No brownfield remediation project is easy. And any development that attempts to bring back Detroit is no simple matter. But a team comprised of a developer-builder, a precast concrete wall panel manufacturer, and a healthcare client refused to cede to the concept of “impossible.” So they got it done.
“It” is the new Cardinal Health Distribution Center that sits in an otherwise blighted section of Detroit. The 300,000-square-foot warehouse was built to satisfy stringent Food & Drug Administration criteria for storing and distributing pharmaceuticals and other medical products that serve the six-hospital Henry Ford Health System. It’s one of a new generation of warehouses that are taller (36 feet high) and operate with greater automated efficiencies in temperature-controlled conditions.
But just five years ago, before developer-contractor Kirco Manix began a three-year remediation process, the 18-acre, multi-owner site was a mess. “This was the largest preconstruction project we’ve ever done,” says Dave Endres, Kirco’s project manager. “Taking ownership of the parcels was a challenge, as there were a host of title defects. All buildings had lead and asbestos contaminants. It was a dumping ground with 4,000 tires. There had been a paint factory in this block, 11 larger underground storage tanks, and almost all of the houses had fuel oil tanks.”
It didn’t help that at mid-project, Detroit itself went into Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Kirco subcontracted much of the remediation work (AKT Peerless) that engaged more than 100 environmental engineers of one type or another. Even with best management practices, a vapor barrier subfloor had to be installed in the new building to ensure no residual gases would work their way inside.
What Matters is What’s Inside the Walls
Removal of contaminants, as well as pavement from streets and alleys (which was recycled), took three years. Actual construction went much more quickly—due in part to the nature of the facility, but also because prefabricated walls were used.
In fact, the erection of 93,000 square feet (2,600 lineal feet) of walls took just three weeks on site—as compared to masonry construction and insulation that would require up to five months. Just as important, the selection of precast concrete over masonry and metal construction proved to be efficient in all kinds of green ways.
“The product we used was VersaCore+Green,” explains David Stanton, sales engineer for Fabcon, which produces the panels. The Grove City, Ohio-based company manufactured the patented product using recycled concrete aggregate and insulated billets (sandwiched between the concrete layers) that is also largely made of recycled material. The 8-inch thick walls provide R-12 insulation for this particular structure and can add LEED points and tax credits to a project due to the combination of recycled material and insulation value—plus it was manufactured within 500 miles of the building site. This R-value is three points higher than standard precast wall panels because of the insulation.
Precast also enables a greater use of a building’s footprint, explains Stanton. “Companies like Amazon push the envelope on warehouse heights,” he says. “This height was not possible with masonry block construction. And that would be more expensive because additional interior insulation would be required.”
Additional sustainability features of the VersaCore+Green product are weight and sizing. The nature of the porous materials used in the panels makes for a lighter shipping load. And when shipping 8-foot-wide panels (a 12-foot-wide version is also available), three-times more can be loaded onto truck beds within transportation authorities’ regulations, effectively reducing the number of trips from factory to site by more than half.
There are Jobs Inside Those Walls
Stanton explains the prefabricated walls are made to order as each job has variations. “No two buildings are alike,” he says. “We create a diaphragm for the building, with steel joists to connect the walls to the roof.” To produce load-bearing structural panels, pre-stressed tendons of steel cable are embedded in the concrete. The panels then can be cut to size to accommodate doors and windows as needed.
Meanwhile, as Detroit digs itself out of decades of decline, this building serves as a bright spot. Approximately 150 construction tradespeople were employed in the four-year, $32 million project. Even better, another 150 permanent warehousing jobs now serve an important hospital system from where refuse and abandoned buildings once stood. Without an ability to build a structure that meets FDA standards on a cost-effective schedule—after a lengthy site remediation—those jobs in this neighborhood might never have been possible. Which makes it a local economic remediation story, too.
Walls That Hold Music
There is a lot that architects can do with boxes that isn’t boring. Using prefabricated wall panels to build those boxes helps.
Case in point is the Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center near Philadelphia. Situated alongside the city’s beloved Schuylkill River, designers at Buell Kratzer Powell (BKP) had to manage the difficulties of a tight site and the program needs of its occupant, a 250-seat performance space, which includes having good acoustics.
This may be even more the case when a concert is taking place inside while the Center’s outdoor recreation areas host energetic children. Fabcon’s precast concrete walls were used to fit the building’s industrial aesthetic—echoing the site’s industrial past—and to help baffle sounds coming in and going out. The wall panels have a 50 Sound Transmission Coefficient (STC), sufficient to keep loud voices out and most of the music in.
Because the building is backed up directly to the river—making the outside unfeasible for traditional masonry construction—the prefabricated walls erected from the inside were a pragmatic solution in the construction phase. The building was also completed faster because Fabcon precast panels go up in mere days as opposed to the weeks required for interlocking brick or building block construction.
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