When the University of Chicago opens its William Eckhardt Research Center in early 2015, the state-of-the-art structure will embody the institution’s reputation for scientific excellence. The 277,000-square-foot building will house the university’s Physical Sciences Division and its new Institute for Molecular Engineering.

Precision will guide research within the Eckhardt Center, as it has influenced its design and construction. Chicago-based Tribco Construction is the project’s concrete contractor, with more than 30 years of experience that includes famous Chicago high-rises and specialized projects for educational institutions.

“We’ve developed a niche for complex projects and have become accustomed to a wide array of architectural elements,” says general manager Derek Patton. “But this is one of the most unique projects I’ve encountered.”

The five-story facility features innovative architectural elements that posed construction challenges. In addition to architectural columns with strict tolerances and joint specifications, the lower-level laboratories demanded special skill.

The basement and sub-basement are “vibration-dampening spaces,” equipped with clean rooms that will filter out airborne contaminants that could interfere with molecular experiments. All rebar in the clean rooms is epoxy-coated with extensive pre-pour inspection demands, including electromagnetic interference testing, and zero tolerance. No metal ties were allowed, nor metal-on-metal contact where coated and non-coated rebar intersected, such as at column ends.

The lower-level suspended ceilings feature two-way joist construction that provides 25- to 30-foot unsupported spans and an exposed concrete look. Tribco worked with Molded Fiber Glass Construction Products to design custom fiberglass dome forms for the unique design. “The dome size had to meet high aesthetic expectations, and also support a 12- to 18-inch topping slab, a much larger load than the 4- to 4 ½-inch slabs typically used,” says Patton.

Tribco Construction has earned a reputation for contributing to high-profile Chicago structures such as the Harold Washington Library, NBC Tower, River City, and The Peninsula Hotel. As general manager Derek Patton reflects on the Eckhart Center project, he credits several factors for the project’s success:

Collaboration: Working with our client (W.E. O’Neil), the owner (University of Chicago Facilities Services), and the design team (Thornton Tomasetti | HOK) was critical, particularly from a quality control perspective. The owner has worked in parallel with us to ensure architectural concrete elements meet expectations.

Vision: The building will house groundbreaking academic programs and be home to well-recognized researchers for the University of Chicago. Having a construction team sensitive to not just the end user of the space but those tasked with maintaining the space offered unique perspective on the day to day work required.

Engagement: The University of Chicago is on the leading edge of engaging the surrounding community in new construction work. Pro-actively embracing their commitment by hiring local tradesmen was a key component to the project’s success.

Communication: The project team has held quarterly partnering sessions with principals of all contractors, designers, and owners’ reps to heighten collaboration across trades. This has led to constructive solutions to some of the more challenging aspects of the project.

Safety: The project participated in an OSHA partnership that embraced a safe culture during construction.

Customization: Molded Fiber Glass Construction Products provided custom dome forms to meet the exact architectural and structural requirements of the suspended concrete ceiling. The lightweight forms are easy to move and install at the jobsite. We also had custom steel column forms with very tight tolerance and pour pressure requirements fabricated by Chicago Contractor Supply.

Quality control: “Specifications for the Eckhardt Center were stringent and the design team did a very thorough job of making sure they were met,” says Patton. For instance, the contractors were required to have a structural engineer sign off on all architectural concrete forms. In addition, MFG provided a mock-up of the forms in advance, and Tribco poured a four-void- test panel. Every effort was made to ensure that the forms provided the smooth architectural finish needed to execute the facility’s state-of-the-art design.

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