Project Profile: The National Aquarium, Baltimore
Scope of work: Reglazing of glass pyramid, installation of new interior and exterior lighting, misting system, catwalk, decking and bird wire
BC&E Member companies involved: Plano-Coudon Construction, Design Collective, Diversified Safety Services, IronShore Contracting, J.F. Fischer
Walking down Pier 3 in the predawn hours, Andrew Hooker prepared to complete a massive, high-profile and nerve-wracking installation.
A project executive with Plano-Coudon Construction, Hooker was overseeing extensive renovations to the glass pyramid at Baltimore’s National Aquarium. To replace the pyramid’s 684 panes of glass, Plano-Coudon had to place a 400-ton crane at the end of the pier. Crews gathered at 4 am, assembled the crane in an adjacent parking lot then began walking it down the pier.
“There were nerves involved, but a lot of pre-planning went into this mobilization,” said Hooker. “We were moving a very heavy piece of equipment across brick pavers. We confirmed the pier was designed to support the weight of large fire trucks and capable of handling the weight of the crane. As the crane was walking down the pier, a fire truck happened to drive past on Pratt Street and the crane dwarfed it.”
The installation – including the attachment of the crane’s boom by a second crane positioned on the opposite side of the pier – went smoothly. But it wasn’t the only extraordinary challenge that Hooker, Superintendent John Allen and the rest of the project team had to overcome to complete the renovation.
Reglazing the pyramid required precise operation of cranes and close attention to weather.
“You had to be particularly careful about wind,” Hooker said. “Obviously, the crane couldn’t work in high wind. But even lower wind could cause the glass to blow and start spinning and potentially hit the structure and break.”
Meanwhile, installers worked on lifts as high as 185 feet and in the heat of the summer. Workers on the sloped section of the pyramid dealt with especially difficult working conditions.
“It’s a 45-degree slope so they worked in a very awkward, uncomfortable position,” Hooker said. “It also got super hot up there. Guys worked in temperatures well over 100 degrees on top of a hot roof. On the sloped section, they were constantly in the sun so we put some pop-up tents up there and tons of water so they could get a little relief.”
Despite those conditions, crews only cracked a single pane of glass out of the 684.
Inside the pyramid, crews devised novel solutions to logistical challenges.
Unable to erect scaffolding or employ a swing stage without removing vegetation from the Upland Tropical Rainforest exhibit, Plano-Coudon contracted The Crew Works – a rigging company that specializes in rigging for events in entertainment venues.
Crew Works not only installed the pyramid’s new bird wire but collaborated with other trades to help install a new misting system and interior lighting.
To preserve the rainforest exhibit, workers avoided or limited some construction processes inside the pyramid. Steelworkers prefabricated large sections of the new decking and catwalk to minimize welding onsite.
“But there wasn’t a freight elevator big enough to bring in those pieces,” Hooker said, so crews created rigging in a stairway and carried up pieces weighing several hundred pounds.
The final challenge of the project, however, was also the biggest surprise.
“The second nerve-wracking part was at the end of the job when they released the sloths back into the space,” Hooker said. “You expect a sloth to be slow. I expected them to just climb up in a tree, find their spot and lay there. But no. They were so excited. They were climbing like crazy all over the place and they instantly climbed onto the bird wire. We had put thousands of hog rings onto the bird wire to make sure it was tied together and taut, and installed stainless steel straps to hold it to the structure. I was so nervous. I thought if that bird wire doesn’t hold because sloths climb on it, I will never be allowed to work in Baltimore again.”
The wire held perfectly and the project team got one final satisfaction from the project.
“Seeing that the plan worked and the bird wire held and the sloths and other animals were so happy in their new space was pretty rewarding,” Hooker said. “I swear I saw a sloth smile. Even though it has three toes, it gave me a thumbs up.”