June 29, 2020

“It’s a beautiful building to look at,” DPR Construction’s Kate Nice said of William & Mary’s new West Utility Plant, a project for which she served as senior project engineer. “Beauty” and “utility plant” don’t often go together, but the design by RMF Engineering and architect Lord Aeck Sargent makes it possible.

The plant’s design documents note that the glass-and-masonry building “creates a display case like experience for automotive and pedestrian traffic that filters through campus” that lets the campus community see the complex systems inside while also managing to blend in with the entire campus aesthetic.

A view of the the building showing colorful pipes and ductwork because of the utility plant's design.
The plant's systems are in clear view of the campus community. Photo courtesy of Lee Brauer

For DPR to bring vision to life, though, took considerable planning, a robust virtual design and construction (VDC) program, prefabrication, and skillful work in the field – especially solutions developed by DPR’s self-perform work corps. The result: a building that students have already dubbed “the Mario building,” an allusion to the famous video game plumber and the colorful pipes that make up his world. As students return to campus this fall, it will be hard to miss.

Going Virtual

Situated nearly in the center of the campus and adjacent to active roadways and sidewalks, the utility plant site was smaller than an acre but would require a dozen trades and significant amounts of materials.

“It was a very complex mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) system,” Nice said. “We really had to coordinate schedule, delivery of materials and more.”

Those needs underscored the need for a VDC program geared to making sure execution was seamless.

Pipes and ductwork overlapping throughout the interior of the utility plant.
Complex systems were handled digitally first, enabling more seamless operations in the field. Photo courtesy of Lee Brauer

“VDC tools meant we were able to do a lot of clash detection early and update plans accordingly,” Nice said. “That also meant nearly every piece of pipe and ductwork could be prefabricated offsite. Even the building pad work was made possible through our laser scanning team.”

Having such a robust digital model meant that W&M got a head start with operations and asset management, which includes using DPR’s strategic partner VueOps.

“The facility managers can manage this building on VueOps down to individual valves if they choose to,” Nice said.

Office space inside the plant where digital models of building systems are shown on screen.
Use of VDC means facility operators are a step ahead on operations and able to put VueOps to use. Photo courtesy of Lee Brauer

Getting Practical

While VDC and prefabrication allowed work to happen offsite, making it happen on-site fulfilled what was envisioned in planning. One key aspect was keeping the campus community safe.

“We could shut down vehicle traffic adjacent to the site, but not pedestrian traffic,” Nice said. “Lots of students would walk by the site, heads down looking at their phones. We ended up painting safety signage on the ground to make sure they knew what was happening off their screens and earbuds.”

Behind the site fence, the trades – including a significant number of DPR self-perform craft workers – installed more than 5,000 ft. of underground heating hot water and chilled water infrastructure to create a secondary underground piping loop which tied into six existing buildings. Among the crews’ accomplishments was finding a solution to prefabricate cold form metal framing for metal wall sections that included insulation and other elements. Doing so shrank a six-week portion of work down to a week and required fewer people on the site’s tight site footprint.

In the end, the 12,000-sq.-ft. project was completed with zero defects.

“It’s what we love to do,” Nice said. “This was a very complex project that required us to leverage our technical building ability and our tools like VDC, self-perform and prefabrication. That it’s become so visible on campus is gratifying for the entire team.”

The exterior of the plant with masonry that matches the rest of the campus.
The building's design matches the rest of the campus. Photo courtesy of Lee Brauer