Rarely do contractors have to deal with beluga whales, dolphins and other sea creatures while blasting or building, but the team building the $88-million Georgia Aquarium Dolphin Expansion project in Atlanta had to take steps to ensure the animals’ safety.

Photo Courtesy Brasfield & Gorrie
Photo Courtesy Brasfield & Gorrie

That attention to animal husbandry helped the project earn the “Judges Award” in Southeast Construction magazine’s annual Best of 2010 project-excellence competition.

“They were able to build it and develop it with constraints of existing animals,” says David Kimmel, president and chief operating officer of the Georgia Aquarium, who also mentioned the challenges of working around visitors and special events. “The people made the project successful by their understanding of the aquarium and aquarium staff and working as a partnership.”

The new dolphin facility, about the size of two football fields, features a dolphin exhibit, viewing windows and a theater for shows. The job also included the installation of a new pedestrian walkway, a below-grade animal-holding area and renovations to the existing cold-water gallery.

Aquarium leadership brought together many of the same team members who built the original structure in 2005 to design and construct the 84,000-sq-ft addition, including program manager Heery International of Atlanta; general contractor Brasfield & Gorrie of Kennesaw, Ga.; and architect PGAV of St. Louis.

Heather McKeen, senior project manager and senior associate with Heery, and Mark Granger, senior project manager with Brasfield & Gorrie, say familiarity with the site and aquarium leadership was beneficial.

“We all had an excellent working relationship and knew the quality level and expectations we had to live up to,” McKeen says. “We knew the questions to ask to get the answers we needed to accelerate the program.”

Construction began in June 2008. Brasfield & Gorrie nominated the job for a Best of 2010 award, and it also won the top award in the Cultural construction category. Granger says he considered the site logistics the most challenging aspect of the job. The addition abuts the existing aquarium and parking deck and is surrounded by an underground GA Power duct bank that feeds downtown Atlanta and a road.

“We were really locked in,” Granger says. “We shoehorned that 84,000-sq-ft into that 1-acre lot.”

That required some intricate design work by PGAV.

“We pushed and pulled on all of the individual pieces,” McKeen says. “We realigned tanks, switched their orientation and compromised on hallways and back-of-house areas to make the pools bigger or deeper. We utilized every square inch.”

That led to tight tolerances, requiring great care that the construction team precisely followed the drawings, she adds.

To make way for the new exhibit, the aquarium moved its penguins to a new temporary home within the aquarium and sent its sea lions to other facilities. Then the construction team could demolish the former penguin and sea lion exhibit space and an exit stair, keeping in mind the health of the beluga whales, sea otters, octopuses and other animals near the construction site. The team hired a beluga expert and other consultants to determine what thresholds the animals could tolerate.

“The noise and vibration was a huge concern,” Granger says. “Animal health was the No. 1 priority.”