[Experience Music Project]
Experience Music Project
DJC.COM Special Issue © June 15, 2000

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EMP: A real experience for those who built it

Special to the Journal

From frustration to elation, perspiration to celebration, Paul Allen's high-tech temple of rock 'n' roll gave contractors a job to remember.

"It's kind of a milestone in everybody's career," says Doug Winn, project manager for Hoffman Construction.
Photo courtesy of EMP

As general contractor, Hoffman brought to the Experience Music Project a track record of tackling challenging buildings. Even so, nothing could totally prepare the company for the three years it spent giving form and function to Allen's grand vision and architect Frank Gehry's mind-blowing design.

"It's one thing to get it designed," says Winn. "It's another thing to build it."

After all, the EMP is more than a building. "No one has built anything like this before" says Paul Zumwalt, project manager for Vulcan Northwest, Allen's management company. "It's essentially a piece of modern sculpture that holds people and meets code."

It's also one of the most technically sophisticated structures ever built, packed with interactive exhibits and activities linked to a jungle of wires running through 12-inch deep spaces between each floor.

As if all of that did not pose enough of a challenge, construction commenced without a final design. That approach was dictated in large part by the unique, computer-assisted architecture, which presented problems that couldn't always be anticipated.

"The process by which the building was designed was in reverse," says Zumwalt. "It didn't start out on paper. The paper grew out of a 3-D model."

Of course, working under such fluid conditions took some adjusting. At first, some people were like "Bambi in the headlights," says Winn.

"[They] were frustrated with the frequent changes until they found out change was the norm, not the abnorm," he says.

Winn says he stopping thinking of the EMP as a physical structure and started regarding it as an idea that continued to evolve even as it was being built.

"You kind of had to have that mindset or it would drive you nuts," he says.

Often, contractors worked blind, constructing spaces without knowing their ultimate use. Winn recalls completing an area known only as "Element 7," then learning it would house "The Artist's Journey," a Disney-quality ride.

"We had to make structural changes all the way down to the foundation," he says.

But there was a payback for remaining flexible. Not only did the process create a flow of fresh ideas, it allowed the EMP to incorporate the absolute latest technology.

The key, says Winn and Zumwalt, was the collaboration between all the parties involved -- owners, designers, contractors.

"If we hadn't had the right people, this would have been an unpleasant experience," says Winn.

Zumwalt admits there were times when he'd wake up thinking, "We're never gonna do it. It's gonna fail. It's never gonna work."

But inevitably at least one other member of the team would be "having a good day," says Zumwalt, and that person would restore everyone else's confidence.

When work threatened to bog down, Zumwalt formed cross-discipline "SWAT" teams to ride herd on various elements ranging from the building's extensive technology to its undulating metal skin.

To improve communication, he provided additional CATIA stations. CATIA is the software program used to design the building. The additional stations allowed the project's far-flung network of suppliers, designers and engineers to communicate changes without having to Fed Ex documents back and forth.

Installing the skin's 3,000 metal panels was perhaps the greatest challenge -- especially since the building's steel ribs already were being installed before the panels had finished being designed.

Each panel contains about seven individually cut and shaped shingles. Aligning the metal panels with the ribs and concrete shell has required constant adjustments, says Winn, and work may continue right up until opening day.

Sculpting the building around the Monorail also was no small feat and required a graveyard shift since work on that portion of the EMP could take place only when the Monorail was idle.

Throughout the building, the curves and swoops of the ceilings, walls and millwork required special skill and attention. Surveyors downloaded CATIA models of the EMP into their equipment in order to lay out the building accurately.

"It was just an incredible piece of field engineering work," says Winn.

Zumwalt says inspectors had to practically "reinvent" the Seattle building code in order to apply it to the project.

Winn saves his highest praise for the front-line workers from Hoffman, its subcontractors and various trade unions.

"They are the real geniuses in my opinion," he says. "They were given many, many new and different challenges that they stood up and figured out."

The chance to leave a mark on something as unique and "cool" as the Experience Music Project brought out the best in everyone, says Zumwalt.

"There's pride involved. You rise up and you're at the top of your game."

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