Webcor Has Mastered the Art of Building in Occupied Spaces

Understanding the importance of collaboration, communication, and planning is the reason Webcor successfully completes so many projects in occupied environments.

July 24, 2023

Strategy / Planning

Commercial construction is challenging under the best of circumstances. Building in occupied spaces compounds the challenge exponentially. Understanding the importance of collaboration, communication, and planning is the reason Webcor successfully completes so many projects in occupied environments.

"We have worked in occupied banks, hotels, hospitals, health science laboratories, convention centers, airports, and universities," says Sr. Construction Manager Tom George. "We completed a seismic retrofit of one of San Francisco's oldest buildings with a working Bank of America below us. We relocated MEP in an occupied hospital. We renovated multiple hotels that stayed open for business while we were working."
At the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, Webcor completed a $600 million renovation while conventions and other events hosted anywhere from 10 to 30 or 40,000 people, Tom George recalls.

Success in any project involving an occupied space is all in the planning, Tom George says. "Before any work starts, all stakeholders provide input and agree to the plan. Once work starts, we update everyone frequently and regularly through meetings, newsletters, and whatever other communication methods work for each stakeholder."

"You build trust -- one of Webcor's Core Values -- by establishing a close partnership," says Sr. Vice President Tom Taylor. "You have to be completely transparent with your plan. Everybody is involved in developing contingency plans for building in a dynamic environment, and as the builder, we have to appreciate stakeholders’ sensitivities, whether it's noise, dust, whatever. Ultimately, lives could be at stake. You can't make a mistake."

The Shows Must Go On

The Moscone Convention Center provides an excellent case study. "We preplanned that job and completed it successfully over a three-year period," Tom George says. It was an intricate job, with demolition, foundations, steel erection, and all the other elements of a heavy construction project going into the expansion in a multi-phased sequence to keep the center open for shows.

"We met with the people bringing every show to the convention center during construction to understand their programs, learn when they were doing setup, rehearsals, and the event times so we could determine what hours we could make noise without interfering with their show," he says. "We addressed smells, sounds, and every aspect of construction that could have an impact on a show. We planned months and months ahead of each show, including Salesforce's big annual show, Dreamforce, to make sure they went off without a hitch while maintaining our production schedule."

The Webcor team overcame a variety of obstacles and unforeseen conditions, all the while sticking to the contract schedule, ensuring convention center workers and visitors had access to everything they needed, so everything went off as planned and achieving a 95-percent client satisfaction rating.

Planes and Passengers

Airports present their own unique requirements. "It's their world. We're just working in it," says Construction Manager Forrest Walch, who has worked on several projects in active airports. "We have a job to do, but especially in an airport, the customer experience is their top priority,” Forrest says. If you can understand that and plan based on it, you'll have a successful project. That requires a lot of communication."

Airports present a vast array of issues, not the least of which is security. "If you're working beyond the TSA gates, tool control becomes a much bigger deal than usual. If someone isn't paying attention, a passenger could grab a box knife off your cart and board a plane with a weapon. A big part of the job must include getting every worker, every subcontractor, to understand that this is not a normal job. They have to keep control of their tools. They can't use bad language around passengers. They have to be mindful of the people around them."

Getting that level of understanding starts with bringing the right people on the job in the first place. "I have this conversation on almost every job, telling the subs that I need their finish crew, people who obey the rules, people who have worked in this kind of environment before," Forrest says. "If you have that conversation up front, it tends to go well."

Forrest recalls working in the international terminal at San Francisco International Airport. Like a lot of projects in active environments, much of the work was scheduled at night when no flights were arriving or departing, and few people were in the terminal. "We had to know if any flights were coming in early or late because we'd have to either start late or wrap up early and get out of there."

That can complicate things since there are steps in the overnight work that can't be left unfinished. On a routine project, for example, if the installation of steel in the ceiling isn't done when a shift ends, workers can simply attach a C-clamp and return to the work the next day. "When there are 1,000 people in the terminal, what if there's a seismic event?" Forrest asks. "The C-clamp might not hold, and down comes the I-beam, which could crush people."

At SFO, that meant adding days to the schedule if the work was delayed by routine airport operations. "That early planning, collaboration, and communication is how you get all the stakeholders to understand these issues and agree to the solutions," Forrest says.

A Trench and a Pit

At Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, the occupancy may not have risen to the levels of an active airport, but the stakes were just as high. In addition to the potentially life-threatening impact of mistakes -- imagine the consequences of a severed oxygen line, for example -- part of the project involved removing asbestos-laden dirt from the existing hospital's basement level, where the physical therapy department's operations continued without disruption.

"We trenched through the corridors in order to lay conduit so we could reroute 12KV under the new hospital," recalls Tom Taylor. “It was right up against the existing hospital, so we ran it under the existing hospital. We had people working in hazmat suits, taking the dirt out into a pit next to the hospital.

"There was not a single disruption during this operation," he adds.

"Infection control is the big thing in this environment," Forrest adds. "It's all about the patients, many of whom are immuno-compromised. What you and I take for granted could kill a patient."

The massive construction effort also required changes to the flow of traffic, which was detailed in the early project planning. "We thought through community outreach, signage, and a lot of communication," Tom Taylor says. "In addition to all the signage, we had six flaggers working full-time routing traffic."

To minimize disruptions, all deliveries were planned to be "just in time," with a temporary delivery area so the suppliers could pull in, and we'd capture the material quickly so they could leave. We built a temporary road to accommodate this that we pulled up years later after the project was completed," adds Tom Taylor.

Building Relationships

Whether it's an airport, a hospital, a hotel, or a convention center, getting to know all the stakeholders is a requirement. "You have to know who to call for every contingency and who's going to have an issue with what kind of problem," Forrest says. "You can't cowboy it and ask for forgiveness. You ask for permission, or you'll be gone quickly. You budget it that way. You factor in the delays, the workarounds."

Experience is the best teacher. "When we built the American Airlines/American Express lounge, we put all these contingencies in the budget and explained to the client why every dollar was in the plan. We were able to explain everything we knew from experience we were going to run into."

"There's a method of procedure -- MOP -- for a number of activities in occupied spaces, like shutting down water, turning off fire alarms, shutting down sprinklers," Tom George says. "That requires a huge amount of coordination with the existing engineering staff, subcontractors, and the ownership group to ensure there's no disruption to operations."  

Countless Considerations

In larger public spaces, signage and wayfinding need to be planned and implemented well so people accustomed to pre-construction routes can navigate the changes.  "At Moscone, we put up intricate barriers that were visually pleasing to the owner, adorned with artwork that featured ads for the spaces we were building," Tom George says. "You have to talk to owners early about barricades because they can be useful for them. We give a lot of thought to how we'll separate the public from active construction zones."

Also considered early in the planning are considerations like access and egress for the project crews, where they'll park, and where they'll eat lunch. "You have to make sure all this is invisible to the public," Tom George says.

Current economic conditions have added a new consideration. "Because of supply chain issues, you have to track procurement of materials so what you need is on hand when it's scheduled to be used," Tom George says. "That means having a temporary facility to store it until you need it. Like everything else, that requires collaboration with multiple parties and coming to an agreement that meets everyone's needs.
"You can't start to figure out all these things after work has started," Tom George says. "Because of our experience with this, we have a proven track record of coming in on time and on budget with these very complicated and challenging projects.