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December 17, 2020
President-elect Joe Biden highlighted manufacturing and infrastructure as key elements during his campaign, recognizing their importance to a strong and sustained post-pandemic economic recovery. The construction industry has lagged manufacturing in productivity gains for decades, but the time is ripe for industry-changing advancements. Not small, incremental improvements — true game-changers. Seattle, a city that has led the world with tech-sector innovations, is now leading the world in construction-sector advancements.
A first-of-its-kind skyscraper, Rainier Square Tower, will open in Seattle soon — a shining example of what the future holds for American construction. Rainier Square, which is now Seattle's second tallest building, is a 58-story, 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use skyscraper in the Metropolitan Tract. Including 722,000 square feet of office space, 191 apartment units on its uppermost floors, and multiple unique retailers such as PCC Market and Equinox Fitness, the tower is a valuable and welcome addition to Seattle's vibrant economy.
It would have taken nearly two years to erect the tower using traditional construction methods. Through the innovative use of prefabrication and extraordinary steel erection techniques, the tower's structure was completed in only 10 months — reducing the overall construction schedule by nearly one year!
Rainier Square was the first tower in the world to be built using a system called SpeedCore, a revolutionary composite steel and concrete wall system that allowed for large pieces of the tower's structure to be prefabricated off-site and then quickly erected to form the tower's supporting structure. The accelerated schedule saved millions in construction costs, shaved 43% off construction time, and is allowing for earlier occupancy, boosting the property's economic benefits for Seattle families.
SpeedCore allows builders to save time and cost on tower erection by bypassing the labor-intensive and time-consuming processes typically required for reinforced concrete construction. The system begins with prefabricated panels consisting of two structural steel plates held apart with cross-connecting tie rods. After erection, these panels are filled with concrete, creating a unique sandwich-style structure that provides strength and stability.
For contractors, the system eliminates construction tolerance issues involved in merging concrete construction and steel construction on site. Steel connection plates can easily and readily be welded directly to the wall panel, avoiding the dimensional conflicts that can occur with steel plates embedded in concrete. There is also no need to wait for concrete to cure, as the steel panels can support four floors of decking by themselves.
While Rainier Square is the first project to use SpeedCore, others are scheduled to soon follow, including 200 Park Avenue in San Jose, California. This 19-story office building, under construction in the heart of Silicon Valley, will be delivered many months faster than traditional construction techniques.
More towers in Boston and Chicago are in the planning stages, and the New York City Department of Buildings has approved the use of SpeedCore in all five boroughs.
Game-changing innovations in the construction industry are indeed possible — and necessary. The development of SpeedCore represents the culmination of a collaboration between engineering practitioners, researchers at Purdue University and the University at Buffalo, the American Institute of Steel Construction, the Magnusson Klemencic Associates Foundation, and the Charles Pankow Foundation. All of the research and development results are available in the public domain, and SpeedCore is non-proprietary. The extraordinary results are a testament to the principle that the best ideas in construction are not those which are held close, but rather those which are shared.
As Seattle, and the greater United States, looks to emerge from the devastating impacts of the novel coronavirus, the efficiency of this technology and others being developed will bring new vibrancy and jobs to the country, maximizing prosperity for all.
Ron Klemencic is chairman and CEO of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, which is based in Seattle and has a Chicago office. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.