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Historic Construction Projects

Bob Moore Construction presents a series of articles on historic commercial construction projects to commemorate the amazing accomplishments of construction companies throughout the years. This article features one of the world's most famous buildings, the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building

the Empire State Building is one of the most challenging projects a construction company ever faced.The Empire State Building is a marvel of engineering and architecture, and it occupies a unique place in the history of construction companies and construction management. Not only was the 1453-foot, 103-story structure built in just over 13 months, the construction company that took on the daunting job allegedly began with nothing on hand - no equipment or supplies that would be sufficient for such an enormous undertaking. How they accomplished the task is a case study in early, successful commercial construction management.

Legend has it that General Motors executive John J. Raskob conceived of the project when he decided to best his arch-rival, Walter Chrysler, who had begun construction on the 1046-foot Chrysler Building. The Chrysler Building was already in competition with the Bank of Manhattan Building at 40 Wall Street to be the tallest building in the world.

Raskob rounded up a group of well known investors that included Coleman and Pierre S. duPont, Louis G. Kaufman and Ellis P. Earl to form Empire State, Inc. He appointed former Governor of New York and Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith to head the group. Raskob then went to architectural firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates, who were known as the best skyscraper architects in the city. He told them he not only wanted an office building whose height would exceed that of the Chrysler Building, but he wanted it to be finished first.

The decade of the 1920s was known as the Art Deco Period in design. The Empire State Building's architects wanted to make this building something that would stand out, even in this era. One way they did this was by creating a building with four facades facing the street, rather than just the one that most buildings have. The highlight of the building would be its imperious tower, set off by the buildup of the lower levels and the indented setbacks of the center. Steel columns and beams were to be used to form a stable 3-D grid. Because the column grids were to be closely spaced, the open spaces in the building would be obstructed. As a result, there would be no column-free spaces on any of the building's floors.

The schedule on this project was as adventurous as the design. The project would be done, the architects planned, in only eighteen months.

General contractors Starrett Brothers and Eken, who were known as the premier "skyline builders" of the 1920s, made a bold bid to win the job. Not only did they promise that they could get the job done on time, but they announced that they would purchase custom-fitted equipment to fulfill the contract. The Starrett Brothers were sure that other commercial contractors trying get the job had assured the client that they had plenty of equipment, and what they didn't have they would rent. The Starret Brothers decided to take a different tack. During the interview process, when asked how much equipment the construction company had on hand they answered that they didn't own anything that would be useful on this project. They explained to the investors that the size and scope of the Empire State Building would create unusual problems. Ordinary building equipment would not suffice so they would have to design and purchase all new, custom pieces. They would sell that equipment and credit the investors with the difference when the project was complete. Their opinion was that this would cost less than renting secondhand equipment and would be more efficient. The investment group agreed.

With such an extremely tight schedule, Starrett Bros. and Eken had to start planning immediately. They determined that more than sixty different types of trade people would be required and that most supplies would need to be ordered to specification because the immense job scope. The supplies had to be made at the plants in as close to finished state as possible, to minimize preparatory work needed at the site. The companies they hired had to be dependable, able to provide quality work, and willing to adhere to the allotted timetable. Time had to be scheduled nearly to the minute. The schedule dictated that each section of the building process overlapped - not a moment was to be wasted.

The Empire State Building was the first commercial construction project to employ the technique of fast-track construction, a commonplace approach today but very new in the early 20th Century. This technique consists of starting the construction process before the designs are fully completed in order to reduce delays and inflation costs. In this case, it was imperative to use the fast-track construction method to win the race for the tallest building. In order to make this work, the structural engineer makes a schematic design based upon the architect's sketches. The schematic design includes the materials to be used in construction (either reinforced concrete or steel), types of floors and column spacing.

The contractors began excavation for the new building in January 1930, even before the demolition of the site's previous occupant, the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, was complete. The Starrett Brothers had pioneered the simultaneous work of demolition and foundation-laying just a year earlier when building 40 Wall Street, an earlier competitor in the race to erect the world's highest building. Two shifts of 300 men worked day and night, digging through the hard rock and creating the foundation.

Less than two months later, in March 1930 construction began on the steel skeleton. The frame of the skyscraper rose at the rate of four and a half stories per week, or more than a story a day. No comparable building has been built at a similar rate of speed. This accomplishment came about through effective logistics combined with a skilled, organized workforce.

famous image from the construction of the Empire State BuildingThe project became a model of efficiency. The contractors created various innovations that saved time, money and manpower. The 60,000 tons of steel for the framework were manufactured in Pittsburgh and transported immediately to New York via train, barge and truck. Legend has it that the steel posts and beams arrived at the site marked with their place in the framework and with the number of the derrick that would hoist them. Workers could then swing the girders into place and have them riveted as quickly as 80 hours after coming out of the furnace and off the roller.

A railway was built at the construction site to move materials quickly. Since each railway car -- a cart pushed by people -- held eight times more than a wheelbarrow, the materials were also moved with less effort. The steel girders could not be raised more than 30 stories at a time, so several large derricks were used to pass the girders up to the higher floors.

In those days, bricks used for construction were usually dumped in the street and then moved from the pile to the bricklayer by wheelbarrow as needed. The streets would have to be closed off, while the labor of moving the bricks was backbreaking and inefficient. With ten million bricks needed for this job, the old method would be impractical and wasteful of time. Instead, Starrett Brothers and Eken devised a chute that led to a hopper in the basement. As the bricks arrived by truck, the contractors had them dumped down the chute. When they were needed, the bricks were released from the hopper and dropped into carts, which were then hoisted up to the appropriate floor.

While the outside of the building was being constructed, electricians and plumbers began installing the internal necessities of the building. Timing for each trade to start working was finely tuned, and the building rose as if being constructed on an assembly line - one where the assembly line did the moving and the finished product stayed put.

In addition to the steel frame, construction materials included 62,000 cubic yards of concrete; 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone and granite, which comprised most of the exterior; 10,000 square feet of Rose Famosa and Estrallante marble; 6,500 windows, whose spandrels were sandblasted to blend their color into the tone of the windows; and 300,000 square feet of Hauteville and Rocheron marble for the elevator lobbies and the corridors on the office floors.

The Starrett Brothers managed a workforce of 3,500 men, who put in seven million man-hours including work on Sundays and holidays. The workers earned $15 a day, an excellent rate of pay in the early 1930s.

The project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Instead of taking 18 months as anticipated, the construction took just under fifteen. Due to reduced costs during the Depression, the final costs totaled only $24.7 million instead of the estimated $43 million.

In September of 1930, only partially finished, the Empire State Building officially became the world's tallest skyscraper. The 1046-foot Chrysler Building, which was completed in May 1930, had held the title for only a few months. When the 85th floor of the Empire State Building was completed, it officially eclipsed its rival.

Construction was completed on April 11, 1931, one year and 45 days after it had begun. President Herbert Hoover officially opened the building on May 1, 1931 by pressing a button in Washington, D.C. which turned on the building's lights. The Empire State Building remained the world's tallest skyscraper for more than 40 years, until the World Trade Center Towers were constructed in 1972.

Although it is no longer the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building is a crowning achievement of architecture, a symbol of New York City, and most of all an amazing accomplishment in the field of commercial construction.

Seventy-three elevators wait to take visitors to the upper floors, but if you prefer the stairs you'll have to climb 1860 steps. Seventy million people have viewed the world from the platforms on the 86th and 102nd floors-approximately 35,000 a day. Famous visitors include Lassie, KISS, Prince Charles and Fidel Castro. The building has appeared in over 50 different movies, including "An Affair to Remember" and "When Harry Met Sally." Floodlights in 18 different color combinations shine on the top of the building on special occasions and holidays.

Interestingly, the building was designed to be a lightning rod for the area and it works: the Empire State Building is struck approximately 100 times each year. In 1945, the structural integrity of the building was tested when a twin-engine B-25 bomber crashed into the 79th floor. Fourteen people were tragically killed, but the building remained standing. Even though one of the plane's engine went right through the entire building, damage was confined to the outer wall.

The lobby of the building is a spectacular feat in itself. It rises five stories and is finished in Art Deco stylings, with large bronze medallions that honor the workers who created this amazing building. The crowning touch is a metal mosaic that features the building as the center of the universe. Marble and granite grace the lobby and are highlighted with brushed stainless steel.

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