Valleywise Health’s new utility plant a good fit for growing hospital

This article originally appeared in ENR on February 22, 2021

When Kitchell Contractors project director Phil Glenn first toured the location for Valleywise Health’s new utility plant—designed to power its main Roosevelt campus in Phoenix—he thought the plan sounded crazy.

“We’re walking through on the first day, and it’s this operating warehouse full of racks and shelving and just stuff everywhere,” Glenn says. “We’re all going, ‘Really? We’re going to put the central plant in here?’”

Valleywise’s ambitious plan to place the campus’ central utility plant—a compact maze of pipes and conduits connecting five chillers, 10 boilers, five cooling towers and three electrical generators—inside an aging warehouse was only part of its campus transformation. To the northwest, a new acute-care hospital is rising more than 200 ft to replace the current medical center built in 1967. The $596-million project, for which Kitchell is serving as general contractor, also includes a new 100,000-sq-ft support services building and an underground utility system.

Owners Valleywise and Maricopa County decided the central location of the 40,000-sq-ft warehouse made it the best available site to feed the new utility grid serving the medical campus. Building a new facility on the site of the warehouse was not an option, since the work could not disrupt the ongoing delivery of materials and supplies from the warehouse to the hospital, Glenn says.

So to support the plant’s heavy machinery and piping, the construction team built a 20,000-sq-ft steel structure inside the warehouse. “The warehouse ceiling was never intended to support anything like we put in there,” Glenn says. “It’s a wood roof structure. We’re talking about 30-inch-diameter water pipes, really heavy stuff that has to be suspended from above.”

Workers removed the slab-on-grade foundation and installed new equipment pads, as well as 2-ft-thick concrete isolation bases to support the chillers and generators, says Kitchell project manager Jimmy Curran. The isolation bases helped protect the ongoing supply-chain operations (now crammed into a third of its previous space inside the building) from plant noise and vibrations.

Just getting the plant’s massive equipment into the warehouse was challenging, Curran says. Workers cut into the side of the building to deliver three 2.5-MW generators as well as the 30-in. condenser main that links the cooling tower and the chillers.

They also built a new roll-up door for the plant’s five 1,500-ton chillers. The plant includes two 20,000-gallon diesel fuel tanks and five boilers, each boiler with an output of about 5.4 million BTUs. The steel superstructure is designed to accommodate another chiller, generator and two more boilers, enough equipment to power a second hospital tower, if needed.

Testing, Testing

The utility plant project started in July 2019, and by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the following March, the plant’s major equipment and material were in place, with workers setting up electrical cables, installing insulation and adding finishing touches, Curran says. But a vital task still remained at the end: connecting the campus buildings one by one to the plant.

“The testing is where it hurt us a lot from the pandemic side,” Curran says. “Only two or three employees could do the type of testing and start-up that was required. They’d gotten exposed [to the virus] and so had to quarantine for a time.”

The delays caused by quarantines threatened the plan for the plant to be fully online in October 2020. That could prove costly for Valleywise, which had budgeted for an estimated $500,000 in annual energy savings with the new, more-efficient plant.

The project team worked together to find a solution. “We tightened up our approach to how we were turning buildings on to the new plant,” Curran says. The original plan called for adding one building a week to the utility grid, but the team found a safe way to reduce the number of days between building connections to meet the October deadline.

Looking back, Kitchell’s Glenn sees that placing the plant inside the warehouse was the best solution. “As the project goes on, you start answering the questions, addressing the concerns, and finally you realize, ‘Yeah, we can do it.’ And it’s done. The plant makes sense here.”

Rare Opportunity

For Valleywise, Maricopa County and the community, a new acute-care hospital tower is sorely needed. One of only two safety-net hospitals in Arizona, the Valleywise Health Medical Center on Roosevelt Street primarily serves underprivileged and uninsured patients and houses a major burn treatment center. But funding was scarce until the 2014 passage of a $935-million voter bond measure to transform the region’s safety-net health system.

Bond financing, however, brings its own constraints, says Rebecca Pyrz, an executive at Vanir Construction Management Inc., the owner representative on the project. Such bonds bring strict stipulations on how capital is used and when bonds can be pulled to fund certain aspects of the project.

“The cash flow has to be very carefully managed,” Pyrz says. “It can take four to six months to pull a bond. We have to align big payouts like ordering steel with the construction schedule.”

Valleywise incorporated many features of integrated project delivery to execute the entire project, and especially the 673,000-sq-ft hospital tower. The team set up a 16,000-sq-ft, 100-person big room environment to bring together contractors, designers, owner’s representatives and other team members.

“There were no offices, it was all open, we would all be together, working through problems together,” Glenn says. “We got it all set up in the first week of March 2020 and planned a big team barbecue.”

Then the pandemic struck. “All right, we’ll have to practice how we manage change,” Glenn told his team.

IPD is all about tearing down walls, but for safety’s sake, the team needed to build them up again. The big room space functions at a lower capacity, with users divided by plexiglass and adopting safety protocols such as distancing and mask wearing. Zoom calls have replaced team meetings, bringing a new set of challenges.

“Some ideas don’t come out as freely over Zoom,” Glenn says. “So much of our communication is nonverbal. In person, you can tell if someone is not comfortable with something and you can try to get to the heart of it.”

Clear communication between the team and the project’s designers—Cuningham Group and EYP’s Houston office—is vital, Glenn says. Valleywise had arranged for the architects to deliver a phased design so that construction could begin in early 2019. The designers had planned to travel frequently to the campus for meetings, work sessions and site tours. Suddenly, the design work was mostly remote.

“We just got the final tenant improvement drawings for the interior design in December, and we’re already halfway through steel erection,” Glenn says. “We have to communicate really well to make sure that what’s happening with the design matches up with steel that’s being installed or already fabricated.”

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the tower is on track for its planned September 2022 opening, hitting every milestone, such as the Feb. 25 topping out. The 203-ft-tall tower will include 14 levels and 10 patient stories, replacing the current seven-floor hospital. The entire Valleywise Roosevelt campus project is estimated to  be complete in 2023.

One major feature added last year to the tower’s blueprints is an entire pandemic floor, designed to provide negative exhaust that can be flipped on mechanically to isolate the area. The team wrote up a new sequence of operations and incorporated the designs into the construction schedule without delaying anything.

“It’s so rare to have significant funds to expand a hospital like this,” Glenn says. “So it’s really important to maximize the services we’re able to provide.”

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