Designing and constructing the OdySea in the Desert aquarium—a circular structure formed by cast-in-place concrete and tilt-up panels—spurred the project team to elevate its use of construction technology. 

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The $175-million, three-story facility, located near Scottsdale, Ariz., presented challenges in both the scope of work performed and construction methods. As a result, contractor McCarthy Building Cos., architect Deutsch Architecture Group and structural engineer Caruso Turley and Scott executed the design and construction of the facility nearly exclusively with Revit and BIM 360 Glue.

According to McCarthy, the OdySea project fulfilled the company’s aim of transitioning from drawings to software when planning and building projects.

“Virtually building projects is our preferred approach and this project served as a prime example. Due to the complexity of the building and the fact that the entire complex is designed on a radial grid, building the project virtually and maximizing the use of technology was a necessity,” says Mike Gonzalez, preconstruction director at McCarthy Southwest.

“We decided to design it in a circle so there are no straight lines. It probably makes it more difficult to build and at a higher cost, but we want people to spend time here in the center courtyard which, too, is a circle,” says Amram Knishinsky, managing investor of the project.

Self-Performing Complex Work

Located just east of the Loop 101 freeway on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the 220,000-sq-ft project on 14 acres began construction in March 2015 and is expected to be completed by July. It will eventually anchor a 33-acre entertainment district featuring retail, restaurants and other entertainment attractions.

Karen Ohmann, architect with Deutsch Architecture Group, says the preconstruction phase was critical on such a complicated job, but by integrating the design model with the construction model, the team was able to proceed efficiently.

“We had a really good team that made the process go much faster,” Ohmann says.

Since the round design is unique, it actually made design and structural issues easier for the most part, she adds. “Every single [support element] was custom, so it didn’t really matter if we tweaked things in the design phase.”

The linchpin on the job involved taking standard 3D architectural designs and integrating them into BIM 360 Glue for the construction process and schematics.

“We design in 3D all of the time,” Ohmann says. “But when the whole team is working on the same model, that is another level.”

McCarthy self-performs the cast-in-place building concrete, including the tank structures and 16 cast-in-place tanks. The aquarium will have a total of more than 55 marine life tanks that will hold 2 million gallons of water. The concrete tanks will be combined with 5,455 sq ft of acrylic viewing windows to provide visitors insight into 48 exhibits.

In order to exhibit animals and fish from both rivers and oceans, the design provides for both freshwater and saltwater tanks. McCarthy crews will also install the life support systems, which include more than 300 pumps and more than 42,000 linear ft of piping.

By McCarthy’s estimates, the firm will self-perform about 30% of the project, including concrete, plumbing, piping and ductwork. That capacity is what led to McCarthy’s selection for the job, according to Knishinsky.

“Every morning when I wake up, I thank God I hired McCarthy so I can go to sleep at night and they can lose sleep over it,” Knishinsky says.

McCarthy’s experience building water and sewage treatment plants proved pivotal because the plumbing on those projects is very similar to the plumbing in an aquarium. In fact, the concrete superintendent and plumbing superintendent that worked on McCarthy’s expansion of the Chandler Airport Water Reclamation Facility in Chandler, Ariz., are now working on OdySea.

“One of the things that was really different about this job is we had to build it from the inside out. We had to build the tanks first, then the structure around it,” says Jim Brandt, project director at McCarthy.

Three miles of piping was installed underground at the same time that the concrete tanks and the building foundations were placed.

In September, the construction team completed the installation of 72 tilt-wall panels, which were poured and cured around the building site. The use of panels expedited construction—erection took just eight days.

The largest panel is 60 ft tall and weighs 220,000 lb. The contractor used a 300-ton, tilt-panel crawler crane to lift and place the tilt panels. Workers then patched and cleaned the panels to prepare them for painting. Structural steel, installed over three months at the end of 2015, tie the panels together and complete the structural assembly.

Building an Attraction

Beyond the piping and other work, McCarthy used the BIM model to map anchor bolts and placement of massive acrylic walls that make up the outside of the tanks. So far, the coordinates provided by the model have translated to accurate construction on the site, according to the project team.

“I really wasn’t believing it at the start, but we have really proved now that it is on the money,” says Damon Yates, McCarthy project superintendent.

Heavy use of acrylic and the fact that the pieces have a 26-week lead time put an even greater emphasis on having the cast-in-place concrete meet design parameters.

“And it all has to be watertight,” McCarthy’s Gonzalez says.

Besides doing printouts of the BIM model for inspector visits to the site, plans were nearly exclusively digital. In the field, most of the information came via iPads. Punch lists and checklists were completed using BIM 360 Field.

Beyond the building details, the BIM model also helped to pinpoint a potential aesthetic issue. When taking a simulated trip inside the facility via the BIM model, the team realized the urinal stalls in the men’s bathroom would have been visible through one of the main aquarium tanks. Designers were then able to adjust and adapt to keep the potentially embarrassing situation from becoming a reality.

The BIM model also helped identify construction conflicts such as clashes between life support systems, aquatic equipment and concrete footings. Additionally, some of the piping elements were identified in the BIM model as possibly interfering with the layout of some of the aquatic systems. As a solution, McCarthy expanded excavation to three levels so elements would not interfere with each other.

At several locations, acrylic tube walkways in cast-in-place concrete will surround guests as they go between the two levels of the facility. When complete, OdySea will include touch pools and a 3D theater.

McCarthy also built an elevated cast-in-place platform that will eventually be known as the SeaTREK Experience. This element of the attraction puts guests in the water for a guided tour walking along the “ocean floor” to join the aquarium’s sea creatures in their natural habitat. SeaTREK also includes a multitude of acrylic viewing areas and petting zones, making one of the main attractions also one of the most complicated because of the exacting tolerances necessary to build it.

“Basically, we built a swimming pool on stilts on the third floor,” Ohmann says.

By using BIM, McCarthy also expedited the construction process. By using Robotic Total Stations, only one person—instead of two—completed the layout, and a third-party surveyor was used only once. If OdySea was built in the traditional manner, McCarthy says a third-party surveyor would have been needed during the entire job span.

Tribal Partners

The project’s location also complicated construction. Because the project sits within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRP-MIC), the project team took care to keep the community involved in every step of the project.

That includes incorporating Native American-inspired design features approved by the community, including etchings on the outer concrete walls that depict rain near the top, the sea in the center and earth near the bottom. The walls also include basket weave etchings.

A full scale mock-up of the wall etchings and the color scheme was constructed adjacent to the facility and was approved by both the owners and the tribe.

While OdySea targets July 1 as its opening date, McCarthy’s job does not end when the building is finished. Several concrete tanks used in the facility require up to 84 days of acclimation before they are ready for use.

In order to create the aquarium, Knishinsky and the group behind the project agreed to a 65-year ground lease with SRP-MIC to develop a 35-acre entertainment district surrounding OdySea. The development will include several projects developed by Knishinsky’s group—including the already open Butterfly Wonderland—and concepts from other developers.