Massive skylight would be skyscraper's
signature element, but at what cost?
Construction manager Scott Borland had no doubt that the skylight rising above the entrance to the New Wilshire Grand was spectacular.
But then, everything looks good on paper.
Draped between the 1,100-foot skyscraper and its seven-story companion, the skylight runs nearly the length of a football field, dropping 65 feet — like a ski slope — as it flows between the two buildings and marks the entrance to the hotel.
Architect David Martin called it the signature element of the project, a river of glass inspired by the Yosemite Valley. Martin also evoked the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, the glass-ceilinged arcade located between the city's cathedral and opera house, known as il salotto di Milano, Milan's living room.
But neither a living room nor Yosemite came to mind as Borland studied the plan.
"You've got to be kidding me," he thought.
Twenty years' experience on high-rises in Manhattan has made Borland a practical man. As construction executive in charge of day-to-day operations for the New Wilshire Grand, he found the skylight an extravagance that would certainly cost more than the $3-million estimate.
He wondered if it were even possible to build such a structure. Then how would it react during an earthquake? Could it support the weight of a cleaning crew?
Martin and his design team might not like what Borland had to say, but he couldn't keep his opinion to himself.
Raising a tall building is an exercise in compromise and negotiation, a choreographed clash of disciplines intended to make the project better or safer — and economical.
Architects advance designs. Engineers, accountants and consultants step up with their critiques.
Forget vanity or hubris: The principal function of a tall building is to make money, and beauty, if it doesn't bring in tenants and guests, can become a heated point of discussion.
Martin likens the debate to a game of poker, with each design element a hand to be played.
"You have to know when to hold them and when to fold," he said.
The stakes for the New Wilshire Grand are especially high. The project, scheduled for completion in 2017, presents Martin with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a landmark in downtown Los Angeles, much as his grandfather did with City Hall and his father did with a number of high-rises, including the Department of Water and Power Building.
He never expected to dream this big. At 71, he has spent 53 years at the family firm watching as market conditions limited his aspirations.
All that changed in 2009.
A friendship that his cousin and business partner, Chris Martin, had struck with South Korean businessman Yang Ho Cho, the chairman of Korean Airlines, led to a coveted commission. A.C. Martin Partners would design a hotel and office complex at Figueroa Street and Wilshire Boulevard.
David Martin began by dusting off plans shelved in 2005. He had designed a 55-story tower for the Grand Avenue Project near City Hall, but the project was awarded to the city's most celebrated architect, Frank Gehry.
The decision was a blow for Martin. He retreated a little before finding his way back, said senior designer Tammy Jow, who has worked with Martin for 18 years. Creating a 73-story skyscraper, the tallest building in the West, gave him a new reason for coming into the office.
"He was very accomplished before this, but this was the icing on the cake," Jow said.
A window ledge in Martin's modest downtown office grew cluttered with cardboard and plastic models. Pages in his sketchbook filled with ideas.
Rendered in black ink and a blue wash, the tower's beveled and faceted facades described a surprisingly slender building that, in spite of its height, seems light, even gauzy.
"Diaphanous," Martin said.
With echoes of the Case Study houses in Los Angeles, the arcade in Milan and all the piazzas in Europe that he visited as a student years ago, he hoped to create a more intimate space, an invitation for visitors to explore, linger and, as he explained, "develop a relationship with the property."
He poured himself into the project, and even though he knew he had the support of the owner, he prepared for the clashes.
Clash with Metro
Opening salvos were fired during weekly progress meetings. Seated around a long table each Tuesday, more than 20 of the project's engineers, architects and managers discussed every element of the design.
Concrete versus drywall. Wood versus vinyl. Paint versus wallpaper. Stone versus carpet.
The start of big projects is often quarrelsome, and the New Wilshire Grand was no exception. One of the first arguments took place in the fall of 2012 and came from an unexpected quarter.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority objected to the excavation plan for the foundation, arguing that the dig, nearly 100 feet deep in some places, could release pressure in the adjacent soil where the Red Line ran under 7th Street. If the soil moved, the subway tunnel might shift and crack.
A.C. Martin had wanted to dig within five feet of the tunnel. The project's subterranean garage needed nearly 1,100 parking spaces, and every foot mattered.
But Metro thought five feet was too close.
As the dispute escalated, civility got lost to expediency.
At one point, engineer Marty Hudson, who chaired meetings on behalf of the builder, knelt in a parking lot beforehand to pray for composure, especially if everyone else lost theirs.
"This was the highest level of stress that I have had in my career," Hudson said.
The transit agency suggested seven feet, said Carey McLeod, lead project manager for the architect, then in a later meeting, eight feet. Finally Metro made it clear: Five feet or 50 feet, the agency wouldn't propose a plan.
"We're not in the business of doing the engineering for third parties," Metro engineer Matthew Crow later explained.
The comment frustrated McLeod. New York, London and other cities with subways have established standards for such digs. Why couldn't Metro just provide a number?
But Metro held firm. It wanted the builder — not taxpayers — to pay for a thorough analysis before any decision was made.
"So it will cost you a few million extra to evaluate and instrument the subway," Sam Mayman, one of Metro's executive officers, said, according to two people at the meeting. "Big deal."
Eventually, the builder paid nearly $1.5 million for analyses and monitoring.
When completed, the excavation came within seven feet of the subway tunnel, which shifted half an inch but did not crack.
Borland's suspicions that the New Wilshire Grand would face cost overruns came true.
More reinforcing steel had to be ordered for the foundation. A restaurant was added on the 69th floor. The bathrooms in each hotel room needed to be reconfigured to accommodate separate showers and tubs.
Plans were scrapped, redrawn and recalculated.
Costs crept from $1 billion to $1.1 billion, and the debate sharpened over what was important to the design.
Balancing the interests of the designers and the project managers fell to Kenneth Aspis, president of the firm overseeing the development. His responsibilities include keeping the project within budget and, if necessary, finding less expensive ways to achieve the same results.
"We're not always viewed as the friendliest people in the room," Aspis said.
The discussions about costs forced Martin to defend his choices. He found it irritating.
"If you ask a structural engineer to design a building, it would be triangular," Martin said. "If you asked a leasing agent, it would be square. If you asked a wind expert, it would be round. This is why you ask the architect to design a building and not the consultants."
When asked about an undulating glass wall that surrounds a rooftop pool, deck and gardens, Martin argued that glass added visual momentum to the structure. It was shortened by 15 feet for a savings of $400,000.
When asked about a $3-million aluminum screen covering mechanical equipment visible from the hotel, Martin explained that guests don't want to look down upon compressors, cooling towers and exhaust vents. The screen remained.
And the windows that open in each hotel room?
Growing up in Los Angeles, Martin admired the Case Study houses with their floor-to-ceiling panes of glass that opened to the outdoors. He wondered: How can you do that in a larger context?
Casement windows were the answer, but the cost, $8 million, was too high. So for $3 million less, they would be put in the premium rooms only.
Maybe the savings could be applied to the skylight: Martin's grand vision had begun to unravel.
The design for the New Wilshire Grand featured a plaza, a high-rise tower and a secondary building, known as the podium, housing a restaurant, a pool and ballrooms.
Connecting the elements became the challenge.
One plan included an ambitious Guggenheim Museum-like rotunda. Another tried extending the tower's facade over to the podium. Neither worked.
Finally, in the winter of 2012, Martin hit upon a skylight, a sweep of glass that unified the space and created an atrium where guests entered the hotel.
Jow said the solution was elegant and dramatic — a eureka moment that thrilled the design team. Then reality struck.
Borland and Aspis had to protect the budget and started to question the complexity of the design.
Martin's early vision, rendered by computer, included convex and concave curves that required individual panels of glass to be custom-bent, an especially costly process.
Seismic tests also determined that the structure would have to move 15 inches — side to side between the tower and the podium — in the event of a major earthquake, and it would have to be restrained from lifting up in a windstorm. No one was certain if it could be engineered.
Then there was the question of how it would be cleaned.
One design suggested two catwalks 3 feet wide for cleaning crews, but the structures encroached on the view. Another recommended trapdoors, but they detracted from the appearance.
As other costs on the project rose, the skylight became a target.
"In the eyes of estimators and contractors, anything square is better," Jow said. "The fact that we had something lyrical and poetic in the design is a conflict in their minds."
That's not the way Borland saw it.
"The difficulty is that the client has a vision for the project that isn't in keeping with the budget," he said. "And the design team always wants more."
The budget for the skylight was cut in half to $1.5 million, Jow said, and that was before cost estimates came in for the steel and its design: more than $5 million. And the custom glass panels would add more.
To ease tensions within the team, Jow deferred further discussion until she and the designers could answer the most persistent complaints.
She and designer Joseph Varholick traveled to Europe to learn about a process in glass design known as cold-bending. Instead of heating glass to shape it, fabricators contort the cold glass slightly, then snap it into frames that have been engineered to hold the shape.
Huddling at his computer, Varholick calculated that with 475 glass panels, the skylight would have the sweep and grandeur that Martin had called for. And each of the panels would be essentially flat, bending no more than three-quarters of an inch.
Varholick's work helped ensure that the glass would cost no more than $2 million.
Jow's team took its findings to the engineers and budget managers. The designers thought they were making headway, only to discover later that the skylight was still listed for elimination.
Martin tried to hold fast. The skylight was a defining stroke. Still, he grew so frustrated that he yanked the skylight from the plans.
As Jow explained, he was tired of being second-guessed by cost managers who "would prefer to drop in a plaster, stucco box at the front door."
"Any designer would be insulted," she said.
Martin even presented an alternative: an open-air trellis much like the Lath Palace at the Botanical Building in San Diego's Balboa Park. But priced out, that idea saved no money.
So he took the issue to cousin Chris, who has the authority to set budget guidelines for the project. He knew it was a gamble, but the debate needed to be settled. Chris could either vote against the feature or make a concession.
Eventually Chris agreed that the skylight would remain but with one stipulation. With the glass already priced at $2 million, he insisted that the steel and its design cost no more than $5 million.
The design team then reconsidered the structural beams that supported the skylight. They curved as they followed the contour of the podium and tower.
After studying the elevations and cutaways, the designers realized that the beams would not need special fabrication to flow between the buildings.
The same effect could be achieved for less money with straight pieces, segmented to follow the curves of the structures.
The solution was a breakthrough. By Jow's estimate, it saved about $500,000 and ensured that the steel would come in under budget.
Shortly afterward, engineers were able to devise an attachment that allowed the skylight, fixed to the podium, to move on the tower side during an earthquake. And to support cleaning crews, they added ring hooks in the tower and made the glass thicker to withstand up to 300 pounds.
Last Tuesday, the project's engineers, architects and managers gathered for their weekly meeting.
Martin and Jow were eager to discuss the skylight. They had talked over the weekend and decided that they had found the least expensive and best solution. They wanted it approved.
And at last, it was — 21 months after Borland first saw the plan.
For $6.5 million, the New Wilshire Grand will have its river of glass.