Towering Spectacle

Armies of workers push a dream skyward

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Walter Woods – Staff
Tuesday, December 14, 2004

In about 18 months, the building called 1180 Peachtree will be a bright 41-story needle on the Atlanta skyline — this decade’s tallest new skyscraper, busy with people and commerce, worthy of oohs and aahs.

Its workers will toil under 10-foot ceilings and daydream out of floor-to-ceiling glass. Their elevator rides and trips to the restroom will be wrapped in Michelangelo’s favorite marble. The lobby will be a Zen sanctuary of infinity pools, river rocks and 25-foot bamboo trucked from a special farm in Tampa.

But 1180 is more than an unfinished luxury suite. It’s a solid economic piston, one that will employ 1,500 people and feed an army of suppliers in Atlanta, around the country and across the seas.

Hines, a Houston corporate developer, is building 1180 at Peachtree and 14th streets for King & Spalding, the august law firm famous for Griffin Bell and Sam Nunn. The firm will move in by April 2006, a deadline that looms for Hines and its builder, Turner Construction Co.

Right now, 1180 is a half-complete skeleton in a clanging ant’s nest of activity — concrete and dirt, hard hats and cement trucks.

Sidewalk gawkers and Peachtree commuters pause to watch the earth movers dig, the trucks dump and the cranes — so tall that developers have to alert the Federal Aviation Administration — maneuver overhead.

The project, among the largest in the Southeast, will cost $100 million and take a million work-hours to finish. It will use enough paint to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool and enough caulk to circle the Perimeter — twice.

Such a large-scale project is a boon for the metro area’s critical and suffering commercial construction industry, which employs more than 25,000 people. With hiring slow, few companies have needed new office space.

For the past few years, developers have let prime lots sit empty and scrapped towers on the drawing board for companies like Georgia-Pacific, Worldspan and GE Energy. Some commercial builders and their suppliers laid off workers. Others kept busy building condos, hospitals and public schools.

The slowdown has been particularly sharp in the metro Atlanta area, which relies on construction, said Mark Vitner, an economist with Wachovia Corp. And 1180 has been a welcome oasis of business.

“There’s a whole economy in Atlanta designed to support construction . . . and it’s a cyclical business,” Vitner said. “There’s a limited life span of the project, but it’s an important part of Atlanta’s economy.”

The tower enriches a long list of small and large suppliers from around the metro area.

The roofer is from Atlanta. Concrete comes from a company in Alpharetta. The blinds are from Lawrenceville. The sprinklers come from Grayson. A Duluth company helped clear the site. A Marietta firm, Jamco, designed the building’s glass and aluminum skin.

For Jamco, 1180 was the largest job the company had ever won and a windfall in lean times, said its vice president, Robert Dalles. The contract, which Jamco earned a year ago, was big enough that the company added jobs to its site crews.

“Business in the industry had really slowed down, but this helps,” Dalles said.

The project’s ripples reach beyond Georgia.

The elevator supplier is in Jacksonville. The decorative metal comes from Alabama. The reflecting pool consultant is Canadian. The 10,000 square feet of limestone in the tower comes from France. The 18,500 square feet of marble is shipped from Italy.

All told, 1180’s construction has created more jobs than most corporate relocations.

The day-to-day activity has written paychecks for more than 500 workers, said Robert Baird, project manager for Turner Construction. That doesn’t count a platoon of 100 architects, engineers, marketing people, brokers and suppliers.

And one bamboo farmer.

An indoor forest

Robert Tornello doesn’t sell ice to Eskimos, but he does sell bamboo to China.

Tornello Nurseries supplies the ribbed stalks — as tall as telephone poles — to zoos, airports and office buildings around the world.

Tornello will pack about a dozen of the plants, valued at $35,000, in a special container and truck them to 14th Street. His nursery will professionally install each stalk, creating an Asian forest inside the lobby.

Buildings like 1180 put food on the table for suppliers like Tornello. And a major contract like this cultivates more business, he said.

“The building will be publicized and a lot of power players, corporate players, will come through the lobby,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of my business comes from word-of-mouth. . . . A good project will sell 20 more.”

In Atlanta, the project can have the same multiplying effect on the city’s skyline — and its economy.

A prominent job like 1180 can spread tower envy among other developers and hurry other projects out of the ground, said Dwight Morgan, former Atlanta president for construction giant Skanska.

“Once a big one gets going, it leads others to say, ‘We’re going to go ahead with our plans,’ ” said Morgan, who now runs Morgan & Bartos Construction.

“The market is turning a corner overall, and [the 1180] project was a catalyst,” he said.

Early to rise . . .

A skyscraper under construction barely sleeps.

Crews start as early as 3 a.m. and sometimes toil until midnight.

Building a landmark skyscraper is a colossal undertaking, from the precarious exercise of lifting tons of concrete 650 feet into the air at a busy intersection, to checking off an endless list of details with the clock running.

The construction of 1180 is directed from a trailer at the foot of the tower. It’s a temporary war room, where a team of developers, builders and architects makes thousands of small decisions that can make or break a project.

Mary Hill, a 22-year industry veteran, is Hines’ vice president of construction and leads the team.

John Robbins, a clean-cut Hines broker, is the project manager who markets the building and signs the tenants.

Baird, a no-nonsense construction whiz, is the lead man for Turner Construction.

Each manager is consumed by the project for more than two years, working vampires’ hours and cutting family time.

The pressure in their trailer can be intense. The stakes are huge, as tall as the building itself. Careers, reputations and livelihoods are on the line.

A mistake can mean a delay or a cost overrun that can kill the project and sink the developer, said Bob Voyles, chief executive officer of developer Seven Oaks Co. and former local vice president of Hines. He fathered 1180 from the drawing board before leaving Hines earlier this year.

If a big project misses deadlines and runs over budget, lenders seeking to salvage their investments can turn from friend to foe, eventually cutting out the developer as a financial partner and revoking its lucrative percentage of the building’s future profits.

Such stumbles sully developers’ reputations, curbing their ability to win future projects, Voyles said. “The industry is small enough that if you screw up . . . too many times, people will quit calling you.”

And everyone is watching. Competitors, industry rivals, future customers, even people on the street are interested in the progress.

“Rumors start to fly whether it’s going well — and your competitors spread . . . those rumors,” said Morgan, the construction executive.

It all adds up to some gray hair.

“This is very high-profile project for Hines,” said Robbins, the Hines project manager. “Getting it done on time, on schedule, on budget, and getting it leased up, there’s a lot at stake for me personally.”

Impressive digs

Every skyscraper starts with a hole.

In 1180’s case, it starts with 192 holes, the deepest drilled 65 feet down until the drills hit bedrock.

Filled with concrete, the holes become foundations for the columns, which act as the tower’s bones. At 1180, there are 32 building columns for each floor.

Everything else — ducts, glass and metal — is attached to and installed around the columns, a systematic stacking process repeated 41 times to the top.

Despite potential pitfalls, and two work-stopping hurricanes, 1180 got out of the ground well, Baird said.

That’s critical. Most troubled skyscrapers stumble early, he said, and fall behind while correcting unforeseen ground problems, like rock or buried tanks.

1180 has also breezed past another hurdle, testing the tower’s aluminum skin and ornamental crown against the elements at a wind tunnel in Miami. For safety, skyscrapers must subject their hulls to fierce man-made wind tunnels. Many fail, Hill said, causing months of costly redesigns.

When it’s finally done, 1180 will be a trophy for Hines, King & Spalding and Atlanta, Hill said. That makes the grueling hours rewarding.

“It sounds corny,” she said, “but every day I leave work — and this is stressful work — even if I’m leaving in the middle of the night, I have a sense of accomplishment.”

1. After the site is cleared, 192 holes are drilled as deep as 65 feet down until the bit hits bedrock. Some holes are up to 8 feet wide.
2. A worker is lowered to clean and flatten the holes, with a jackhammer, for stability.
3. Concrete is poured into the holes and strengthened with rebar. This anchors the buildings foundation.
4. Crews install concrete caps on anchors and erect columns for the initial floors.
5. Temporary wood frames are put up to support the pouring of concrete for each floor.
6. Crews then install air ducts, plumbing and electrical systems, windows and aluminum skin. The process is then repeated for each of the 41 floors.

2006: Estimated completion date
650: Building height in feet
41: Floors
670,000: Square feet
700: Tons of steel used in construction
95,000: Tons of concrete used in construction