Exterior skin shown before panels are installed
CLEVELAND - Frank Gehry is well known in architectural circles for his futuristic building designs often incorporating stainless steel. Born in Toronto, Gehry has been called "perhaps the 20th century's most important architect."

The Peter B. Lewis building at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University here in the heart of Cleveland is a 149,000-sq.-ft., $61.7 million Genry design.

Explaining the entire contracting/ construction process is as complicated as the sweeping curves of the design itself. Everyone recounting the experience seems a bit bemused - albeit satisfied - with the process.

General contractor is Hunt Construction Group. Crown Corr, Gary, Ind., and Castle Heating and Air, Cleveland, are subcontractors for installing the sheet metal. Crown Corr is responsible for the architectural exterior panels, while Castle has been in charge of the ductwork.

"There are no straight lines in this building," said Mark Boucher, owner of Castle. The ductwork had to follow the unique contours of this unusual structure, making it necessary to coordinate their work closely with other trades. Four Air Enterprise units provide the cooling through a spaghetti-like system of long and short length rectangular galvanized duct and multiple TDC connectors.

Unusual, but essential, throughout construction was use of a 3D graphic design system from CATIA using a global positioning system (GPS) to ensure accuracy. CATIA is a proprietary software system known mostly for high-tech CAD-CAM work, employed by companies such as Boeing, DaimlerChrysler and BMW. It is seldom used in the construction industry.

In early August, Boucher said his company had already been on the jobsite for 16 months. "It's been one of our larger jobs," said Boucher, who put the ductwork portion alone at about $1.3 million. Far from standard work, the estimating and cost-controls have been a moving target. Castle is a five year old company with approximately 40 employees.

Dan Seib, Hunt Construction, with some of the unusual curved ductwork needed.

Close teamwork, support

Greg Husarik of Crown Corr, Gary, Ind., said that altogether, including a lengthy pre-construction process, he has been involved with this job for almost three years. "In the beginning, there was a lot of skepticism," he recalls. "By that, I mean the architect was suspicious of us and the general contractor, not sure we could do the job. But now everyone gets along. Whenever we ran into a problem, we worked together to figure to find the solution. That was the only way to do it. It wasn't like some jobs where the architect designs it and you have to duplicate it exactly as drawn. This job was just so complicated and unlike everything else, that we had to make some things work. All in all, the architect on site was happy with what we came up with. It turned into a big love fest, partly because we've got some really good guys doing the work."

Occasionally there was a dramatic "Oh my God!" when materials or sight lines didn't line up. There was little in the way of printed blueprints or documents to consult. Instead, it was back to the computer screen, back to CATIA - which was fortunately always right, never wrong, and eventually allowed for any quirks to be worked out. The alternatives could have been disastrous.

Gehry's distinctive style emerged in the 1970s with his dramatic use of ordinary building materials, such as chain-link fencing, plywood, and corrugated metal, and continued into the 1990s with his use of "bold sculptural forms." His designs are thought to reveal the influence of famed Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier; however, he is known for his own use of nontraditional geometric forms in simple buildings constructed of corrugated metal and other ordinary materials.

Gehry designed the Experience Music project in Seattle, an ode to Jimi Hendrix and other new wave rockers. That project was also profiled before in Snips magazine, and the $100 million titanium-faced Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which opened to international acclaim in 1997. The dramatically curved forms of the museum are accentuated by a shimmering metal surface.

His work is not without controversy. Something of a rebel, Gehry is known in part for an early renovation of his own Santa Monica pink-shingled bungalow, around which he built another house using raw construction materials like chain-link fencing. The house brought Gehry professional acclaim and an American Institute of Architects award. Neighbors, on the other hand, threatened to sue. But in 1989 Gehry was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, an international award recognizing professional excellence in architecture.

When you look at this unusual college structure under construction, you can't help but wonder at how some of it is being done. Dan Seib explains that it has to do with developed surfaces, no radial development. When you bend materials in only one direction it allows use of more traditional materials and yet prevents oil canning (the discolored film that can dull stainless steel's shiny appearance.)

The material itself isn't unusual or revolutionary. It is 305 and 316 stainless with a #4 brushed finish. The galvanized steel substructure was a Crown Corr suggestion; originally the architect thought it should be wood. But Crown Corr is a metal fabricator and wasn't sure about how that would work; in addition there was a question of fireproofing. Looking back, the steel proved to be the right decision.

The Lewis school sits on a fairly small footprint and must blend into the general size and architectural theme of the surrounding structures, and yet also must stand out on its own. Hence the use of light red brick, a traditional building material, coupled with curved walls and liberal use of stainless steel.

Typical challenges arose during the project, along with the more unusual ones this design also presented. There was a period of several weeks during this year's long, hot Midwestern summer where working so closely to the heated-up metal wore everyone out. But the work continued.

Tim Bayer was superintendent on the job for Crown Corr, a young man only two or three years out of apprentice school who jumped voluntarily knee-deep into this long, complicated project. Based in Gary, with a wife and young children there, he thought initially the project might take him away for seven months. Instead, it has taken almost two years. From his last job where he supervised a crew of 10, he has taken the task of supervising 40.

Husarik recalls that Bayer first got involved when, walking past his desk and seeing the rather unusual plans laid out, said, "I'd like to work on that!"

Mark Boucher, owner of Castle, said GPS and laser levels were valuable tools used on this high-tech jobsite. Many of the ducts were short lengths, meaning labor-intensive installation, and their positions were crucial.

Boucher started his company in 1995 and has kept busy with several big, high profile jobs, including the Cleveland Botanical Gardens practically right next door to the Lewis school building; a planetarium, along with many schools and hospitals. Boucher said his company has been "number two or three" in hours worked in the Cleveland area over the past couple of years, but things have slowed down a bit lately to the point they have cut back from as many as 45 workers in the field to around 30, with generally 6-8 in the shop, although that at times was up to 14. Crucial shop equipment includes a Lockformer Vulcan 2900 plasma cutter, a Lockformer TDC, a Roto Die, Tennsmith, a Norlok Sure-Lok, and Millermatic MIG welder. Boucher said he is considering his own coil line. The company uses 5-foot duct lengths and does not yet have its own coil line. Employees belong to SMWIA Local 33.

The laser positioning system was purchased specifically for this job but Boucher said it could come in handy elsewhere as well.