasfield is the customer and TK Elevator is the customer in the same setting.

BILL YATES:  Wow.

BEN NORTON:  So it’s been great.  It’s been a great partnership.

BILL YATES:  So back on the pandemic, did you guys lose any time?  Did you ever have to shut down the jobsite?

BEN NORTON:  We did not.  There was one main theme I remember when this happened was the safety of our employees and the safety of our subcontractor and workers when it came to the COVID response.  The second theme was, because of our business, it would be detrimental for jobsites to shut down.  And then we had to do whatever was needed to ensure that they maintain running for our clients and to make their schedules.  And so everybody just went into action of how was best to do that.

The TK IQC and Test Tower, we never shut down during the whole process.  You mentioned earlier about the Braves season, I mean, one of the bright spots is that the public interaction or constraints that we we’re using on projects, a lot of those went away, and that mitigated because of COVID from a construction industry perspective, where you were having to work at night on some project because of this.  Well, they weren’t operating anymore.  Traffic and everything at the Braves Stadium, that wasn’t as present.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Right, because that’s a huge thing, yeah.

Biggest Surprises on the Project

BILL YATES:  You know, every project has the ups and the downs and the good surprises and the bad surprises.  When you look back on this project, what surprises stick in your brain?

BEN NORTON:  I think the performance of the install of the steel was always a surprise to me.  Just knowing the complexity and how we were going to put the steel in was a huge success that doesn’t get talked about enough to the public, that we had very minimal steel issues from an erector install.  It was a large steel job.  We took a chance on a new erector from out of town that we haven’t worked with before.  There were economics in play, but also understanding the work type.  They did a fantastic job, and literally that could have been a lot worse.  Things could have been worse.

BILL YATES:  How many tons of steel went into this project?  Do you recall?

BEN NORTON:  From memory, I will say there’s about 3,000 tons total in the job.  Interesting part of that is 1,800 of that is just in the tower.  So truly that ship-in-a-bottle type concept.  There’s some heavy steel in there for the reactions and the loads of the test elevators in the tower.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I remember we talked with the crew about the Mercedes-Benz Stadium project, and Bill Darden describing the tons and tons of…

WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s right, yeah.

BILL YATES:  …steel that went into that.  You know, again, they were trying to figure out how to construct that roof.  So that as the design morphed, the thousands of tons of steel morphed.  So it is nice, Ben, to talk with you about a project where, boom, this was the plan we went with, and the steel portion of that project went smoothly.

BEN NORTON:  And I would say it shouldn’t be a surprise because safety is Brasfield & Gorrie’s number one priority, and we put plans in place to eliminate hazards.  But still the reality of safety is true, and I would say the biggest surprise, we didn’t plan for accidents, but just the sheer fact of that operation that we did, the complexity of the steel, and to not have any type of severe recordable or type accident was just a huge achievement, speaks a lot to the teams and the planning and the submarket for that.

BILL YATES:  I agree with that.  I have had the benefit of seeing some of the video of this, time lapse, and how this project went up.  It’s breathtaking, some of the shots of the steel being erected at such amazing heights.  So we’ll have to see if we can put links to that.  (See the links at the end of this transcript)

In Retrospect

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, that was just remarkable.  If you could go back in time and do anything on this project differently, would you?  Or are you just satisfied with the outcome?

BEN NORTON:  You know, I think that everything we put in place that we planned for, looking back – we’re not complete yet.  But in the rearview mirror we’re close.  We’ve done everything really close to original plan.  There hasn’t been any major things that said, wow, we really did that wrong, you know.  From a technical aspect I would say that the vertical transportation of the amount of workers to the top was definitely a challenge that, you know, going back, we would probably like to have some more capability there.  Because definitely, if you can imagine 30 floors of workers and a buck hoist trying to get to each floor and everybody is stopping, you know, several times up and down, up and down, all day long, it definitely had an effect on production and efficiency.

And so there were some choices that were good choices to not have it outside, which allowed the exterior cladding and wrap to not be affected by the progress inside.  But it also, it was, I think, overwhelming how much needs and how much time was needed to get the people up to the top.  So that was a…

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, you don’t think about that.

BEN NORTON:  I would say the other thing to do over or to differently is construction’s a tough industry, and when you’re in the grind, the project teams, you know, your head’s down, and you’re working hard on the job, and you’re problem-solving, and you’re planning ahead, and you’re dealing with complex issues.  And two years is a long time to work as a team on complex things.  I would say that if you could do anything different is to go back and smell the roses or enjoy the ride; to every once in a while, you know, to think about what you’re being a part of, and just enjoying the experiences of the stuff you’re doing.

And so sometimes that can get lost because it’s schedule-driven and problem-solving and those things.  So it’s easy to say that on any job; but, I mean, that’s definitely – would say the job’s been a tough grind as far as schedule and just the complexity, that could go back and – I don’t know how you get that across, to just enjoy the moment.

BILL YATES:  I know, yeah.  That is such a great challenge, Ben.  I think of, not just construction projects, but any project that’s over a decent amount of time, especially a two-year project, just how you pace the team and keep the team focused on what it’s going to look like when it’s done, when you have that ribbon-cutting.  Oh, man, it is so true because it’s inspiring.  I mean, you think about the excitement at a kickoff meeting with your team, and everybody can see it.  And they’re like, oh my gosh, it’s going to be awesome.  I’m excited to be a part of this team.

Then you get into the grind, just human nature.  I need to be reminded of that excitement I had at the kickoff meeting periodically throughout the project, just to keep spirits up.  You know, I may be so focused on the problem of the day that I’m just bringing everybody down.  And I need to be reminded, okay, this is one piece.  We’re going to overcome it, just like we did last week.  You know, look at where we’re headed.  It’s a good reminder.

Social Connectivity

BEN NORTON:  A big challenge of that, not to bring it up again, but just from a personal connectivity and social interactions or doing something outside of work with the team, whether it’s Brasfield or Gensler or TK Elevator.  A big part of the Gensler team was in Houston.  The TK team was spread out.  But when COVID hit, you know, meetings turned to Zoom.  And it’s hard in construction to not walk a jobsite every day and know what’s going on and having communications. 

And when those things are happening, and you’re trying to do it virtually, and there’s the unknown, and following company protocols, and you can’t fly or can’t, you know, all these different things, is about everything you could have thrown at you to work against you to have a social, let’s go have a drink outside.  Well, all the bars are shut down.  So, you know, what do you do?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.

BEN NORTON:  So creative thinking in itself, just to find some social connectivity, was a challenge.  That definitely was an influence, I think, of COVID, of trying to keep the morale up on jobs.

Advice for Project Managers

BILL YATES:  Okay, Ben, we can’t have you in the room without asking, let’s say there’s somebody earlier in their career or who’s thinking about getting into project management.  What advice do you want to share to that person?

BEN NORTON:  You know, I would just say that anybody getting into their career should just be ambitious and have a drive to learn as much as you can.  Always have humility and eagerness to learn and hunger to learn, but also be gracious and always a positive attitude, always respect their team.  There’s a lot of good engineers out there, and problem solvers.  Becomes much more about soft skills and approach of how you go through your problem-solving that affects all your other team members and yourself.

And so I would just say that when you’re involved with tough situations, to try not to get down on yourself or the situation, but celebrate accomplishments and achievements that you are doing.  Nobody’s perfect, and it’s really about coming away from a team and understanding how everybody feels afterwards.  And so on this project the team used to joke, they would get down on themselves, and they’d go, we know we’re just building your everyday run-of-the-mill test tower, you know.  What’s so, you know, and they would say comments to me that we’re not too proud to admit that something that we had planned didn’t work out or yield the results we wanted.  And we need to change it, be receptive to other people’s opinions and other thoughts, and look at the results and see if something’s not working and be willing to change.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Well, Ben, thank you so much for being our guest.  And we’ve really enjoyed having you in the studio.  That’s been exciting for us, to have someone back in the studio again after a long time.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

Get in Touch with Ben

WENDY GROUNDS:  If our listeners want to reach out to you, if they have any questions, if they want to hear some more about the work that you do, what is the best way that they can get in touch with you?

BEN NORTON:  Email is probably the best.  That would be at bnorton@brasfieldgorrie.com.

BILL YATES:  Ben, thank you so much for sharing.  It’s just exciting to hear about this project with TK Elevator.  Kind of blows my mind.  I envision being at an amusement park and seeing these elevator shafts just going up and down and up and down and testing.  And to think that you guys built that and the engineering that went into it is mindboggling.  Thank you for  walking us through it.  Thank you for sharing your expertise with us.

BEN NORTON:  You’re welcome.  Thanks for having me.

Closing

WENDY GROUNDS:  And that’s it from us here on Manage This.  We’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or just to contact us if you have any questions about project management certifications in general.

Links to construction and slipform process videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIeRh04RtUk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CaIJIvbx8M
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sVFn1l5qIM

7 responses to “Episode 137 – Topping Out: Constructing an Innovative Elevator Test Tower”

  1. JC Murphy says:

    Wonderful walk thru of a challenging construction project! Looking forward to see the finished product at The Battery.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      We enjoyed talking with Ben and hearing about this interesting project. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to take a look at the videos posted on the transcript. 🙂

  2. Jamie Hughes says:

    I’ve driven by that site thousands of times and wondered what that building was. Fascinating!

  3. Paul Prescott says:

    I would love to see this elevator test tower in person one day. Loved the podcast and Ben’s input. Thanks for the podcast!

  4. Judy Tamburri says:

    This was very interesting. I especially liked the videos.

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