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A story of the steel design of Denver's Art Museum

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Imagination takes shape

Special / M.A. Mortenson Co.

A web of steel, as depicted in this computer model, is carefully fitted together to create the DAM expansion.

By The Denver Post

The radical Daniel Libeskind design for the Denver Art Museum expansion is meant to put the city on the architectural map.

But by the time the $90.5 million project is complete in 2006, every inch of the visually jarring, titanium-clad building will already have been mapped many times over, using laser surveying and modeling technology that was developed for building nuclear power plants.

"If we didn't have this technology, we wouldn't be doing this project," site supervisor Jopy Willis said.

The most complicated part of building the structure is transforming 2,700 tons of steel into a complicated skeleton that will support and create the oblique angles that define the 146,000- square-foot Frederic C. Hamilton building.

Willis and his colleagues at M.A. Mortenson Co. will begin the process on Nov. 10, using steel beams being manufactured by Denver-based Zimmerman Metals Inc.


Building the steel frame will take about 13 months - almost a year longer than it might take to erect steel in a traditional, right-angled building of the same size.

This project will take longer, in part because of the amount of steel and the fact that each beam is a different size - only a quarter of the beams are alike - and because each beam must be placed at a different angle.

"It's a very difficult job," said Mark Zimmerman, president of Zimmerman Metals, which also manufactured the steel supports for the tentlike roof of Denver International Airport.

Another issue is that each beam plays a role in holding up the rest of the building.

If one beam moves or unexpectedly bends the wrong way, it creates problems throughout the structure. If not fixed in time, the whole thing could come crashing down.

"It needs to be fully up before it can stand on its own," said Dave Sandlin, Mortenson's senior project manager.

In addition to bracing the structure with more steel, Mortenson workers continuously watch the beams to make sure they don't shift or bend. "We stay in total control of the building at all times," Willis said.

Willis and his colleagues aren't just keeping an eye on the building, though - they are using technology to pinpoint the exact location of each beam.

There are four people at Mortenson charged solely with watching the building to make sure it doesn't unexpectedly move. They walk around the structure all day shooting survey guns, which use laser technology to pinpoint the exact location of the beams.

If the coordinates of the beam are different than the last time they shot the laser gun, the beam has moved or changed shape and needs fixing.

But stopping to fix things can be costly, especially if you have more than 30 subcontractors and hundreds of construction workers on the site, not to mention daily deliveries of building materials.

"If someone is out of the loop, it creates huge problems," Willis said.

Keeping the whole thing together is an $18,000 computer program designed by Marietta, Ga.-based Construction System Associates Inc.

The program takes a 3-D computer model of the building, which details everything down to the size of each of the thousands of bolts used to secure each beam, and introduces a fourth dimension: time.

The program takes the whole four-year building schedule - drawn up beforehand - and integrates it into the model to create a movie that shows every step of construction.

The movie enables everyone working on the project to visualize the work before they do it and know where everyone and everything - including the cranes and equipment - is at the site.

"They need to be able to reorganize the project continuously so they can evaluate how the work is being done, said Construction System president Amadeus Burger. The company is also working with Intel Corp., which began building a $2.6 billion manufacturing facility in Oregon a few months ago.

If something doesn't go exactly according to schedule - which often happens on complex projects - the movie and the model can be quickly revised to bring everyone on the site up to speed.

Willis likens the model to a road map that you can change while you're on the road.

"There are things like traffic jams that you could never predict. The model allows you to change the route and communicate the change to everyone on the project, and you can understand where the building is at all times," Willis said.

Working with traditional two-dimensional blueprints could add years and millions of dollars to the project.

"The model is invaluable," Sandlin said. "It pays for itself a thousand times over."

And Mortenson should know. The company has worked on several complex buildings over the years, including the $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. It took four years to complete the 293,000-square-foot structure designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry.

The museum's board chose Mortenson partly because of its experience with complicated buildings, museum spokeswoman Andrea Kalivas said.

Willis recently came to Denver from Los Angeles, where he and the other construction workers were treated to a special "hard hat" concert in the new concert hall.

"The acoustics are amazing," Willis said. "You can hear everything from the biggest and loudest instrument to the smallest."

For his part, Willis expects the Denver museum expansion to have a similar impact.

"It will be a landmark building," Willis said. "Like the (Sydney) Opera House in Australia, it will be on postcards, and people around the world will notice it."

Albert (Shoowaa)

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Cool design if you ask me. Sounds like they are spending a lot of time on the acoustics too, which often is over looked in trying to it visual appealing.

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