Building an Arena Inch by Inch
By Maryann Haggerty
Field engineer Jody Biggs stands on the sidewalk next to the downtown sports arena construction site. She speaks quietly into a hand-held radio, giving precise directions to an engineer who's down in the five-acre hole, moving a stake nine one-hundreths of a foot, a little more than an inch. She looks at him again through the tripod-mounted electronic distance meter, or EDM, that she's hauled over to the spot.
When they're satisfied that they have the exact location where the center of one of the arena's columns will rest, her partner will mark the spot with a spray-painted orange "X."
In the fall of 1997, when the arena is scheduled to open, no one will see that spray-painted spot. The 20,000 sports fans who gather to cheer on the Capitals hockey team or the Wizards basketball team probably will never think about Biggs or the hundreds of other workers who labored on the big building.
But if the arena opens as planned, with no accidents, on time and within budget, it will be in part because of Biggs. The energetic 22-year-old is the youngest of six field engineers working for general contractor Clark/Smoot on the arena job. This is the Cleveland native's first job since graduating from Purdue University.
On one recent day, Biggs was among about 170 people at work at the arena site, a 50-foot-deep hole between Sixth and Seventh streets NW over the Gallery Place Metro station. Some ran the big backhoes that clawed at the dirt; others drove the dump trucks that hauled the dirt out. People poured concrete, shoveled holes and hammered boards.
The arena, formally the MCI Center, is the largest private-sector construction project in the District in years. It's costing sports team owner Abe Pollin $175 million, $110 million of which will actual construction costs. All told, an estimated 1,200 people will be involved in the construction. Even more worked to prepare the site, an effort that cost the District $56 million.
Biggs isn't a typical construction worker. For one thing, she's younger than most. For another, she's a she.
Although there were 170 people in the field that day, she counted the women on her fingers. Besides her, there were a plumber, a carpenter, a geotechnical engineer and the women who run the administrative trailer.
It's a fact of life to Biggs, but no big deal. "I don't think of it as being a woman or a man. It's just my job," she said.
As a field engineer, Biggs has an overview of the whole project. The work trailer that she and the five other field engineers share is perched on the edge of the sidewalk at the edge of the hole, one wall lined with a long table that holds hundreds of pages of architectural drawings. Standing at the table, Biggs can point to a detail on a drawing -- a single girder, for example -- then look out a window to where that girder soon will be.
"Our main job," she said, "is to take the drawings and everything the architect and engineer have designed and transfer it to the field."
To do that, the field engineers use computerized versions of the tools surveyors have used for centuries. Surveying is the practical application of trigonometry, a part of math that has confused more than one high school student. Tools, including the EDM, measure distances and angles. From these, the field engineers can determine precisely where any spot on the drawings should be in real life.
With cans of orange spray paint, they mark those spots on the dirt and concrete to show other workers where each individual piece of the building should go. To make sure everything is in the right place, they base their readings from carefully pre-measured points around the site.
For instance, one pre-measured point on the Sixth Street sidewalk, outside a liquor store, is marked with an orange circle. There's another point on the graffiti-covered liquor store wall, a neat orange cross amid the scrawlings by Cool Disco Dan. It measures a known height above sea level.
On this day, Biggs and her partner Rich Mykut, a field engineering party chief, have two major tasks: to mark the locations for three pile supports and a crane pad.
The concrete pile supports will hold up a transfer girder, a length of steel that will span the Metro tunnel to spread the building's weight away from the subway. The pad will support a 240-foot crane, the huge machine that will swing the building's steel structure into place piece by piece.
It is all work that will be underground and invisible when the building opens, but without it, there would be no building.
"This is the fun part," Mykut said. "You never know what you're going to encounter. You have to be on your feet all the time. Once the foundation is done, the building is done."
Construction work starts early -- Biggs usually is there by 6 a.m. -- but there's still paperwork. Before she can head out to the big hole, Biggs fills out a daily report tracking each cubic yard of concrete or dirt, each length of board or reinforced steel.
It's about 8:15 a.m. when Biggs heads down into the excavation site for the first time this day. The quickest way is a long ladder.
Biggs is burdened with a heavy leather tool belt, the EDM in a carrying case strapped to her back and a tripod nearly as tall as she is.
At the bottom, cranes are swinging steel bars through the air, and dump trucks are moving heavy, wet clay up a nearby ramp.
Working in a team with Mykut, Biggs sets the heights for the pile supports that have been framed with wood. Concrete will be poured later to the depth the two indicate.
She sets up a level on the tripod. Mykut is about 20 yards away, holding a 15-foot-long measuring stick. Biggs can't see him, because he's down in a hole, but she can see the top of the stick. They talk back and forth on hand-held radios. He raises and lowers the measuring stick as she directs. Soon, they've marked level points on all sides of the frame, exactly 14 1/2 feet high.
Biggs enjoys the work. "I've always really liked building," she said. "When I was little, I played out in the yard and built forts. It's exciting. It's building models for a living. You actually get to see something accomplished. One day, there's a big hole; the next day, there's a big building."
For the afternoon, her major contribution to the big building will be the pad where a 240-foot-tall crane soon will rest.
Earlier, Biggs and Mykut marked the corner points with their cans of orange spray paint. Crews used those points to align two steel girders. Then another crane lowered a 23-foot-tall orange steel framework onto the girders. It's the bottom section of the big crane.
"It's got to be dead level," Mykut said. Even the tiniest crookedness can cause the top of the crane to tilt.
The crane pad is in a particularly noisy part of the site, next to a big machine that's breaking up old concrete. When two carpenters use a big-bore electric drill to put a hole in a two-by-four, it sounds, by contrast, like the hum of an insect.
To get the crane framework roughly on level, a worker pounds at the steel girders with a sledgehammer. That's so loud that all those around cover their ears.
Biggs and Mykut proceed to measure the height at each corner. There's maybe an inch and a quarter difference between the levels of the highest and lowest points.
Two workers use metal shims and the sledgehammer to slowly raise the low points. Biggs watches through the level, using hand signals to let Mykut know through the din when to go up, down or stop.
Eventually, all four corners are within 1/32 of an inch of level. As Biggs and Mykut leave, carpenters swiftly finish erecting a wooden frame around the pad. It will be filled with concrete to secure the bottom of the big crane.
For the rest of the afternoon, Biggs scrambles up and down from the excavation site, using the same dirt ramp as the dump trucks.
"One thing about this job," she said, "I don't have to the gym after work."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company