WASHINGTON - Superior Air Handling Corp. made and installed all of the ductwork for the just-finished new Washington Convention Center.

WASHINGTON - As anyone who drives through the nation's capital knows, navigating its Byzantine roadways can be almost as tough as getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on a budget.

It's even harder when you're hauling 3 million pounds of sheet metal behind you.

Just ask employees of Superior Air Handling Corp. The Clearfield, Utah-based sheet metal contractor made and installed all of the ductwork for the $834 million, just-finished new Washington Convention Center. Superior's $18 million contract meant almost three years of fabricating the duct at the company's shop in Utah and then hauling it 2,000 miles in semi-trucks to the construction site, braving the Beltway's notorious traffic.

"At the peak, we had about two trucks a day (arriving)," said Superior senior manager Shervin Afzal. "It was a challenging project, as you can imagine."

Covering six city blocks and taking up 2.3 million sq. ft., city officials say the Washington Convention Center is the largest building in the city and the sixth-largest such facility in the nation. They boast it is as long as two Washington Monuments lying end to end. It contains enough steel to erect seven Eiffel Towers, and six football fields, two major-league baseball fields or four jumbo jets could fit inside, officials say.

But none of that mattered to Afzal or other Superior officials. They just wanted to make sure the ductwork went in smoothly. "There was lots of time spent in the coordination process. We took coordination very seriously," Afzal said.

The new Washington Convention Center is in the sixth-largest such facility in the U.S.

A long process

The process took more than 13 months, and involved reviewing the frequently changing 1,500 shop drawings for the mechanical, plumbing, electrical and fire-sprinkler systems.

"If you were to compare the original shop drawings to the current (ones), you almost don't recognize" them, Afzal said.

The design of the convention center presented its own challenges. Three architecture firms were involved: Mariani & Associates, Devrouax & Purnell (both of Washington), and Atlanta-based Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates. They created a structure made up of three huge sections, only one of which is above ground. The one above-ground section is split in two, allowing traffic from L and M streets to flow through, with a connecting pedestrian bridge.

Rectangular ductwork, which had been packaged in crates, had to be taken off of the trucks and brought directly to the area where it was needed.

"We banged it together on-site," said assistant project engineer James Pitre-Williams.

Some spiral ductwork was required. It was made at the convention center by Algona, Wash.-based AccuDuct Manufacturing Inc. Some sections were up to 64 inches in diameter and 20 feet long.

On-site fabrication helps

"Manufacturing the spiral on-site was a tremendous help to us," Afzal said. "This allowed us to control the inventory and quality of the fabrication."

It also meant one less thing for Superior to have to haul from Utah and store until they were ready to use. Even with more than 2 million sq. ft. under construction, storage space was not easy to come by, Afzal said.

Breathing room probably wasn't easy to get, either. The 80 or so Superior employees at the convention center had to work around more than a thousand other construction workers who were working on the project six days a week.

Superior worked under the supervision of Baltimore-based Poole and Kent, and Montgomery Mechanical of Capitol Heights, Md.

The massive project was not without problems. In April 2001, a few steel roof trusses collapsed, requiring Superior and several other contractors to relocate to a different part of the building. Several snowstorms slowed work on the center's exterior. And then there was Sept. 11, 2001.

Pitre-Williams was working at the convention center the morning American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into Pentagon, located about two miles away. At the time, he was unaware that two planes had just struck the World Trade Center in New York City.

"That was a very tough time," Pitre-Williams recalled. "We were working in the building and we got a call from one of the guys telling us that they saw smoke coming from the Pentagon."

But despite the terrorist attacks, city officials were determined to complete the project: work resumed Sept. 13.

Lots of air to handle

The convention center's hvac system required 66 Trane Co. air-handling units, placed in 20 mechanical rooms located throughout the buildings. The biggest units can handle up to 49,000 cubic feet of air flow per minute (cfm), necessary to protect occupants from Washington's notoriously muggy summers. The five-module units consist of a supply fan, cooling and heating coils, a filter rack, and a mixing box with Traq dampers.

Trane also made the 250 variable air volume (VAV) terminal boxes and unit heaters the system required. Woods Air Movement Ltd.'s vane axial return fans were placed apart from the air-handling units. The largest return fan is 54 inches round, with a three-phase, 30-horsepower motor and air-flow capacity of 44,100 cfm. Some of the fans were placed up to 30 feet above the slab floor. In the event of a fire, the return fans are also part of the smoke-removal system.

The convention center has more than 175 exhaust fans, also made by Woods. The fans serving the center's loading docks have a capacity of 53,000 cfm.

The center's nine food-preparation areas use kitchen exhaust fans made by Acme Engineering and Manufacturing Corp. There are more than 5,000 grilles, registers and diffusers, made by Richardson, Texas-based Kruger and Canada-based Price Industries Inc. used in the buildings. They were supplied by Long Building Environments of Englewood, Colo. In addition, sound attenuators made by Industrial Acoustic Co. of New York and Ruskin Co. provided the 225 fire and fire/smoke dampers used in the convention center.

Pitre-Williams said he really enjoyed working on the convention center.

"It's interesting working in D.C.," he said. "This project is not something that you expect to see in any other city in the country. It feels a little more important when the Capitol is in the back of the job site."

And designers say they intended the Washington Convention Center to be important, with some of the most lavish furnishings ever seen in or on a convention center: The exterior is made of polished limestone, brick, glass and concrete. The floors of the main lobby are granite, and carpeting imported from Ireland covers most other areas.

City officials say they expect the new convention center to be a huge boost to the local economy, creating more than 17,000 jobs.

"We anticipate and expect that this magnificent facility will quickly come to be known as the nation's meeting place," said Lewis H. Dawley III, general manager and CEO of the Washington Convention Center Authority, which owns and operates the new center.

Officials estimate the center will bring in $1.4 billion in annual revenue and attract more than 3 million visitors a year.