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Constructing for Size and Safety in Pennsylvania’s Capital

Balancing upon a corrugated steel deck on the fourth floor of a half-constructed building, Hill’s Project Engineer Burak Kurama pointed out a scenic mountain range to the north. This beautiful view of the Pennsylvanian Appalachian Mountains was directly accessible to the contractors who were busily working on all 11 floors of the new federal courthouse in Harrisburg. Hardly a mile from the city’s center, the steel structure had itself become a sight in the distance for Harrisburg’s residents since work began in 2017. Hill International is providing construction management services on the nearly $150 million project.


“We’re building for size, improved functionality, and security,” remarked Hill Vice President David Rupp, who is serving as project manager on the courthouse. “The old courthouse no longer has the capacity to handle the caseloads that are the reality here in Harrisburg.” The new, 243,000 SF building features 8 courtrooms and 11 chambers. This facility will replace Harrisburg’s Ronald Regan Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, constructed in the 1960s with only four courtrooms.


The placement of the building, slightly out of Harrisburg’s center, adds economic synergy to this upcoming area while giving the new courthouse room to breathe. Three parking lots will surround the facility and offer secure parking to the judges, lawyers, and clerks. One of these is belowground, to be covered by a green roof as a part of the LEED Gold Certification which the project aims to achieve.  


On November 20, 2019, the construction crew from Mascaro Construction Company LP, the Ennead Architects, client representatives from the GSA, federal judges, and Hill’s project management team came together for the topping-off ceremony of the large new structure. A topping-off ceremony involves the placement of a final steel beam atop a building whose structural steel is completely in place. Burak explained, “This means that the steel decks, columns, beams, and girders are all in place now.” The ceremony itself has its roots in an ancient Scandinavian religious rite associated with construction endeavors. In the modern world, the rite involves the stakeholders, end users, or builders signing the final beam, painted white for the occasion.  


In addition to the signatures, a tree is often placed atop the last steel beam. Various commentators have described the customary tree as hearkening back to the ancient timber construction whence the ritual comes, as a symbol for growth, or as an indication of a project half completed without serious injury or loss of life. Fortunately, whatever the significance of the tree to this crew, there have been no serious safety issues on the Harrisburg courthouse project. This fact was announced proudly at the ceremony right before the beam was lifted.


“Safety has absolutely been a priority on this job,” said Hill Construction Inspector Charles King. “We’re concerned with keeping employees safe while building it, yes; but we’re also looking to construct a building that’s safe for the end users.” Charles pointed out safety features for the workers such as the fencing, circling each unfinished floor and draped with a bright orange material for high visibility.


He also described some of the features that would make the building safe for the clerks, lawyers, and judges who would use it one day. “For instance,” Charles said, “you see how some of those columns look finished nicely but most of them are somewhat rough? All of the rough ones have been pretested for fire safety. The steel is covered with a cement-based mixture which makes them extra heat resistant.” Charles himself is a part-time firefighter, which gives him a unique and qualified perspective on fire protection.


Other safety aspects being incorporated into the building include a 26-ton steel plate girder, steel reinforcement rods with a diameter slightly over 2 inches, and extensive use of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) in the building’s envelope. “It’s pretty typical to have a large customized girder made for a facility, but this is definitely the largest I’ve ever seen,” Charles says. “The reinforcement rods are also among the largest I’ve ever seen used—for comparison the typical rebar that is used in construction is only .5 inches in diameter! The GFRC is very burn resistant, so when it’s worked into the envelope of the building, it helps prevent fires.”


“Our role,” added Burak, “is to help ensure that all of the safety features that the design team provided are being implemented correctly.” And these go beyond the highly noticeable features. Government buildings have to meet several sets of standards that define the safety and spatial features necessarily incorporated into new facilities. The U.S. Marshals Service Publication 64, for instance, articulates standards for space and security in courthouses. These stipulations call for protection from blast forces, progressive collapse, and extensive security controls. The P100 are the facilities standards for all GSA buildings. These too strictly articulate safety features necessarily incorporated into the new federal courthouse. Familiarity with these standards as well as their proper implementation is important for Hill’s professionals on government jobs.


As he led us through the building, Burak also pointed to an added safety feature of the building—what looked like rows of wires hanging from the ceiling. “These,” Burak said, “will hold up the ducts for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing work. There is significantly more-than-average ductwork in this facility. More than making sure that there is adequate plumbing on each floor, which is of course important, all of this ductwork will help ensure the technological proficiency of the building.” The new courthouse brands itself as featuring state-of-the-art courtroom technology. Extensive electrical work goes into making that happen. This technology will, in part, provide for the high security of the servers in the courthouse.


Though the topping-off ceremony marks an important milestone, it also indicates that portion of a job which can be the busiest and most stressful. After federal judges served a warm lunch for the construction team and the brief ceremony, work immediately recommenced. Charles led some of Hill’s subcontracted inspectors through the building to help ensure that all structural work had been done safely and correctly. Meanwhile, Burak reflected on some of the moment’s stress-inducing challenges: “This is when spending is at its highest and the most resources are being mobilized. It’s really during the middle of a project that the most careful oversight is required in order to keep the work on schedule and within budget.”


The project’s challenges are compounded by the amount of coordination the project management team must enable. “There are a lot of contractors and subcontractors necessary for this work,” Burak said. “For example, several companies are contracted to build the building’s envelope. We have to be careful to make sure that their sequencing is appropriate and all relevant work is documented and communicated correctly between all parties.”


Fortunately, the Hill team can handle the challenges of high-pressure moments in the life of a project. Hill’s skilled professionals are further aided by tools such as building information modeling and enterprise performance management software, which help to facilitate collaboration across the jobsite. Moreover, Hill’s team works to maintain positive relationships with the contractors and stakeholders to hold this project together.


Despite the challenges still to be overcome, the topping-off ceremony reminded attendees that their work is well underway and that they have already achieved much. The foundations of a safe and sizable building are in place. Hill’s professionals look forward to meeting the challenges unique to this moment in the job’s lifecycle and everything else that would stand in the way of finishing this important job on time and within budget. “The project is slated to be completed by spring 2022,” said Burak, “and based on where we are today, I’m confident that we’ll meet that deadline.”