At long last
When a project spans nearly a quarter century, continuity is as important as completion
BY MEREDITH LANDRY
Construction for the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish educational institution nestled against the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles, California, USA, began in 1989. The fifth and final phase of the center was completed last October. Given that 24-year span, the US$500 million project—which eventually included nearly 560,000 square feet (52,000 square meters) of meeting rooms, libraries, a café, museum and performing arts center—faced an unusual challenge: continuity.
“We never really had a complete master plan. It was more like five separate projects. The complete end result was not much like the general concept we originally envisioned,” says David Stafford, principal with Searock + Stafford Construction Management in Pasadena, California, USA. Mr. Stafford started on the Skirball as the general contractor's project engineer and eventually became the owner's project manager.
The project's stop-start construction traces back to Skirball's no-debt policy. Only as project funding amassed could a new phase of the center begin to take shape.
“While we were completing one phase, we were planning for the next, but there could be a solid two to three years before we broke ground,” Mr. Stafford says.
Given those gaps between phases, the project team faced natural turnover. Including Mr. Stafford, only five team members were involved in the project from start to finish—Paul Matt, who owns the construction company that worked on the center; architect Moshe Safdie; civil engineer Mel Sukow; and structural engineer Nabih Youssef.
“As the project manager, I became the main person carrying the entire history of the project,” Mr. Stafford says. “So I was constantly having to bring new people up to speed.”
Sliding Into Shape
The Skirball stands on what was once a dumping ground at the foot of rocky hills. A geotechnical engineer who inspected the project site found that the hillsides above the property are prone to landslides. That troublesome geography naturally shaped the early project plan.
Mr. Safdie, the project's architect, designed a wide-mouthed U-shaped campus that appears to hug the mountains. After the initial planning had been completed on the first phase of the project, the city required the team to construct a large debris basin west of the center to catch any potential sliding mud. Skirball's amphitheater was also designed to double as a retaining wall against possible mudslides, though mountain stabilization in succeeding years eliminated the need for this function.
PHOTOS BY TIMOTHY HURSLEY, COURTESY OF SAFDIE ARCHITECTS
“While we were completing one phase, we were planning for the next, but there could be a solid two to three years before we broke ground.”
—David Stafford, Searock + Stafford Construction Management, Pasadena, California, USA
“We'd be under construction, and a program would change, so we'd have to make costly adjustments to accommodate those changes.”
The Short and Long View
The large lags between project phases made budgeting particularly tricky. “We'd start preliminary discussions about the next phase while we were still working on another. But because construction might not start for another few years, and the economy could go up and down in that time, it was really hard to predict what things would cost,” Mr. Stafford says.
The project team learned to puzzle over different project elements without getting too bogged down in details until the budget was set. In the 9,000-square-foot (836-square-meter) Guerin Pavilion, one of the last buildings to be constructed, those details included a curved ceiling, 100 skylights and a complex sunshade system that, midday, allows natural light to create abstract patterns on the foyer walls.
Throughout the long process, project sponsors made it clear that scope trumped schedule. “I couldn't go to them with completion dates as a basis to make a decision,” he says. “Over time, I learned that I was working with a client who didn't make decisions based on costs or timelines, only on whether the project was right.”
The center's purpose has evolved over the past 24 years—and, with it, so has the project. “We'd be under construction, and a program would change, so we'd have to make costly adjustments to accommodate those changes,” says Mr. Stafford.
One such change came in the third phase of the project, when the center staff realized that space originally set aside for offices would no longer serve their purposes. “They were a growing institution, and their priorities changed over time— and sometimes that was during construction,” Mr. Stafford says. The planned office space was instead turned into an interactive children's art studio.
“Over time, I learned that I was working with a client who didn't make decisions based on costs or timelines, only on whether the project was right.”
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