Project Profile: A Rope Through the Eye of a Needle


Retrofitting a Times Square high rise with stacked rooftop enclosures that house a generator and compressor is challenging enough without Mother Nature throwing her own wrench into the works. But that was exactly what happened when a group of contractors demonstrated exceptional cooperation and expertise in successfully completing a power project atop the 40-story 11 Times Square office building in Manhattan.

Robinson Custom Enclosures—a division of Robinson Metal Inc., a full-service project and solutions supplier based in De Pere, WI—was tasked with designing and delivering two custom enclosures with the primary power unit being a 17,738-pound, 1000-kW Caterpillar C32 diesel generator. The challenge was that most of the total shipping unit—weighing in at 53,750 pounds and measuring 414 inches in length, 149.6 inches in width, and 162 inches in height—needed to fit through a roof hatch only 62 by 49 inches. It was the equivalent of a rope passing through the eye of a needle.

Mix that improbable task with the limitations of a small, weight-restricted elevator, time restrictions on Manhattan street parking, and a massive winter storm that shut down New York City with a snow emergency, and you have the perfect recipe for a logistical nightmare. Planning began in earnest back in Wisconsin as Robinson’s engineers worked to ensure the reassembly stage would be feasible upon arrival.

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The Caterpillar generator was shipped fully
assembled, had to be dismantled on the street, and reassembled on the rooftop.

Build It, Unbuild It, and Build it Again
As soon as the Robinson Custom Enclosures team learned that erecting a $1.5 million derrick to lift the assemblies was not a budgetary option, the only remaining alternative was to break down a flatbed trailer’s worth of enclosures and power units into hundreds of parts and transport them up a small service elevator. Regulations limit road work at the busy corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street to weekends and late nights so as not to disrupt traffic.

Robinson, which typically assembles units for turnkey installation, now faced the task of building and testing the units, and then determining how best to break everything down for efficient unloading and internal transport via the elevator and through the small roof hatch. Rather than following its usual process of welding skids together, the company designed these skids to be bolted together for easier breakdown.

“We knew it would be an uphill battle, but we were certain we could get it done,” explains Robinson project manager Kyle Benz. “The first step was seeing what we had to play with in terms of the elevator and access hatch to make sure everything would fit.”

“Every part, every conduit for the lights, had to be marked, labeled, and disassembled. Everything had to be broken down here first, piece by piece,” recalls Jeff Simon, a fabricator and technician for Robinson who spent almost a month onsite. “It was like putting together a puzzle. By the time we shipped, we knew it was going to work.”

De1711 53 1 1In theory, yes. But as with most large-scale projects, other challenges invariably came into play. It was left to a variety of expert subcontractors to come up with creative solutions that would bring the project through to a successful conclusion.

Less-Than-Ideal Conditions
Work started at 10 p.m. on a Friday and continued through the night. The long elevator journey up 40 stories ended in an elevator mechanical room, a clean environment which requires that no dirt, dust, or other potentially damaging particles are present. A large crane used for window-washing operations also had to be moved on the roof. In addition to having the enclosures broken down, the Caterpillar generator was shipped in full and needed to be dismantled on the street by certified Caterpillar technicians to satisfy warranty requirements.

“The first big challenge was coming up with the sizes and weights that could fit in the elevator car,” says Joe DeGuara of Brothers Rigging Inc. “They typically don’t allow anything in the mechanical room, so we designed and installed a custom gantry that fit within the confines of the room, bolted it to the floor and walls, and covered up the elevator machines so they would be in their own separate space. We brought every single piece up and never affected their elevator operations.”

De1711 53 2 1The beginning of the project coincided with the arrival of a powerful nor’easter that dumped more than a foot of snow, slush, and ice—piled into six-foot drifts by strong winds—that slowed roof work to a crawl. Crews resorted to moving piles of snow from one portion of the roof to another in an attempt to uncover parts and make any semblance of progress.

“We did all of this pre-planning and labeling, and then we get this giant snowstorm and everything on the roof gets covered,” says Robinson’s Jeff Simon. “We had to keep shoveling piles out of the way to find the parts and pieces that were scattered all over that roof.”

General contractor J.T. Magen & Company Inc. soon brought in heaters to hasten the melting process and keep the project moving forward.

“J.T. Magen and their project manager, Declan Irvine, was very understanding with what we were up against logistically,” says DeGuara. “They performed head and shoulders above anyone else I’ve ever dealt with. All of us were very good at working together. It was a long and arduous event, and doing it in the dead of winter didn’t help. But we got it done and it went off without a hitch.”

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The month-long installation process was challenging. When a powerful storm covered the rooftop with snow and ice, the team used heaters to melt the ice and keep the project moving forward.

Brothers Rigging was tasked with lifting the reassembled units about four feet onto the dunnage supports, and then the secondary air compressor enclosure another 18 feet up on top of the primary enclosure. The Brothers Rigging team custom fabricated an old-school, 35-foot gin pole, similar to the technique used for rigging sailing ships, to accomplish the lifts.

Up and Running, and Ready for More
The success of the project has opened doors to similar orders that can benefit all of the entities involved. “Now we know it can be done,” states Benz. “Vendors such as H.O. Penn can use this success to their advantage when selling because they now have someone with a proven track record.”

A Ford promotion a month later to place a Mustang on top of the Empire State Building garnered considerable media attention. That three-piece project using a larger freight elevator would have been a walk in the park by comparison, according to Bob Muir, sales engineer for H.O. Penn, the Poughkeepsie, NY, Caterpillar dealer involved with the 11 Times Square project.

“When you see the completed project onsite, with these huge enclosures on the roof, it’s almost impossible to believe,” says Muir. “But it was accomplished with zero change orders and zero delays. It was the right crew, the right contractors, and the right rigger.”

Robinson’s Jeff Simon has a quick response when asked if there is anything the team would do differently next time: “Yeah, don’t do it in the wintertime.”  De Bug Web

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