New England Aquarium Renovation – Turner Construction
In 2008, after 40 years displaying hundreds of species of exotic fish, sharks, sea turtles, eels, penguins and a host of other marine life for the public’s pleasure, it was time for the New England Aquarium in Boston to invest in a new 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank and other exhibit renovations. “They knew it needed to be fixed,” explains Mike Weatherwax, senior project executive for Turner Construction (Turner). “You can imagine what 40 years of salt water can do to a 26-foot-tall concrete structure.”
Tuner’s special projects division, headed up by Mike, set out to conquer not only the $15 million renovation but also a mass exodus of sea creatures to temporary habitats while the construction took place. “Turner’s been working with the aquarium for years now,” shares Mike. “Earlier in 2008 we completed a $10 million marine mammal exhibit expansion so we’ve come to know the staff well and we understand their expectations. It’s been a great team effort for years now.”
Preparing a Plan
Turner’s established relationship with the aquarium and Mike’s ability to bring in fully operational facilities on-time and on-budget made the experienced general contractor the obvious choice for such a sizable endeavor. “The aquarium staff’s two main concerns were how the construction would affect business and daily operations and keeping the animals safe throughout the process,” says Mike. “We knew we’d be working with the public and the animals so there was a great deal of coordination and preconstruction meetings early on.”
Mike and his team wasted no time budgeting and planning, starting the design process in 2008, nearly three years before the construction began.”By 2010 we were still holding heavy preconstruction meetings,” he reveals. “The first phases of construction began in late 2011 and it wasn’t until September 2012 that we started on the holding tank.”
“We met with the aquarium’s management, financial supporters, public relations teams and the people that take care of the animals, including the divers that would be in the water monitoring the animals,” continues Mike. “When it finally came down to bringing out the heavy chipping guns and concrete jackhammers we coordinated with the diving team so they could be in the temporary tank, making sure the fish and other marine life’s behavior patterns weren’t erratic.”
Mike says the project was truly a hand-in-hand collaboration. “I even had some of my guys put on wetsuits and get in the water with the divers so they knew what they were dealing with,” he adds.
A Temporary Home
As Turner ramped up to begin large-scale renovation and replacement of 100 windows with clear-view acrylic panels, the transportation of the aquarium’s many species commenced. Like a scene from Noah’s Ark, nearly 800 tropical fish, four large sea turtles, a southern ray with a four-and-a-half-foot wingspan, electric green moral eels and about 100 penguins were transported to a holding facility in Quincy, Mass.
“As part of the plan, the aquarium invested millions in the creation of a temporary home for the sea creatures, including a reinforced foundation capable of supporting nearly a quarter-million pounds of water,” details Mike. “Although the penguins’ home was not part of the tank renovation, we moved them to Quincy to shelter them from the noise, dust and debris. Some fish were moved into the penguin area where they were continuously monitored by experts.”
During renovations to the aquarium’s atrium, Mike and his team were suspended over 40 feet in the air. “We set up full staging directly over the tank and I joked with the subcontractors, ‘be careful you’re 40 feet above a tank with live sharks swimming in it,'” he laughs.
Increasing Public Safety
Aside from keeping the animals in a safe environment, Turners main concern was also public safety. “One of our biggest concerns was safe construction while the aquarium remained fully functional, but also improving the safety of the building for the future.”
“In addition to restructuring the tank, repairing concrete and viewing panels, we also upgraded the aquarium’s fire alarm system, fire protection and evacuation systems so they were all up to code,” adds Mike. “Some of the safety measures had never been done before. We self performed the demolition and 90 percent of the concrete while also building construction barrier walls to keep the public away from debris.”
Turner also installed new LED exhibit lighting capable of penetrating over 25 feet of water and added sound proofing throughout the building. “We worked in conjunction with an artist as we took apart and reassembled a beautiful coral reef structure for the tank. And, to keep the aquarium functional, we worked on side exhibits to capture the public’s attention while the tank out of commission.”
By March 2013, Mike’s crew had restructured the tank, established water quality and gave the go-ahead to reintroduce the marine animals back to their original habitats over the spring. “Our standards were very high due to the sensitive nature of this project,” shares Mike. “We not only prequalified any of the bidders to make sure they were financially stable, we also made sure they had an EMR safety rating below one. We did project walkthroughs as well to ensure everyone involved understood the magnitude and scope of work.”
As July 2013 and the project completion date approached, Mike says he had crews working nonstop. “We had a team of 30 working, 24/7, round-the-clock to make sure we hit our date,” he says. “Turner works in a lot of operational facilities and finishing on-time and on-budget is critical.” Mike reveals the New England Aquarium and Turner Construction have plans for further expansion and upgrades, but for now the penguins, skates, eels and even the sharks will benefit from a better home and visitors will enjoy an impressive, exciting exhibit.
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