Archer Western – UTMB District Heating & Cooling Systems Project

archerwestern picArcher Western helps the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, complete its restoration from damages caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

By Jim Harris

In 2008, Hurricane Ike devastated the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) campus in Galveston, causing more than $700 million in damage. Of the many campus building systems affected, perhaps none was as critically hit as UTMB’s heating and cooling system, which was permanently damaged after being completely submerged in salt water for weeks following the storm surge.

Several years of restoration and reconstruction efforts on the campus are now culminating in an effort to replace the system and protect it against future damage. “We are now performing the last phases of the restoration,” says John W. Frye, project director for Archer Western, the contractor working on the project. “It’s taken this long to get to a point where the campus is fully functioning.”

The contractor expects to complete the heating and cooling system replacement upgrade before the end of the year. Archer Western’s series of contracts on this final phase totaling $125 million with UTMB also includes replacing and strengthening mechanical and other systems. Work on the project began in 2015.

Frye says Archer Western is approaching the project with a sense of urgency. “In a sense, it’s like a race against time to get this completed before there’s another hurricane, which we think we will do,” he says.

“When the next major hurricane comes, not only will the campus be restored, but it will also be hardened against such devastation in the future,” Frye adds. “This will be a positive for not just the people who use the facility, but also for taxpayers both nationwide and in Texas who would have to bear the brunt of the costs of another restoration.”

‘A Dynamic Jobsite’

The project includes converting the campus’ heating system from an open steam-based system to a hot water piping system, which is less susceptible to flood damage. Marcel Blanchard, UTMB’s associate vice president of utilities oversaw the effort to complete a new heating and cooling plant on the east side of the campus last year; in addition, renovation work to the campus’ west side plant will be completed by Archer Western this fall, Frye says.

The new east plant will provide redundancy in the event that the existing west or central plants are inoperable, ensuring that heating and cooling will continue during a storm. The heating and cooling system will be connected by a new thermal distribution loop running through the campus. Steam pipes are being replaced by enclosed not water pipes. “We are ensuring that everything located underground or below 20 feet above sea level is encapsulated,” Frye says, noting that this requires pipe to be fabricated off-site and then brought to the campus for installation.archerwest box

The new heating and cooling system will serve 52 campus buildings. Archer Western’s contract entails work replacing systems in 27 of those buildings, which include hospitals, laboratories and a correctional mental health facility. “This is a very dynamic jobsite, in that people are conducting business as usual while we’re performing construction around them,” he adds.

In addition to replacing steam pipes with enclosed hot water piping, Archer Western is also restoring and upgrading some mechanical and electrical systems on campus. Critical systems in several buildings are also being elevated, meaning they will remain functional even if a building needs to be evacuated due to wind damage or worse flooding by sea water.

An example of this work is the construction of a new mechanical room on the second floor of one building, which replaces a first-floor mechanical room that was damaged by flooding. Archer Western is also building a pedestrian bridge between the third floors of two laboratory buildings that will have new heating and cooling distribution piping located beneath it, Frye says.

One of the more complex portions of the project involves the construction of a new electrical substation, designed by Shaw Smith Associates, at the third level above a section of one of the hospitals on campus. The new substation above the hospital is intended to be above flood levels of any expected future storms.  The company is removing electrical circuits from a former substation and replacing them with new circuits, a process that involves more than 20 planned shutdowns in portions of the hospital. Emergency generators are providing electricity during these periods, he adds.

Frye credits the company’s staff and subcontractors, as well as UTMB and OFPC staff, for the success of the project. Affiliated Engineers Inc. provided the designs for the majority of Archer Western’s project as well as other restoration projects on the campus. The company’s principal is Mark Lee. “They’ve taken on a huge task by designing this major university healthcare campus infrastructure restoration project,” Frye says.

Archer Western’s main contacts within the UTMB staff are Jim Victor, associate vice president; Tarek Thomas, a program director for the university; and Marcel Blanchard, UTMB’s associate vice president of utilities. These three and their staff have all helped coordinate the campus and hospitals shutdowns and other efforts meant to allow UTMB staff to safely perform their jobs while construction takes place, he adds.

‘Uniquely Qualified’

Archer Western is part of The Walsh Group, a 119-year-old family-owned company providing design, build, finance, operation and activation services. The Walsh Group operates as Archer Western, Walsh Construction and Walsh Canada across 19 regional offices and is listed as the fifth largest healthcare general contractor in the United States by Modern Healthcare.

The company’s size and healthcare experience, as well as its experience in large civil sector projects, made it the ideal contractor for the UTMB project. “This is a mixed bag type of a project,” Frye says. “We are one of the largest contractors in Texas, and a good portion of our work is in heavy civil and industrial piping, and this is in that category.

“Being the fifth-largest healthcare contractor, we also know how to perform work on large healthcare campuses safety without having a negative impact on hospital facilities or their occupants,” he adds. “There aren’t many companies that are as skilled in both healthcare and civil work as we are, and that makes us uniquely qualified for this project.”

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