The Bigger the Better
Massive is the word that best describes the rail car manufacturing facility that Walbridge and its joint venture partner, Yates Construction, built near Cherokee, Ala.
It’s a 2.1 million-square-foot behemoth that sits on a 635-acre site. From one end to the other, it measures three-quarters of a mile. The day it opened, it became North America’s largest railcar plant. The project required 900 onsite craftspeople, movement of 2.9 million cubic yards of dirt, 22,600 tons of structural steel and 75,000 cubic yards of concrete. And it was built in just 18 months.
Bringing Together Great Minds Means Avoiding Knocking Heads
The project team, which included designer Albert Kahn Associates, worked diligently to stay in close contact throughout the build cycle. Use of the latest technology, coupled with people meeting regularly and sharing updates, kept everyone in the loop, minimized errors and maximized results.
Walbridge is well known for collaboration and creating innovative solutions for expansive projects. Its efforts at National Alabama Corporation’s (NAC) rail car facility were a prime example of working with design and construction partners to deliver big results for a happy customer.
A Superstructure with Maximum Flexibility
The project team faced the challenge of constructing a facility that was big enough to accommodate the production of railcars, which measure nearly 90 feet in length, are 20 feet high and weigh close to 70,000 pounds each. Railcars don’t maneuver very easily, so the production process would have to stretch the full length of the building. Figuring out the most efficient configuration for the manufacturing area was a must. The lines also had to be flexible to allow for multiple product lines to be built at the plant.
Another challenge was fusing function and form together with sustainability. Reducing the plant’s carbon footprint was important, as well as creating a healthy, amenable work environment. The design called for extensive utilization of natural lighting and a natural ventilation system that would eliminate the need for air conditioning.
An aggressive schedule required fast-track design and construction techniques in order to deliver the project on time. And staying on top of the nearly $300 million budget was a critical requirement.
High-Tech Solutions for High Expectations
Technology is Good
After multiple design iterations, the design team confirmed the need to build a very long, narrow building. It also looked at ways to develop a flexible system that would allow NAC to produce its entire product family using only four production lines. Blasting, painting, finishing and shipping lines were stacked adjacent to each other to allow the functions to flow in parallel. Two large moving platforms were incorporated into the floor to transfer railcars from the four production lines to various finishing lines.
Albert Kahn Associates also utilized a design innovation created by its famous founder nearly a century earlier. They produced a 2,000-foot-long roof monitor – or giant skylight – above the manufacturing floor that would allow natural light in and also serve to ventilate warmed air out of the facility. Louvers positioned along the plant’s lower walls would draw in cool air, which rose toward the ceiling as it warmed and then exited through the roof monitor. This natural cooling system eliminated the need for air conditioning.
One construction method used to cut time from the schedule was the use of on-site precast concrete for the building enclosure. Panels, typically spanning 30 feet between column footings, were poured in on-site setting beds, cured, and then moved into position around the building. This compressed the schedule by eliminating formwork erection and delivery logistics. Sequenced panel installation was timed to closely follow steel erection, which further expedited construction.
Throughout the project, the team used multiple tools to track progress and control cost. One of the most important was Prolog, an electronic collaborative tool used to manage the status of work and easily share pertinent information among team members.
A Remarkable Fusion of Function, Form and Sustainable Design
Upon completion, NAC’s new manufacturing facility was the largest, most modern railcar manufacturing facility in North America.
It was designed to provide low-cost, flexible operations with superior product output. The project also combined intelligent design and engineering with environmental sensitivity. The LEED® certified project minimized impact on the surrounding area, reduced water and energy consumption, and provided a healthy work environment for employees.
The project team has been recognized multiple times for its efforts on the project, including receiving an Excellence in Construction & Design Award in 2010 from the Engineering Society of Detroit.