Gutsy Barge-Delivery Strategy Propelled Modular Lab Job

Prefab, preassemble, disassemble, barge in, lift, swing, set, fit and connect. Steel erector Barry King underplays the module maneuvers and high-flying acrobatics required to frame Rockefeller University’s 960-ft-long laboratory building in Manhattan.

“The New York Hospital job was really the pioneer,” says King, president of NYC Constructors LLC (NYCC). “We basically copied the scheme.”

King is referring to a similar but less daring project executed in 1994. For New York Hospital, steel contractor Canron Construction Corp. delivered modules by barge for only the first story of a 12-story building over the drive, due north of the lab (ENR 8/7/1995 p. 24). King cut his teeth on the hospital project as second-in-command to steel erector Larry W. Davis, the hospital’s modular mastermind, King’s mentor and a consultant on the lab job.

Aine M. Brazil, vice chairman of Thornton Tomasetti and the structural engineer for both jobs, says the lab “sequel is an order of magnitude more complex because we took everything done before to the next level.”

For NYCC, perhaps most significantly, the 19 lab modules were set consecutively, which added a level of fit-up difficulty. For the hospital, ironworkers set the modules a bay apart. Infill steel was stick-built.

For the lab, named the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Research Building, NYCC and its collaborators figured their only hope for an on-time delivery was to access the air-rights site, a narrow stretch atop Manhattan’s riverside FDR Drive, from the turbulent East River. But even that was problematic. Using a derrick barge, ironworkers had to install the 50-ft-tall modules, weighing up to 788 tons each, onto columns during slack tide at night during the summer, when the drive could be shut down.

Even with the hospital precedent, it “took a village” to convince the doubters to go with the bold lab strategy. For starters, NYCC had the full support of the steel contractor, Banker Steel Co. LLC. Together, the firms bid the job in 2015. In April 2016, Banker acquired NYCC. The modules went in a few months later, during the summer of 2016.

“Banker and NYCC had a courageous attitude,” says Brazil.

Another advocate was the school’s consultant on the job, Peter Lehrer, whose former firm, Lehrer McGovern Bovis Inc., was the hospital’s construction manager. Even the heavy-lift marine contractor, Donjon Marine Co., was a hospital job veteran.

But of all of those involved, King stuck his neck out the most for the project, which the team completed on time. “We take risks every day for a living—we’re steel erectors in New York City,” he says, conceding, “I thought it was risky from a business point of view, with tugs and the barges in the East River with 5 knots at peak tide. But it was well planned and fully engineered, and, working with Donjon Marine, it was safe.”

Brazil says King was up to the task. “Barry brought a refreshing attitude and approach to the challenge presented by the erection logistics,” she says. The collaboration was successful because the firms’ core values were “well aligned,” she adds. “We [both] see opportunity where others focus on risk.”

Davis saw potential in King soon after he hired him, in 1986, as a draftsman. “He didn’t seem to have any limitations in his capabilities,” he says. “Anything we threw at him, he could do.”

To win the job, NYCC spent $150,000 on its bid, which is “way more” than it typically sinks into a proposal, says King.

The bid contained calculations, drawings and estimates. In addition to the lifting plan for each module, using a derrick barge, the proposal put forth each module’s prefabrication plan at a remote staging yard, the structure’s preassembly and disassembly plan and the strategy for barging each module to the site.

But the extra investment in the bid was called for because “we had a lot of selling to do to convince the doubters,” says King. “We didn’t make money on the project, but we’re still here,” he says, adding that, financially, “it was OK” as a package with Banker.

The lab project is on time and on budget, according to Curt C. Zegler, construction executive for the at-risk construction manager, Turner Construction Co. The school is set to occupy the lab in March 2019.

King calls the lab a career highlight. That’s saying a lot, considering he worked on Manhattan’s 1,776-ft-tall One World Trade Center and currently is building One Vanderbilt, designed to be 1,464 ft tall.

There may be a sequel to the lab job. NYCC is bidding on an expansion of the Hospital for Special Surgery, not far from the lab, also over the FDR Drive. King hopes to win the new hospital job based on a riverside modular-delivery strategy.