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Federal Courthouse Project Throws Some Curves at Those Building It
Joe Cocco

Senior Project Manager Joe Cocco

Designed by Moshe Safdie, the new, $55 million federal courthouse building taking shape on State Street will be a stunning addition to the landscape in downtown Springfield. For Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, the Holyoke-based firm that is managing construction of the 265,000-square-foot facility, the project presents an intriguing set of challenges and a worthy addition to a portfolio that includes Boston’s Rowes Wharf, Monarch Place, and Springfield’s Memorial Bridge.

They call it the “tree fort.”

That’s the name given by workers at Daniel O’Connell’s Sons to a small, glass-walled room, or enclosure, that will sit at the end of a winding staircase within the new, $53 million federal courthouse taking shape on State Street in Springfield. One of many unique architectural twists to the 265,000 facility, the balcony (that’s its formal name) will sit about 45 feet in the air and offer stunning views of the surrounding area, including two century-old trees that have in many ways helped shape this latest addition to Springfield’s skyline — literally and figuratively.

Indeed, the trees, said to be among the oldest in the city, are almost cradled within the exterior of the building, which is shaped somewhat like a script ‘C.’ Maneuvering around the trees — there were three, but one was determined to be diseased and taken down — has been one of many challenges facing O’Connell and the subcontractors that have handled specific aspects of the work, said Joe Cocco, senior project manager.

Others include the curvature of the building, something most subcontractors do not have much experience with; sometimes-unique design specifications, including areas that must be blast-proof or “ballistic resistant” (and there are degrees of both); the federal government’s use of metric measurements; and building U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor’s courtroom, and its many sightlines, to his specifications.

Overall, the courthouse assignment has been an intriguing addition to the O’Connell, or DOC, portfolio, said Cocco, noting that the project is large and quite visible, but not so big that it becomes difficult to manage.

“This is the perfect size project for O’Connell,” he explained. “It’s a big job, but it’s not one of those mammoth projects that’s impossible to control.”

As he gave BusinessWest a hardhat tour of the courthouse — due to be completed late this fall — Cocco talked about its many unique characteristics and how they make the building special … and somewhat difficult to take from blueprints to reality.

Round Numbers

When the tour reached Ponsor’s courtroom, one of three in the facility, Cocco referenced lines drawn on the floor to indicate where the judge’s bench will sit. He then pointed to the spot on one wall where the jury box will be located, and also to where the witness stand and other components of the room, now being fabricated for assembly later this year, will be placed. All this was done with considerable input from the judge.

“He’s been here on an almost weekly basis and has had input on many levels,” said Cocco. “We’ve done a number of mock-ups for him for sightline verification; he wants to be sure that, when he’s sitting at his bench, his line of sight to the jury and the witness box are right.”

There is similar attention to detail at every level of this project, which has been nearly a decade in the making, and will house the federal court and several other tenants, including U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who secured funding for the initiative.

The project actually consists of several components — the sweeping, glass-walled façade; the main courthouse building, which includes offices for several tenants, including Neal; and the so-called Chamber Building (connected to the main structure by glass walkways), which will house offices for the judges and other court personnel, and the U.S. Marshals.

Fashioned from Indiana limestone and pre-cast concrete (some 9,000 cubic yards of it), the courthouse complex is the latest landmark project for the 129-year-old O’Connell company, started by Daniel J. O’Connell the day after he was fired from his job as superintendent of streets in Holyoke for refusing to replace workers with the mayor’s hand-picked crew. The largest construction company in Western Mass., O’Connell has built several commercial and institutional buildings in the region and well beyond, and has also handled infrastructure work ranging from bridges and dams to a portion of the Big Dig.

The list of local projects includes Monarch Place, Tower Square, the Yankee Candle corporate headquarters in South Deerfield, Village Commons in South Hadley, the Massachusetts Venture Center in Hadley, and the 330 Whitney Ave. office park in Holyoke. Outside Western Mass., perhaps the company’s best-known work is Rowes Wharf, the 665,000-square-foot mixed-use development built largely on piles in Boston Harbor. O’Connell worked with Beacon Construction on the joint-venture project, which was honored with the prestigious Build America award by the Associated General Contractors of America.

The company won a second Build America award for its work in the early ’90s to reconstruct the Memorial Bridge — a structure the company helped build 70 years earlier. The lengthy project was made exceedingly challenging by a demanding schedule, logistical constraints, officials’ insistence that the bridge had to remain open, brutal winters, and even flood waters.

The courthouse project hasn’t been nearly as daunting, said Cocco, who played a lead role on the bridge work, but it has posed some challenges for O’Connell and the 20-odd subcontractors that have worked on the initiative. The trees — a Copper Beech and a Linden — have presented more than a few hurdles, for example. Perhaps the biggest was the need to redesign a portion of the basement and move some mechanical equipment to the roof because the trees’ root structures would have made the process of excavation for that section of basement cost-prohibitive.

But most of the challenges have come simply from meeting demanding specifications set down by Moshe Safdie, the Canadian-born architect perhaps best known for his award-winning work on Habitat ’67, the striking housing complex located on the St. Lawrence River in Montreal that was based on Safdie’s master’s thesis at McGill University and built as part of Expo ’67. The once-affordable housing — the architectural cachet has since made the units quite expensive — is a complex of modular, interlocking concrete forms.

Some of the Springfield courthouse’s unique design features were incorporated for security reasons, said Cocco, noting that the building has blast protection designed into it, for example, and the structural steel has been designed using progressive-collapse analysis, meaning that if one of the perimeter columns fails, those surrounding it would absorb the load. Also, the U.S. Marshals have some exacting requirements with regard to the ballistic-resistant qualities of their offices.
But many of the design challenges are aesthetic in nature, he told BusinessWest, using the words ‘clean’ and ‘flush’ to describe how the structure’s various parts come together.

“The real challenge with this building is the intricacy of the design,” he said. “The architect’s standard design details are very difficult; it requires a tremendous amount of effort on our part to coordinate all the parts and pieces so they fit together the way the architect intends.

“Some of these details are not what would be considered standard, and many of the subcontractors are not used to doing things this way,” he continued.

Typically, we build what the architect draws, but in this case, because the details are so difficult, it requires quite a bit more intervention on our part to make sure everything fits right.”

As examples, he cited the windows and skylights, which appear flush with the walls and ceilings around them, almost without interruption, in the form of frames or, in the case of the windows, the aluminum mullions.

“This architect likes everything flush,” he explained. “If you look at the roof surface, the glass and the skylights are flush with that roof surface. It’s the same with the windows; you don’t see the mullions — they’re hidden behind those structural elements, so you get a very clean look.”

“Even with the wood trim inside the building, everything is flush,” he continued. “Those details are challenging — in terms of the sequence of how pieces come together, but also for the tradespeople who have to make sure everything is aligned properly.”

The curvature of the building itself poses other challenges, especially for the tradespeople working on the job, said Cocco, noting that the radius of the front façade is 34,025 millimeters, or 112’8” — at DOC’s request, the architect is using both metric and English measurements.

“They’re used to pulling out a tape measure and putting it between two places … when it’s on a curve, they can’t do that,” he explained. “So our engineering staff has done more layout on this job than it would do ordinarily to maintain proper control of location of walls and other components to make sure it all comes together properly.”

Courting History

Thus far, everything has come together as Safdie and his company have intended, including the tree fort, said Cocco.

Much work remains, but most of the serious challenges have been met and overcome. And the trees — protected by a chain link fence — have survived the rigors of construction.

That was just one of the many priorities on a project that has been demanding on several levels — and has thrown DOC and its subcontractors a number of curves.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]