The Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office in New Orleans is halfway through construction of a 1,438-bed prison complex. Designed to better withstand hurricanes and built with some of the most advanced correctional technologies available, the $145-million prison is on target for completion in summer 2014.

Work has gone well for general contractor McDonnel Group, Metairie, La., but it has been challenged with building a heavy construction project on a small footprint, literally feet from high-security inmates. McDonnel is using precise scheduling, precast cells and extensive building information modeling. The contractor has a 10-person staff on site, 50 subcontractors and 600 workers.

Precast cells

The 433,000-sq-ft project is part of a second phase of the Correctional Complex Plan and will feature new inmate housing, an intake center and administrative building. The inmate housing comprises a four-story concrete building with mezzanines that hold 20 double-occupancy housing units with 30 cells per unit.

In order to increase quality, reduce costs and time spent on the job, McDonnel Group is using precast cells in the prison mezzanines. Each of the 600 cells was constructed in Baton Rouge and transported to the site in New Orleans. The 47,000-lb cells serve as the building blocks for each wing. As each row of cells is laid, a deck is poured above it, which serves as the base and the floor for the next level. After that, the contractor adds a precast exterior skin, curtain wall and a metal-panel system.

Mike Rypkema, senior project manager for specialty contractor Rotundo Construction Corp., oversaw cell construction in 2011 and 2012. The precast technique is not only faster but allows for stricter quality controls to ensure that the design of each cell is uniform and tamper proof. The cells were cast in 8-in.-thick concrete with reinforced steel. Bunks, toilets, sinks, fixtures and utility connections are all installed at the precast yard. Rypkema says that mechanical inspections were completed on the prefab cells in Baton Rouge before they were sent to the site.

"We were able to deliver a finished product on the inside, fully painted with glazing, windows and everything it needed. Each cell was fully complete," he says.

Tony Montalbano, McDonnel vice president of field operations, says the team has to maintain strict schedules so that the cells can go from the yard in Baton Rouge to the jobsite in New Orleans and be set in place the same day.

With a limited site, there is no room to store cells before they are hoisted into place. Carefully orchestrated sequences bring trucks to the site, the crane hoists them into position one by one and then the trucks depart, Montalbano says. An average of 16 cells are set per day.

"Timing is critical, and we couldn't afford any delays. The cells are a major part of the structure, so everything else relies on them being in place," he says.