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February 24, 2012

The Case for Elegant Solutions
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

I was reading an ENR story about the San Francisco PUC Headquarters building and was impressed with a value engineering detail. During the construction document design phase, the structural engineer changed the steel frame to post tensioned concrete and saved $5M US. The two-way post tensioned floor slab had shallower edge girders which allowed for more day-lighting. The concrete floor also allowed for an open ceiling, eliminating acoustic drop ceiling and providing a cool, open look that is also more cost-effective.

The structural design that resists the substantial earthquake requirements of San Francisco was inspired by bridge design. The shear walls in the core of the building are vertically post tensioned to minimize seismic drift.

“This was that elegant solution,” says Williams, vice president of technical systems for the San Francisco-based builder Webcor. “One good solution kept on bringing other positive results.”

I challenge you and myself to put in the effort and keep striving for those elegant solutions. I know we’re too busy. I know it’s easier to just do what we did before. But our value soars when we occasionally produce elegant solutions to the problems we face.

An elegant solution should solve a problem in an unexpected way, usually simplifying the process and often saving money. There should be other positive results that continue to spring forth from an elegant solution.

I liked this definition for elegant solution:

The word elegant, in general, is an adjective meaning of fine quality. Refinement and simplicity are implied, rather than fussiness, or ostentation. An elegant solution, often referred to in relation to problems in disciplines such as mathematics, engineering, and programming, is one in which the maximum desired effect is achieved with the smallest, or simplest effort. Engineers, for example, seek the elegant solution as a means of solving a problem with the least possible waste of materials and effort. The elegant solution is also likely to be accomplished with appropriate methods and materials – according to the Elegant Solution Organization, duct tape is not likely to be part of an elegant solution, unless, of course, the problem involves taping ducts.

So let’s give ourselves some time and space to work on elegant solutions. Your market value will increase and you’ll have more joy.


February 16, 2012

I’m Somebody Now
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

When I walked up to the mailbox this morning and saw the new ENR magazine with the cover showing the Best of the Best projects for 2011 (of which I was a judge), I felt like Navin R. Johnson when the new phonebook came out. You really do need to take a minute and watch the video below, you can’t possibly be too busy and you need the laugh.


My thoughts were similar to Navin’s as I walked down the driveway and thought:

I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book everyday. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity that makes people…things are going to start happening to me now.

But getting out of my weird brain and into the story, the ENR Editors selected the Facebook Data Center as the Editor’s Choice best project of 2012. It was Facebook’s first data center, LEED Gold certified and one of the most energy efficient data centers ever built. In keeping with the Facebook hacker tradition, all the facility CAD plans and specs are given away free to anyone.

They found substantial energy efficiency by custom building the servers, using only the needed components and not wasting energy on powering extra components found in off-the-shelf servers. They also used higher voltages in the facility, cutting out many stage transformers and the associated energy losses. Typical data centers lose 25% of their power in these conversions, but the Facebook facility was reduced to a 7% loss.

The facility also harvests rain water and captures and recycles the evaporative cooling water mist that didn’t get fully absorbed into the air. Lots of similar innovative design decisions made this an impressive project. I also liked that they had a transformer failure in their start-up and studied the situation with a milli-second by milli-second analysis to truly understand the cause.

But back to me, here’s my blurb from the Meet the Judges section:

Ned Pelger



Pelger Engineering & Construction

Based in Lancaster County, Penn., Pelger managed design/build construction projects for 30 years, mostly factories, offices and apartment buildings. In the last five years, he to mentor young contractors moving up the ranks or out the door to start their own firms. Pelger also authored Joyful Living: Build Yourself a Great Life!


February 10, 2012

Gehry’s New World Symphony in South Beach
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

I like to check out new architecture while vacationing. With some research I found that architect Frank Gehry had designed the New World Symphony building and parking garage in South Beach. Apparently he babysat the current New World Symphony director and couldn’t resist the call to work with a friend. As I looked for the building, I assumed it would be more modest than many of Gehry’s works due to funding constraints. Certainly the building exterior indicated a Gehry design, but also a restraint.

The facade showed some interesting detailing, with the curtain wall hung outside the building. We couldn’t get into the building interior, which I read was the best of the building design. It was lauded as a truly functional and beautiful space.

I actually loved the adjacent parking garage design. From what I could determine, a mild upgrade in cost led to a beautiful building.

I also thought the adjacent park, which wasn’t designed by Gehry but by a local firm, was also done really well. It just has a peaceful feel to it. The park gets used for concerts, both live and remote from within the building.

We enjoyed our little architecture tour. I could pretend that I have an aesthetic clue…which, of course, I don’t. But we sure do get things built efficiently.  Oh well, I yam what I yam.


January 31, 2012

ENR Announces Best of the Best Projects 2011 Awards
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

I got the following news release from the folks at Engineering News Record about the contest I helped judge. It was a fascinating process.

Engineering News-Record (ENR) is pleased to announce the winners of its fourth annual Best of the Best Projects Awards, a national competition that recognizes design and construction excellence based on regional winners of ENR’s seven regional publications’ Best Projects 2011 Awards. Winners will be profiled in the February 13, 2012 issue of ENR.

Out of 119 regional Best Projects winners, an independent jury of design and construction professionals selected 18 winners in categories ranging from green building to transportation. Projects were judged on safety, innovation, contribution to the industry/community, aesthetic and functional quality of design and construction craftsmanship.

One project, to be announced in the February 13, 2012 issue of ENR, will also be selected for the Editor’s Choice Award—a single project that stood out to ENR’s editors as an outstanding achievement in 2011.

ENR’s Best of the Best 2011 Award Winners:

  • Best Civil Works/Infrastructure – Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Floodwall, New Orleans, La.; submitted to ENR Texas & Louisiana by Traylor-Massman-Weeks LLC
  • Best Cultural/Worship – DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York, N.Y.; submitted to ENR New York by H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture
  • Best Government/Public Building – Chandler City Hall, Chandler, Ariz.; submitted to ENR Southwest by Sundt Construction Inc.
  • Best Green Building – Facebook Data Center, Prineville, Ore.; submitted to ENR California by Facebook
  • Best Health Care – Helen DeVos Childrens Hospital, Grand Rapids, Mich.; submitted to ENR Midwest by Turner Construction Co.
  • Best Higher Education/Research – Kravis Center-Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, Calif.; submitted to ENR California by Bernards
  • Best Industrial/Manufacturing – Merck VBF, Durham, N.C.; submitted to ENR Southeast by Merck
  • Best Interior Design/Tenant Improvement – BP Bright Lights, Chicago, Ill.; submitted to ENR Midwest by Lend Lease (formerly Bovis Lend Lease)
  • Best K-12 Education – Casey Middle School, Boulder, Colo.; submitted to ENR Mountain States by Weifield Group Contracting
  • Best Landscape/Hardscape/Urban Development – Wilmington Waterfront Park, Wilmington/Los Angeles, Calif.; submitted to ENR California by Sasaki Associates Inc.
  • Best Multi-Family Residential/Hospitality – Montage Deer Valley, Park City, Utah; submitted to ENR Mountain States by Layton Construction Co. Inc.
  • Best Office – United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Headquarters and Global Peacebuilding Center (GPC), Washington, D.C.; submitted to ENR New York by Clark Construction Group LLC
  • Best Renovation/Restoration – Jackson Barracks Historical Renovation, New Orleans, La.; submitted to ENR Texas & Louisiana by Satterfield & Pontikes Construction Group LLC
  • Best Retail/Mixed-Use Developments – Square 54, Washington, D.C.; submitted to ENR New York by Clark Construction Group LLC
  • Best Small Project – St. Mary’s Catholic Church Expansion and Addition, Plantersville, Texas; submitted to ENR Texas & Louisiana by Fretz Construction Co.
  • Best Specialty Contracting – MCFM Solar Thermal Installations, Phoenix, Ariz.; submitted to ENR Southwest by Builders Guild Inc.
  • Best Sports/Entertainment – Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Ore.; submitted to ENR California by Turner Construction
  • Best Transportation – Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge, San Diego, Calif.; submitted to ENR California by T.Y. Lin International

Best of the Best Panel of Judges:

  • Tony Bartolomeo, president/CEO, Pennoni
  • Anthony Bouchard, executive vice president, AECOM
  • David Bowlin, CEO, Broaddus & Associates
  • Marjorie Brown, VP/NW managing principal, HDR Architecture
  • Daniel Hogan, director, Office of Construction Management, Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, U.S. Dept. of State
  • Cyrus Izzo, co-president, Syska Hennessy Group Inc.
  • Stephan Kordt, principal, Halcrow Yolles Structural Engineers
  • Michael William Malloy, principal engineer, First Americans LLC, and president-elect of ACEC-NM
  • Simin Naaseh, president, Forell/Elsesser Engineers
  • Marianne O’Brien, principal, SmithGroup
  • Ned Pelger, president, Pelger Engineering & Construction
  • George Pontikes, president, Satterfield & Pontikes Construction Inc.
  • Tania Salgado, design principal, RNL Design
  • Kirk Samuelson, senior vice president operations support, Kiewit
  • John Schaufelberger, chair/professor, Dept. of Construction Management, University of Washington
  • Cliff Schwinger, vice president, The Harman Group Inc.
  • J.J. Suarez, chairman and CEO, CSA Group

For more information, watch for the forthcoming Feb. 13, 2012 issue of ENR, or visit

My choice for overall winner would be the Merck VBF industrial project. They built a 214,000 sf virus vaccine facility with an amazing level of planning and benchmarking. By utilizing modular mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems built offsite, they shaved the schedule from 46 months to 30 months. They had 1.5M work-hours with no recordable accidents and only 3 minor recordable incidents. They also set diversity goals for bidding opportunity, participation and awards and exceeded government goals by 30%. Overall, my pick for the best project of 2011.


January 20, 2012

Combat Pay for Excavator Operator
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

The photos below show a hydraulic excavator working on the roof of a 12 story building in China. Presumably wanting to demo the building without the expense of a controlled implosion, the Contractor should be paying the excavator operator combat pay for this assignment.

The most fun part of this story is the comments the local residents posted about the excavator on the roof. Take a moment to read those comments and you’ll get a bit of insight into China. Certainly different from comments you’d read about a similar incident in an American city. Can you imagine someone posting, “Americans are simply intelligent”? Also, if you hover your mouse above the comment text, you get to see how it was written in Chinese.


January 18, 2012

Time to Build the Ice Hotel
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

22 years ago the Swedes built a 500 sf igloo and called it the Ice Hotel. Every winter a new incarnation gets designed and built, each time bigger and better. This year’s building comes in at almost 50,000 sf and stuns the senses. The photos below give us a peek.

So you probably don’t have anything as cool (or as cold) to work on as the Ice Hotel today, but you’ve got something important to do. Strive to work hard and do your best today. In the end, you’re either in that small group of competent people that get things done…or you’re not.


January 5, 2012

Happy Birthday Golden Gate
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

On January 5, 1933 construction began on the Golden Gate bridge, linking San Francisco to Marin County, CA. With a main span of 4,200 feet, it would be the longest suspension bridge in the world from it’s completion in 1937 until 1941. Lest you think the hassles of getting projects approved are unique to our times, read what bridge engineer and poet Joseph Strauss went through (from The Free Dictionary):

Strauss spent more than a decade drumming up support in Northern California.[14] The bridge faced opposition, including litigation, from many sources. The Department of War was concerned that the bridge would interfere with ship traffic; the navy feared that a ship collision or sabotage to the bridge could block the entrance to one of its main harbors. Unions demanded guarantees that local workers would be favored for construction jobs. Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the most powerful business interests in California, opposed the bridge as competition to its ferry fleet and filed a lawsuit against the project, leading to a mass boycott of the ferry service.[7] In May 1924, Colonel Herbert Deakyne held the second hearing on the Bridge on behalf of theSecretary of War in a request to use Federal land for construction. Deakyne, on behalf of the Secretary of War, approved the transfer of land needed for the bridge structure and leading roads to the “Bridging the Golden Gate Association” and both San Francisco County and Marin County, pending further bridge plans by Strauss.[15]Another ally was the fledgling automobile industry, which supported the development of roads and bridges to increase demand for automobiles.[10]

As I read the rest of the article, I discovered that the International Orange color was originally applied as a sealant. Then local folks liked the color and pushed for it not to be painted the traditional silver or gray. That’s a good lesson for me, when considering various designs, no matter how utilitarian, to think deeply about the color.

I’ve seen lots of excellent color selections over the years and a few nightmares. I’ve noticed a trend. On every great color selection, the person or group doing the choosing really struggles with the decision and takes what seems like too much time to get it made. I’ve become convinced that great color decisions need time and struggle.

I’m fairly certain that this blog post is the only review of the golden gate bridge that decided the most important attribute of the bridge was its color. That’s just how I roll. By the way, let me be the last person to wish you a Happy New Year for 2012. Get Living.


December 1, 2011

Learning from the Best Projects of 2011
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

I’m spending many hours judging the ENR Best Projects 2011. The 80 nominated projects spread between categories: civil works – infrastructure, cultural – worship, green projects, industrial – manufacturing, residential – hospitality, retail – mixed-use, projects under $10M, sports – entertainment and transportation. As I thoroughly review the proposal from each project, I’m enjoying learning from some of the best construction operators.

For example, when the Facebook Data Center had a transformer failure in the start-up, the team agreed they needed to understand what actually happened in order to avoid a future operational failure. So they studied the transformer failure with a millisecond by millisecond analysis. The team gained an understanding of what actually happened and was able to use that knowledge to improve the process.

How often do we encounter failure and go with the quick fix response rather than putting in the work to truly understand the situation? We can’t study everything ad nauseum, but we can probably slow down a bit and improve our understanding and our process.

A Merck Vaccine Facility took planning and bench-marking to an amazing level.  The team decided to design and build this facility much faster than a similar facility had ever been built. They succeeded by fanatically considering every reasonable contingency. They also used lots of modular construction, especially in the mechanical, electrical and plumbing areas. That’s a technique all of us could use when faced with compressed schedules.

Turner Construction probably impressed me the most with their Lean Construction approach. Evolved from the lean manufacturing model, Lean Construction manages and improves the design and construction process with an emphasis on customer needs, striving for minimum costs and maximum values. Simply put, it’s a thoughtful approach to determine the best thing to build and the best way to build it.

The constraint log illustrates the concept well. The team maintains a constraint log that identifies potential problems six weeks away, then devises a plan to help avoid those constraints from affecting project momentum. On the one hand, it’s a simple concept that good project managers and job supers do in their head. On the other hand, formalizing that process probably leads to a better outcome, particularly on complicated or intense projects.

So I’m having fun learning, even as I watch the hours melt away and know I should be evaluating bids and writing contracts. Oh well, a well spent life always fights to balance the necessary with the extraordinary.


November 25, 2011

ENR Best Projects of 2011
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

I’m honored to have been selected a judge for the Engineering News Record Best Projects of 2011. ENR is the top construction magazine in the world, delivering in-depth coverage on innovative projects, pricing trends, overall economy trends and stories about the people who push the business forward. The Best Projects of 2010 shows the diversity of the projects they cover.

For this year’s projects, the 24 judges will rate about 80 projects that have already won regional honors. Then the judges will discuss the top vote getters and try to agree on the most impressive projects in the USA in 2011. When I look at the judges from last year, I feel like, to borrow my father’s phrase, a bastard at a family reunion. I’ll give it my best, though.

I’m enjoying studying the project details as I work through the rating process. I glean some ideas that could help us all. For example, Cape Corral, FL had tremendous population growth with no water and sewer upgrades. They were in a crisis. They had thousands of customer complaints each year and were failing regulatory requirements. The decision makers opted to go with a Design/Construction Management at-risk concept that had a guaranteed maximum price and shared savings. The seven year project produced 740 miles of pipe, 240 miles of roads and 34 wastewater pump stations. That’s a mega-project.

What impressed me most, though, was the Design/CM team‘s attention to customer communication and satisfaction. The CM set up a 24/7 telephone hotline available to the 23,000 utility customers. The CM tried to communicate their intentions and their struggles in many different ways, from door hangers to emails. After the project, an astounding 83% of the customers approved the way the work was done. The project was completed early with $26M in cost savings.

I noticed that they included keypad entry systems for the buildings, the kind of upgrade that tells me the CM was operating with the customer’s best interests in mind. I love to see innovative project delivery methods that work.

Another project also had an innovation that impressed me. The DiMenna Classical Music studio was renovated in Manhattan and the designers dealt with lots of hoitytoity musicians with opinions about everything. As an example, the musicians were positive they needed 100 foot-candles of energy inefficient halogen lighting. The designers did some mock-ups and testing and determined that 60 foot-candles with a mix of metal halide and halogen lights satisfied the musicians. So the Owner got lower installed costs and lower operating costs. That happy outcome occurred because someone was willing to put forth the extra effort and to go beyond the perceived design requirements.

As you think about how you do your job, ask yourself, “Do I push for the best solution, even when it makes more work for me or do I just go for the easy answer?” Those that do the extra work see increased success. It’s harder and more fun.


October 31, 2011

Crossing the River on Trash
Filed under: Cool Projects — Tags: — nedpelger

When I was in Haiti, some waterways would be so filled with trash that you could walk over the water.

A much less disgusting method to use trash to help cross the river was shown in 50 Tons of Plastic Recycled into a Footbridge. Students at Rutgers and Cardiff Universities worked together to design and build a 90′ bridge made from used water bottles and other plastic trash. The plastic beams don’t need painted and should have a long life span. The photo below shows the attractive bridge that spans the Tweed River in Wales.

A Welsh startup called Vertech plans to use the process to make more structural elements from trash, reducing landfill space and making a profit. It’s another construction related business opportunity.

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