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March 27, 2014

Building in South Lake Union requires some finesse

  • Contractors face tight sites, traffic, a low water table, and competition for materials and labor from nearby projects.
  • By JIM CHARPENTIER and JEFF SEBENIK
    BNBuilders

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    Charpentier

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    Sebenik

    South Lake Union has become the epicenter for development and growth in the city of Seattle. The past decade has seen massive investment in the area that is now home to some of the most innovative and respected institutions in our region, including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Amazon, Gilead Sciences and the University of Washington.

    With this investment comes construction.

    As a general contractor, building in South Lake Union can bring a unique set of challenges. With major projects all happening simultaneously, careful planning must go into coordinating everything from truck traffic, to material deliveries, to crane picks. Additionally, working adjacent to Lake Union means a high water table and requires careful planning to avoid impacting the lake itself. The high volume of work has stretched the limited resources of the city’s permitting agencies, so collaboration and communication are highly important.

    And, finally, a general contractor needs to account and plan for both manpower and equipment shortages that can develop when the construction market heats up. To meet our budgets and deliver our projects on time in South Lake Union, BNBuilders uses cutting-edge technology with sound project management.

    Coordinating work

    Due to the high volume of work taking place in the area, coordination and communication are critical. This includes ongoing coordination with nearby businesses, residents and other construction projects. Material deliveries and other construction-related activities are scheduled during low-traffic time periods. Job sites need to be staged in such a way as to have minimal impact on adjacent roads and buildings. Additionally, coordination with other construction projects in the immediate vicinity is critical in mitigating the impact construction activities have on the neighborhood.

    To help coordinate all that, BNBuilders develops 3-D site logistics plans showing delivery routes, street closures and site staging. These plans are distributed to the project team, neighboring businesses and other stakeholders so they are aware of how the work will be done.

    The key to successful coordination is regular communication with stakeholders. We train our staff to effectively communicate project status and information.

    High water table

    Photo courtesy of BNBuilders [enlarge]
    Crews installed dewatering wells to keep pile caps dry at the 199 Blaine project, where the water table is at 17 feet.

    Working near Lake Union is unique in that consideration must be given to the high water table.

    The water table in the area ranges from 16 to 23 feet and nearly every foundation is dug into the water table. For example, on a building we constructed adjacent to the lake at 199 Blaine, the water table was at 17 feet. As a result, dewatering wells were used to ensure pile caps were installed in dry conditions. Each well pumped 30 to 50 gallons of contaminated water per minute, necessitating the use of Baker tanks to filter the water. This was a more cost-effective approach than pumping the water into the sewer system.

    Working in this area also presents opportunities to salvage materials. There are wood piles in many locations on Lake Union where buildings once stood. At 199 Blaine, we removed and salvaged approximately 300 50-foot-tall piles.

    Project permitting

    Though not exclusive to the South Lake Union area, attaining permits through the city of Seattle can take significant time due to the large number of projects seeking permits. BNBuilders often uses a third-party permit expediter to accelerate the process. We also regularly use a phased permitting process so work on certain scopes can proceed while other work awaits permits.

    The Seattle Department of Transportation considers the neighborhood as a high-impact area, which can make getting street closure permits more time-consuming. For example, we recently completed the Williams Apartments in South Lake Union for the Plymouth Housing Group. As part of the project, multiple street closure permits were required for crane assembly, utility work and concrete work. Because of SDOT’s designation, BNBuilders had to file comprehensive traffic control plans, even though the closures were on non-arterial streets.

    Engaging permitting officials early in pre-construction is critical to attaining permits in a timely manner. The goal is to be a partner with permitting officials, working with them and providing the necessary documents to allow for an efficient permitting process.

    Working with subs

    A great risk manager once said, “More companies go out of business in a boom than a bust market.” Making up for work procured in a more aggressive market can be devastating to a company that self-performs work as most subcontractors do. In a boom market labor costs rise, productivity drops and material prices escalate at a non-standard rate.

    BNBuilders has avoided subcontractor failures on our projects mainly due to our extensive pre-qualification process, which ensures top performance and quality. It is the general contractor’s responsibility to its clients to ensure performance on their projects by supplying a qualified group of subcontractors. BNBuilders’ customized qualification system makes the process efficient and simple. Recently, we prequalified a group of 200 subcontractors within 30 days without printing one piece of paper.

    While working in the South Lake Union neighborhood certainly presents challenges, BNBuilders is adept at planning and coordination and able to deliver a wide range of projects there.


    Jim Charpentier has more than 15 years of construction experience in Washington. Jeff Sebenik is a project executive who has completed a range of life-science and corporate office projects in South Lake Union.


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