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The scores of city officials, construction workers and architects working on the Washington National

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

The scores of city officials, construction workers and architects working on the Washington Nationals' new ballpark grew accustomed to one thing over the last two years: pressure.

From the start, there was pressure all around the stadium project. Deadline pressure. Budget pressure. Political pressure.

But on March 30, Nationals Park will host its first official Major League Baseball game, just 23 months after the start of construction — record pace for the building of a major league stadium. What's more, the project will be completed without violating the D.C. Council's $495 million cap on the "hard" and "soft" costs such as labor, materials, financing and insurance.

"I'm pleased we were able to get it open on time and keep it under the cost cap, but I knew all along we would," said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and stadium advocate. "So I'm not surprised, but I'm pleased we were able to do it."

Officials have been quick to credit the thousands of workers who toiled along South Capitol Street for the last two years, but many of the decisions that allowed the city to complete the project on time came early on, starting with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission's selection of HOK Sport as lead architect and Clark Construction as lead builder.

HOK had built many of the newer ballparks in Major League Baseball, and Clark headed several large construction projects, including FedEx Field and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The commission also added local architect Devrouax & Prunell and Hunt Construction Group and Smoot Construction.

"You have to be working with architects and designers and builders who know what ... they're doing," said former sports commission CEO Allen Lew, who left the post last year to head the city's school modernization efforts. "These people have to be experts, they have to have a proven track record and understand the idea of fast-tracking. You bring in contractors and builders that are willing to accept the deadlines and the challenges."

In a traditional construction project, architects complete their plans before handing them over to the builder. But with the construction of Nationals Park, there was no time for waiting.

"In this case, instead of taking a foot of contract drawings, we took an inch," Clark project executive Matt Haas said. "In many cases, we couldn't wait for the drawings and just [had] to rely on our experience to do the right thing."

Clark had done this type of accelerated work before, but the company still was working uncertain territory, particularly when it came to helping craft a cap on the cost of construction to satisfy the D.C. Council.

It was around Christmas in 2005 when Lew requested that Clark perform the construction work for a guaranteed, fixed price. But Clark had not yet selected its subcontractors and had only just started to outline its budget. Lew said he needed a hard number by Jan. 21.

"We were like, 'Wow, Allen, that's nearly impossible,' " Haas said. "And he said, 'All right, I'll give you another week.' And so by the end of January — basically a month — we had to pull this whole thing together."

The Clark/Hunt/Smoot team guaranteed it could build the ballpark on time for $320 million in hard costs. But that price was contingent on locking down a price for steel, which was quickly becoming an expensive commodity.

Lew responded by placing an order for the steel even before the council voted on the stadium lease. The penalty for canceling the order was $60,000, but Lew's gamble paid off when the council and baseball officials finally gave the go-ahead. Groundbreaking took place in May 2006, and the steel arrived on Oct. 5, one day ahead of schedule.

Construction remained essentially on course from then on, thanks in part to daily meetings at the ballpark site with the contractors, architects and workers. Senior officials from the Nationals, Clark and the sports commission met every Thursday.

"There's just no time to wait for answers here," Haas said. "You literally have no time for answers. Hundreds of problems come up a day that have to get solved, and they have to get solved that day."

And budget pressure was constant. The costs of cleaning up the stadium site and acquiring land, the funds for which were not capped, went more than $40 million above estimates. The cost to build parking on the site was $11 million more than anticipated. Sidewalks cost $7 million more and site work on the stadium's south end rose $2.5 million above projections. There were times when contingency money dipped to only a few million dollars.

But there were savings elsewhere. The city saved $17 million on the cost of financing the ballpark. Installation of utilities cost $3 million less than expected. In all, the stadium will be completed with about $10 million to spare.

"It's been a collaborative effort," said Greg O'Dell, the current CEO of the sports commission. "There's definitely been a lot of project management that people don't see. On projects like this you need to have everybody at the table to address issues in real time. It doesn't just happen. It's been a very well-executed strategy."