SkyHouse Denver: Built for Speed

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SkyHouse rises in downtown Denver.

Words by Sean O’Keefe

Photos by Michelle Meunier Photography

Though the complexities of building a modern high-rise are many, the challenge of doing it better and faster than before has long been the spirit that drives success in an ultracompetitive market. A constrained urban site impacts everything from traffic control, craning, material deliveries and staging space to project offices and parking. The list is endless. Since identifying obstacles and prethinking challenges has long been the norm in preconstruction services, maximizing speed to market in Denver’s seemingly endless development boom requires quite a bit more.

“SkyHouse has Lean construction as its core value,” says Adam Lulay, project manager for Swinerton Builders, the local leaders of construction in a joint-venture partnership with Batson-Cook Construction of Georgia. “Building a 26-story luxury apartment building in the heart of Denver’s central business district in a mere 18 months is only possible by streamlining everything.” The joint venture applied Lean strategies every step of the way from looking at the prototypical building plans and site conditions to assessing and mitigating risks, to blending staff roles between the two firms. Lulay suggests that a shared lineage of being construction stalwarts for more than 100 years apiece and similar company cultures between Swinerton and Batson-Cook were keys to their seamless integration on the project.

Adam Lulay, project manager for Swinerton, takes in the scene.

Adam Lulay, project manager for Swinerton, takes in the scene.

Located at 18th and Broadway, SkyHouse began welcoming new residents in September, and offers 354 high-end apartments, accompanied by 484 structured parking spaces, and 6,900 square feet of street-side retail. SkyHouse’s namesake amenity is the resort-style rooftop clubhouse boasting a pool and deck, outdoor kitchen and seating areas, fireplaces, grills and TVs as well as an internal lounge featuring a demonstration kitchen and billiards room. SkyHouse Denver is actually the 14th SkyHouse to be completed in the United States by developer Novare Group and presents a well-established model of amenitized urban living targeting next-gen professionals. Since the SkyHouse’s design had already been built by previous Novare and Batson-Cook teams in other markets, the objective for the Batson-Cook/Swinerton joint venture was to build upon lessons learned and integrate local knowledge, while the rigorous schedule drove the project.

“There were two roads on the schedule, the overall structure and the build-out of the interior,” says Peter Martin, Batson-Cook project manager, who works in tandem with Lulay and a team of five superintendents to oversee the project. Martin notes a process called pull planning as an indispensable Lean strategy designed to ensure the team of experts supervising the work collaboratively develop a sequence of activities that works to everyone’s advantage. Relative to the overall structure, SkyHouse’s 14,500-square-foot floor plates were broken down into three sections so each floor could be poured in just three days. Martin and Lulay guided all 26 stories of structural construction from foundations to topping out in just 200 calendar days.

“For the interiors, we took a production mindset as well,” continues Martin. “The interiors schedule was built on a four-day sequence for finishes, starting with paint, and continuing with cabinetry, countertops and tile.” With each typical floor having a combination of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, both Martin and Lulay acknowledge the participation and buy-in from all trades was essential to achieve the rigorous production schedule.

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The rooftop clubhouse features stunning views.

While much of the work in meeting the schedule was in fine-tuning processes established on the previous SkyHouse projects, a major change in the building plan for SkyHouse Denver was to move away from a precast parking structure. When the initial cost models and pricing indicated that precast costs in the Denver market would jeopardize the budget, the decision was made to build the garage cast-in-place. The longer schedule of cast-in-place construction compelled the team to split the structure into two halves that could be built simultaneously. This allowed the team to expedite construction on elevators and interior finishes, both of which were extensive on the north half of the building. This took a full three months off of the garage schedule and allowed it to be completed in line with the tower.

While speed to market was the driving force behind the project’s schedule, logistically there were also quite a few variables intertwined in working with the city and adjacent business interests. As a starting point, a significant volume of the building’s construction materials had to be warehoused elsewhere and brought to the site in a just-in-time delivery since staging space was severely limited. Also, with the Broadway frontage and close proximity to Civic Center Park and the city’s near constant schedule of events impacting the ability to get lane closures, maximizing delivery windows required continual coordination with Denver’s Public Works Right of Way Services.

“Working on tight, urban sites among many other businesses, pedestrians, vehicle traffic and even other construction projects really magnifies the need for attention to detail,” imparts Lulay. He notes in particular the possible disruption to surrounding entities like the Wells Fargo Center, Trinity Church, and the historic Brown Place Hotel, directly across the street. In the case of SkyHouse, though the purchased site had been a parking lot for the last 32 years, prior to that it had been home to two well-known Denver hotels, which were demolished in 1984. During excavation, just below the surface of the existing parking lot, excavators encountered the site’s former remains and the team dug out rubble down to 30 feet before deciding to simply drill the caissons down through the remaining debris.

“Prior to excavation, we placed crack gauges on the Wells Fargo Center adjacent to our site to verify that we were not causing any damage to their structure,” says Lulay who, along with Martin and other project leaders, met continually with stakeholders to keep them appraised of upcoming construction activities and coordinate beneficial scheduling. Among the other key interests, the team was particularly concerned about disrupting guests at the Brown Palace Hotel, kitty-corner to the site. Tactics to avoid disruptions included scheduling morning crew mustering and work to start on the side furthest from the hotel, and using welding blankets to shield light pollution from guest room windows.

“The thing we can all be proudest of is building 26 stories from start to finish in just 18 months without sacrificing quality, cost or community interests one bit,” shares LuLay while Martin nods in agreement. “The team concept and commitment to Lean methodologies started with the owner and can be seen in every aspect of design and construction,” continues Martin. The only question now is how to build the next SkyHouse even faster. \\

Featured in the September 2016 issue of Building Dialogue

Edited by Building Dialogue