Expanded. The $1.1-billion McCormick Place West Building is expected to become the largest certified “green” building in the U.S., in part because of a landscaped roof.
(Photo courtesy of MC4West LLC )

Early on, the 2.3-million-sq-ft expansion of Chicago’s convention center had various warning signs of a troubled project. First, a bid-rigging scandal prompted the public owner to change construction managers. Then, a blustery Chicago winter threw a wrench in the work and schedule. 

All the while, wildly high prices threatened to send the steel-heavy project near Lake Michigan off the deep end.

But the 10-member, design-build team constructing the $1.1-billion McCormick Place West Building has not only kept costs in check under its $882-million contract, it is on course for substantial completion next summer, three months early. And the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) expects to begin occupying the building immediately thereafter, some eight months early.

Muscle. Steel erector floated millions of dollars in overtime to keep project moving forward. (Photo courtesy of Danny’s Construction Co. Inc.)

To beat the clock, the team scrambled to lock in material prices as soon as possible. They also rushed to massage the structure to mitigate fabrication and erection costs. And, the builder forced subcontractors to work extra shifts. “We spent some $3 million in overtime,” says Bill Hanson, vice president of steel erector Danny’s Construction Co. Inc., Shakopee, Minn. Even so, “we had more shekels than we gave away,” he adds.

Program changes on the bond-financed building have raised the original cost estimate by $33 million.  But the job is  “on budget,” says Richard Martinez, MPEA’s senior director of development.

The design-build contractor, Mc4West LLC, helped expedite problem solving and scope changes by setting up shop onsite. For example, project engineers discovered a 10-ft-dia, 27-duct telephone line buried 5 ft below the 1,547 x 850 ft site. They quickly made layout changes to 12 of the building’s 1,052 caissons so telephone crews could work around foundation rigs and move the line across the street. Telephone service interruption was kept to a minimum. Foundation work still caused a few outages, which lasted only a few hours during the year-long relocation job.

Hole in One. Wastewater tunnel solved drainage problems for the owner and the city. (Photo courtesy of MC4West LLC )

Another big change came when MPEA scrapped a $4.2-million underground retention basin in favor of a $17-million wastewater tunnel that workers bored from Lake Michigan 3,400 ft to the site. It was a particularly tall order for MPEA due to the risks of drilling the 12.5-ft-dia passage through rock that lay 120 to 160 ft below the existing convention center campus. “We’d heard horror stories,” says Martinez, speaking of other digs gone awry.

Construction of the giant “P-trap,” as some call it—referring to household drains—has not been a washout. When finished later this summer, rather than overcrowding sewers, it will channel roof and loading dock rainwater runoff to the lake. This and other items, such as a 250,000-sq-ft landscaped roof, are expected to help the expansion become the largest “green” building in the nation.

The design-build team collaborated to minimize the impact of major price spikes during design of the 30,800-ton steel frame. Mc4West helped the fabricator buy materials in advance to avoid costly surcharges.


Engineers switched to structural shapes that added 500 tons to the weight but cost less, says Steven C. Ball, senior vice president of architect-engineer of record A. Epstein and Sons International Inc., Chicago. Roof bar joists supporting the roof became wide-flange beams. Trusses got longer to lower piece counts. Built-up plate columns became a combination of plate and rolled sections because plate cost more.

Some parts of the building lost weight. The engineer redesigned third-floor exhibit and ballroom spaces, originally a composite system of metal deck with a 9-in. structural slab and a 9-in. topping slab. By making the 18-in. thick floor work as a single structural slab, the engineer was able to reduce steel beam depth and weight. This was accomplished by scouring the upper part of the base slab, which also served as a labor-saving work platform for the trades, before pouring the topping slab.

The floor strategy eliminated 800 tons of structural steel and still satisfied live loads of 350 psf and concentrated loads of 50 kips. The redesign took two months.

Aside from massaging the structure, combating the elements and drilling the wastewater tunnel, the expansion is “cookbook,” says Joe Salerno, Mc4West vice president of field operations.

Builders. Schalmo and Twomey kept team in close quarters for faster problem-solving.
(Photo by Tudor Hampton for ENR)

The team, led by Bethesda, Md.-based Clark Construction Group, is no stranger to McCormick Place, having built the center’s south building in 1996 (LexisNexis link. Requires registration) . “This is kind of a repeat performance,” says Gary H. Schalmo, project director and Clark vice president. Schalmo admits the difficulty managing up to 1,200 workers on a site bordering a historic neighborhood, an active 1,822-space parking garage, an existing convention center and a busy Interstate. “Everybody’s got their time in the sandbox,” he says. “We just make sure that they get to the sandbox on time.”

Big Venue

The McCormick Place campus already is the largest of its kind in the U.S. The five-story expansion that will make it beat its own record is for small crowds. With 475,000 sq ft of exhibit space, show capacity is nearly half that of the South Building. The new building will add 125,000 sq ft of meeting space as well as a 100,000-sq-ft ballroom—the largest in the city—that can morph into exhibit or meeting space as needed.

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  • In 2000, MPEA hired Atlanta-based Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, also architect for the south hall, to draw up concepts for what would become a design-build project. MPEA selected “bridging” design-build after “eating” overages on prior expansions. A request for proposals was issued in 2002.

    On April 15, 2003, Mc4West upstaged a venture led by Chicago-based Walsh Group. The team is split into Mc4West Constructors LLC, Take II LLC for design and Mc4West Managers LLC. On the construction side are Clark and Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Hunt Construction. Take II consists of A. Epstein and Sons International Inc., with Mesirow Stein Development Services, Chicago, for community outreach and permitting.

    In early 2004, federal prosecutors, working under a state corruption probe called Operation Safe Road that led to the conviction of former Ill. Gov. George Ryan earlier this year, unraveled a convention center bid-rigging scheme. The plot had allowed Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs Facilities Inc. to win a construction-management-for-fee contract. One of MPEA’s former CEOs, his executive assistant, two former Jacobs employees and a lobbying firm were indicted and pleaded guilty.

    The Jacobs employees last year were sentenced each to five year’s probation, a $4,000 fine and 200 hours of community service. The lobbying firm was sentenced in 2004 to two years probation, a $350,000 fine and ordered to repay $67,000 of profits. The former CEO and assistant await sentencing.

    In Tandem. Scaffolds, falsework, lifts work together. (Photo courtesy of Danny’s Construction Co. Inc.)

    After the charges surfaced, MPEA terminated Jacobs and hired Tishman Realty & Construction Co., New York City. The change took six months but MPEA claims the scandal had little impact because construction had not yet started.

    While MPEA was tied up with its CM problems, the design-build team, then holding an $849-million contract, was wrestling with escalating steel prices. The group had bid fabrication and erection in one package and came in 30% over estimate. After splitting the package, bids still were 10% over. “We actually looked at self-performing the steel erection,” says Schalmo.

    The team already had shaved costs elsewhere. A loading-dock design change, which eliminated a ramp over nearby I-55 and added a post-tensioned concrete bridge between the west and south sites, saved $14 million. The change required structural modifications to the South Building to handle the turning radius of heavy trucks, but it gave the campus the added benefit of being able to cross-connect, says Schalmo.

    The Little Rock, Ark.-based steel fabricator, Prospect Steel Co., which had little experience on large convention centers, worked out a procurement plan that saved millions of dollars. Mc4West agreed to help Prospect buy steel upfront before placing the mill order in June 2004. Designers then “massaged” the structure, eventually reviewing 8,120 shop drawings over six months. 

    After steel erection started, cold weather led to more than a month of lost time, and Salerno pushed Danny’s to work Saturdays for a year (see related links above). The job started with two crawler cranes erecting north to south. A third was added. Steel erection wrapped up on time in May.

    The tunneling project started last fall and is due for on-time completion next month. Workers from Clark subsidiary Guy F. Atkinson Construction, Broomfield, Colo., dropped a 120-ton tunnel-boring machine into a 160-ft-deep drop shaft near Northerly Island. During a 3,400-ft-long drilling job that took roughly nine weeks, they arrived 120 ft below the northeast corner of the site within 10 in. of tolerance.

    Many credit on-site togetherness with keeping the project out of trouble. “We fought like brothers and sisters, but in the end it was all for the betterment of the project,” says Patrick Schueck, Prospect Steel’s vice president.

    Tom Ventulett, chairman emeritus of TVS, adds that designers and contractors often have very different agendas. On this project, “we don’t feel that anxiety at all,” he says.