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Places: Computer-aided architecture challenges builders

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette architecture critic

Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts was still under construction when I visited last summer. The first person I met on the job site was the foreman, whose first words to me were something like, "It's a bear to build."

At the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, the barrel-vault roof made it difficult to erect. The tight deadline meant the windows were installed in 15-degree weather. (Brad C Bower, Associated Press)

He may have used another b-word, but you get the idea.

It wasn't just the Kimmel's pleated, barrel vault roof -- an accordion of steel ribs and transparent glass spanning a city block -- that made it so difficult, but the complexity of fitting a free-standing theater and concert hall inside that barrel-vault shell.

Not only that, it was a fast-track project with a tight deadline. It would be finished come hell or high water -- or, as it turned out, bitter cold.

"Installing the glass [in the barrel vault] was not something anybody had ever seen before," said project director George Schaeffer last week. "The glazing was done in the dead of winter with guys hanging from the rafters in 15-degree weather."

The Kimmel Center, like Pittsburgh's new convention center, was designed by Rafael Vinoly; both buildings push the envelope for the teams of architects, engineers and construction workers who design and build them. And neither Vinoly structure is as complicated as Frank Gehry's recent buildings, with their free-form structures and undulating, sensuous curves.

More and more buildings are being designed -- and their parts shaped -- with the aid of computers, resulting in ever more complicated designs. But no one has yet invented a computer that will build them.

Complex, asymmetrical designs are more difficult to erect, said Frank Migliaccio, director of safety and health for the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, founded in Pittsburgh in 1896 and now based in Washington, D.C.

"Things are changing with each floor, each end, each side," Migliaccio said, unlike a traditional building where "it's always typical past a certain floor."

Still, just because a structure is more challenging and difficult to build doesn't necessarily make it more dangerous to build. There is no statistical or anecdotal evidence to suggest that non-orthogonal buildings -- structures whose design is not based on right angles -- are any more hazardous to the health of construction workers than traditional, grid-based buildings.

For the most part, the steel frame of the new Lawrence Convention Center is traditional and orthogonal -- except for the part that cantilevers over Fort Duquesne Boulevard. And it was in that part of the building that ironworker Paul Corsi was killed Feb. 12 while trying to secure the 13th truss to the rest of the convention center. The cause of the collapse hasn't been determined.

There were no fatalities during construction of the Kimmel Center, but on Feb. 11, 2000, eight workers who were spreading concrete were injured when steel scaffolding gave way beneath them. The men, who were building a ramp to the underground parking garage, fell 40 feet -- an accident not precipitated by the center's unique design.

About 1,000 construction workers have died on the job each year for the past 16 years -- more fatalities than in any other industry, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although about 42 ironworkers are killed annually on the job, the trend is downward -- the death rate declined 38 percent between 1992 and 1998, the last year for which figures are available. Structural collapses and workers falling through openings caused the most injuries.

Twenty-eight ironworkers constructing L'Ambiance Plaza, a 16-story apartment building in Bridgeport, Conn., were killed in 1987; three were killed at the Portland, Ore., airport in 1997, and three more in 1999 during construction of Milwaukee's Miller Park. All of the accidents were attributed to faulty erection practices or crane operation.

In January 2001, OSHA issued new standards for steel erection designed to reduce the risk of building collapses; they went into effect on Jan. 18, 2002. Generally, they require more structural stability -- new bracing requirements, more anchor bolts and certification of proper curing of concrete in footings and piers for steel columns. There are 21 key provisions in all, including additional hoisting and rigging requirements for crane operators.

"People in the industry -- both workers and contractors -- believed there were a number of things that were causing the collapse of buildings during the construction phase," said Noah Connell, director of the office of construction standards and compliance assistance for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "They felt we could save a lot of lives" by updating the old standards, which had been adopted in the 1970s. Connell described them as "limited" and "very confusing."

Calls and e-mails to Dick Corp., which is erecting the steel for the convention center, about whether the new standards were being followed there were not returned. Because the project broke ground before they were published, it would not have been subject to all of them.

The new standards are expected to prevent 30 fatalities and 1,142 injuries annually. Whether they would have saved the life of Paul Corsi, it's too soon to say.

Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. Her e-mail address is plowry@post-gazette.com.

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