Stunning Bechtler Museum presents tough challenges for Rodgers team

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by Ellison Clary

People gape when they first see the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, says the chief executive of the iconic structure in Charlotte’s Cultural Campus.

The five-level, terra-cotta clad building features a stunning super column to support its cantilevered fourth-floor exhibit space. Its glass and lighting sparkle and its sculpture “Firebird” illicits gasps.

“People are slack-jawed and amazed by the building,” says John Boyer, Bechtler president and chief executive.

Boyer took responsibility in March 2008 for the structure that houses the art of Charlottean Andreas Bechtler. His Swiss family accumulated the pieces from the 1930s until the late 1970s. Included are works of Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and many others.

Designed by renowned architect Mario Botta of Switzerland, the Bechtler presented many challenges for Rodgers Builders, the Charlotte-based general contractor.

“Interfacing with Rodgers was a fabulous experience,” smiles Boyer. “They were responsive and always accessible. Josh is one of the best guys I’ve ever worked with.”

Boyer means Josh Schlechty, general superintendent for Rodgers, who shared responsibility with construction manager John Taylor.

Schlechty and Taylor click off a list of challenges: Unstable foundation rock, tight quarters, unique lighting, structural steel supports built on the ground and hoisted by crane, terra cotta cladding novel to the United States, exacting specifications, shared facilities and artwork that required perfect placement.

The Bechtler is one of several entities in the cultural campus initiated by Wachovia Corporation and inherited by Wells Fargo. It includes an office tower now called the Duke Energy Center, the Mint Museum Uptown and Knight Theater, with which the Bechtler shares a wall.

Rodgers and many of the Bechtler’s 34 subcontractors also toiled on the Mint and the Knight.

The $21 million Bechtler encompasses 36,658 square feet, including 17,000 square feet of exhibit space. There’s subterranean storage and a shared 300-seat auditorium.

A vexing situation presenting itself shortly after ground breaking in 2007. Excavation for the Bechtler and Knight foundations was separated only by narrow First Street from a pit for the office tower.

“There was a seam in the rock on the Bechtler site that basically breached the site next door,” says Taylor. “There was potential for shifting while we were blasting.”

Rodgers consulted a West Coast “rock doctor” who designed a system that pinned two layers of stone together using 90 stitches of number 10 rebar.

With multiple structures underway in the cultural campus and other construction nearby, workspace was at a premium. Rodgers instituted on-time delivery.

“You had to have a time placement for a truck to show up,” says Schlechty. “Otherwise, your truck couldn’t stop.”

Chris Harrington, project manager for Gaylor Inc. of North Carolina, furnished the electrical and lighting needs, but not without wrestling with space. His 15 employees working out of an uptown field office “learned how to manage material properly and how to deliver it at the right time.”

That lesson serves the company well on the uptown high-rise for UNC Charlotte, Harrington says from his Indianapolis office.

Gaylor also was involved with fourth-floor fixtures that feature skylights, florescent lights and directional illumination. Lifts were prohibited, so the crew used scaffolding, which “is always a little more hazardous,” says Harrington, who’s proud his men suffered no accidents.

Schlechty remembers steel superstructures – 70 and 80 feet long ¬– built on the ground and hoisted by crane into place. The tower crane for the Bechtler was one of more than a dozen that had to be managed in close quarters.

That type of restriction was not new for Dana Martin Davis, chief communications and cultural officer of Davis Steel & Iron of Matthews. Her firm performed both the structural and miscellaneous steel fabrication for the Bechtler, as well as the Mint and the Knight. In earlier times, it was involved with other Charlotte cultural showpieces such as the NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and the Levine Museum of the New South.

“I sold this to every member of our team as a once-in-a-millenium chance to give back,” she says of the approximately 100 she had on the project.

Most worked at the company facilities to fabricate a giant erector set. Davis remembers how Bechtler visited every department in person, often shapping photos of work in progress.

Davis hired her 25-year-old son Weston Davis as the close-out project manager. She knew he’d combine a cultural appreciation with his financial background to ensure the best possible results.

Davis notes the architectural pedigree that Botta brought to the Bechtler, and Mike Murray of Charlotte’s Wagner Murray Architects agrees. Wagner Murray was the Charlotte architect of record for the museum.

“There are not too many architects lucky enough to be involved in a project like this,” Murray says, adding the experience was worth challenges such as translating Botta’s metric specifications into standard.

But perhaps the toughest challenge was the distinctive cladding. The Bechtler marks only the second time terra cotta has been used in the United States on a building of this type, Murray believes.

Terra cotta covers the entire structure but posed the biggest problems on the super column, the three-story support for the cantilevered fourth floor.

“There are 49 radiuses on that column alone,” Murray says, “each getting larger from bottom to midpoint and then reversing, getting smaller again to the top. Each has its own supporting structure. The terra cotta mix design has 53 different types of clay, each with different properties to provide strength, control shrinkage during drying and limit expansion and contraction.”

That’s not all, says Adam Sneed, field superintendent and project manager for Wasco, Inc. of Nashville, TN. His company worked as many as 25 men to install the terra cotta, not a material the masonry contractor was used to.

“Normally in a masonry project, we’ve got ways to make things fit,” Sneed explains. But with the Bechtler design, the terra cotta tiles were exacting. “We had 32nd of an inch tolerances in some areas. We learned the right and wrong ways of everything. Now we could do it again.”

Taylor of Rodgers Builders points out that the terra cotta skin functions much like a rain screen. Water protection was a big reason for the exacting fit. Adds Schlechty: “We had an exterior water-proofing consultant review those connections.”

Sneed likes the finished product. “I think it’s a gorgeous building,” he says.

Agreeing is Charlie Kleier, owner and president of Spectrum Interiors of South Carolina. Speaking from his Greenville headquarters, Kleier admits he shows the Bechtler, Knight and Mint to prospective clients.

“We excel at doing difficult, complicated, high-profile projects that are different than the normal,” says the executive who put 70 workmen on the job.

He, too, experienced the design’s exacting nature. For paneling, he says, “some of the tolerances were less than one-sixteenth of an inch. Pretty intense.”

On the lighter side, Taylor tells how Schlechty’s team constructed a Styrofoam replica of the museum’s distinctive Firebird sculpture. They placed it in the artwork’s proposed location, which was atop the underground auditorium. Besides having to work with that facility, the Firebird’s placement required approval from Andreas Bechtler, who liked the replica enough to install it at his Mountain Island Lake home.

All the good work paid off, says Boyer. More than 5,000 visited the Bechtler on opening day, and attendance remains strong.

“Those who come to see the collection are amazed by the building, too,” Boyer adds. “This building is clearly a 21st century statement.”

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