Stepping Up for Project Success: King County Correctional Facility Emergency Re-pipe Story

Sandy Chapin

Marketing & Communications Director

29 August 2022

Strong partnerships, free-flowing communication, and an “all-in” team take a potentially chaotic project to one of the most rewarding projects in many people’s careers.

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King County Correctional Facility (KCCF) in downtown Seattle was faced with a dire situation when the piping that was installed in 2012 began to show serious problems. It was continually yielding and rupturing which created leaks in many locations. The system-wide failure from the relatively new installation had resulted in 1,000+ inmates left without water several time a year. King County (KC) had an emergency on their hands. They needed to find the right team to replace the domestic cold, hot, and hot recirculation water lines throughout the facility—all of that green pipe had to go. When UMC was selected as the mechanical/general contractor on the KCCF Re-piping Project, they were given a set of drawings and basically told to replace the pipe and start the work as soon as possible. The two years that followed were a lesson in flexibility, perseverance, and diplomacy.

Early Challenges Can Make or Break a Team

From the start, it was unclear what it was going to take to accomplish the job. From determining scope to estimating costs and effort needed, the stakeholders involved, King County Facilities Management Division (FMD); the Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention (DAJD); OAC, the project management team; DLR Group, the design architect and engineer; and UMC, the mechanical contractor and general contractor, were presented with issues that caused some tension and misalignment early in the project.

With schematic as-built drawings lacking information and some modernizations done over the years, defining the scope with the information available was extremely challenging. Due to limited information available, estimating costs and the effort needed to complete the work was difficult and became an early obstacle between team members. An extensive assessment of piping locations and biweekly executive leadership meetings to discuss concerns were needed to keep every team member informed. And a significant complication to the project was found when inspections on three existing 2,280-gallon hot water storage tanks revealed they were past their end of life and needed to be replaced. This added additional scope to an already daunting project and more logistical challenges for construction in a 24/7 secure facility.

Working through these early challenges was “make or break” for the team and the stakeholders. Either they could take the “every person for themselves” road or choose to embrace the madness and go “all-in” as one team. This team (KC, FMD, DAJD, OAC, DLR and UMC) chose to go all-in! Through an iterative and painstaking process of site investigations, detective work, meetings with estimators, operations, and field leads, the team was able to “divine” the project estimate, and although there was significant risk due to many variables, the contract value was established, and the team was solidified in the mission to do whatever it would take to get this project done and done right.

Non-typical Roles Require Changes in Perspective

UMC is typically a subcontractor, particularly for major projects. It took a perspective shift on their part to get comfortable in the role of general contractor and deal firsthand with the many layers of stakeholders, bureaucracy, and diverse entities involved. In the same vein, Schuchart, typically a general contractor, was hired as a finish subcontractor. They also had a learning curve in working for a mechanical contractor. Each contractor quickly learned how to work as a cohesive team and communicated well on the project. With the original finish contractor that helped UMC through preconstruction with scope and budgets walking off the job at the 11th hour, it became clear that selecting Schuchart was likely a blessing in disguise based on the good experience and the fit on the project.

UMC’s adaptability and ability to pivot as needs and scenarios arose throughout the project helped them to flourish the role of general contractor on the job. With the other trade partners under UMC, Valley Electric, PCI Insulation, PCI Democon, PCI Scaffolding, Ground Penetrating Radar Systems, and Siemens, and their willingness be on speed dial if conditions warranted, the all-in mindset contributed to the success of the job.

Navigating Through a Tough Work Environment

Several factors combined on the KCCF project to make the construction process one of UMC’s most challenging projects, not the least of which was working in tight quarters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with strict COVID protocols being followed, outbreaks within the facility were not uncommon. Protecting workers and keeping the job on schedule were at risk at every moment while working during a pandemic.

As an occupied correctional facility, KCCF operates 24/7, and the water must be on before seven in the morning each day. Since replacing water pipe requires the water to be shut off, the only time the actual work could be performed was on the graveyard shift. For 15 months, system shutdowns occurred every single night with very little room for error. An extremely high level of coordination was required to communicate all movement, shutdowns, and potential issues to mitigate impacts on the facility. For the crews on the job, the endless cycle of “shut it down, cut it out, install new, turn it back on” was fraught with unpleasant surprises. When they turned the water back on, the existing pipe was so fragile and broken it would often expand and break again after re-pressurizing it. Just when crews thought they were done for the night, new leaks in the old pipe could occur at random. They always had to have contingency plan to make sure the water was on in the daytime. Coordinating the night crew with the day operations team required a high level of hand-off protocol to ensure when they left the site for the day the system would be functioning well.

With limited access to the replacement locations, even bringing the new pipe in was a hurdle to cross. Much of the new pipe had to be cut to 10-foot sections for the job. FMD changed the loading dock schedule to allow for larger quantities to be delivered. Changes to the pipe carts, fabricating, and rigging scheme had to be made. For the first few months, crews replaced about 500 feet of pipe every night, 99% were in short 10-foot lengths that were brought up through what was essentially a hole in the floor. Not only was access limited, but spaces throughout the facility were tight. For the replacement of the hot water tanks in the constrained space with pipe running everywhere, crews had to take extreme care, one bump and it might just burst open and start spraying 140-degree water.

Psychologically, working in a high-custody inmate housing facility brought an atypical level of stress on the teams. Extremely close coordination with DAJD officers/escorts was paramount, from tool security to needing an escort for all movement throughout the facility. The highly productive crews were under extreme pressure to maintain budget, move quickly from one task to the other, follow protocols, ignore inmates’ taunting, and come up with creative solutions to problems, all while performing flawlessly, so each morning the water was flowing again.

Going the Extra Mile to Get the Job Done

Partnership, planning, communication, selflessness, flexibility, ingenuity—without these basic building blocks in the overall team’s DNA, this emergency re-pipe wouldn’t have been the success it became.

King County, OAC, and DLR Group were always in lockstep as to the urgency in making decisions to keep the project humming for UMC’s construction efforts. With robust and expeditious communication and coordination between all the stakeholders, issues could be resolved quickly which significantly contributed to the success in completing the project. With many requests for information (RFI) of the engineer, there were sometimes difficult conversations, but openness to suggestions and responsive action helped move the project along.

The DAJD helped to facilitate efficient movement of UMC’s teams through the facility. Escorts would sometimes even jump in and help with moving parts, such as moving dumpsters and barrels of water before a shutdown. The crew managed their tools so well they earned trust of the DAJD resulting in the tool check-out/in process not being implemented. This saved a few hours a day on the entire crew’s labor time.

As UMC’s team was challenged by the tough nighttime schedule combined along with the necessity for transparency of the work for the daytime teams, they were able to leverage technology to bridge the gap. With the project tracking software, StructionSite, they documented and shared site progress conditions each night during the course of work. For the daytime stakeholders and team monitoring the progress of the work, the photos and documentation also alleviated them from having to pull off the temporary covers from every opening that were required to be covered by end of the nightshift to protect the facility from potential inmate activity.

To help with the problems plaguing the project from the existing pipe, a member of the UMC team worked with Ford Meter Box, a manufacturer of waterworks products, to design and manufacture custom “roust-a-bout” couplings so they wouldn’t have to go back and fuse the old pipe. This saved King County time, impact, and money—likely tens of thousands of dollars.

Committed and “All-in” for KCCF

As the KCCF project got rolling for the UMC team, it was clear early on that it was going to be a project for the annals of the 100-year-old company. From the outset, the team leaders knew they needed a “dream team” to pull it off. It would require support from every line of business in the company. They wrote down the names of everyone around the company who should make up the UMC team and managers in all departments worked to make it happen.

No one denies that there were some rocky periods during the course of the project. At the very beginning, even prior to construction, the relationship with the wider team was not completely ideal. But over the course of the project, that was turned around 180 degrees largely through UMC’s dedication to project execution.

“I’ve never had stress like that before, and I've done some really tough, tough jobs,” said Matt Mifflin, UMC General Superintendent with 30 years of experience. “But every person on this team was the right person. Nobody quit. Everybody worked hard and stepped up to levels I've never seen. Everyone committed to a common goal and achieved it.”

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