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We’re not building a watch (store)! Oh wait, yes we are!

Summit Design + Build’s Senior Superintendent, Tony Denofrio, shares his first-hand account of what it takes to successfully complete the build-out of a luxury retail store on Michigan Avenue.

Over the years, we have all heard various phrases that seem to convey a similar meaning.  In the construction industry, time is money, so we often hear from above “It doesn’t need to play music!”, or “You’re not building a watch!”, and many others that are not appropriate for this conversation. The point of all this is that an emphasis is placed on production over details, since the former lends itself to faster completion (and better profit margins) whereas the latter implies more manhours than typically allocated in the contract proposal.

In late Fall of 2020, I was tasked with a luxury retail project on Michigan Ave for a repeat client of Summit’s: Burdeen’s Jewelry.  I had been involved with some luxury retail build-outs in the past, but this was my first foray into the world of jewelry stores.  I had a fair bit of knowledge as to what challenges I could be presented with, most notably the conversion to metric from standard, finishes from oversees made prior to the first screw being turned onsite, and the inevitable, uncontrollable schedule delays inherent to our industry.  Now the challenge was to get everyone on the project team to buy into the mantra, “We ARE building a watch (store)”!

Details Considered During Construction

The value of full layout and conflict resolution

Controls and benchmarks

Without having established X & Y Axis control lines, and a Z Axis for elevation above finished floor, there is really no possible way to ensure consistency in maintaining any type of parallel or perpendicular layouts, or maintain clear heights or any other accurate vertical dimensioning. This really came into play here with the millwork that is fabricated offsite and without any field measure. The finish package is designed around the space, and it’s up to the field team on the ground to maintain the critical hold dimensions which will allow the finishes to be installed properly with no gaps or encroachments. These control lines are crucial for all trades to base their work from, as these are the standard to which the conceptual design and execution is based. Any deviations from the control lines will most likely rear their ugly heads when it’s too late (read: increasingly expensive to correct).

Partition layout

Once the control lines and benchmarks are established, a full partition layout is needed to determine if the rough space was accurately measured, and to highlight any discrepancies in the wall layout. Surprisingly, we did not have many issues related to this step in the process, and actually “found” some space that was concealed by a furring wall that was not essential in any way. Once the layout was completed, and the minor issues resolved, the next phase, what I feel is the most critical phase, is the layout of the ceiling, commonly referred to as the Reflected Ceiling Plan (RCP).

Full RCP layout

What do most people do when they walk into a room? They look up. Not sure why, & not sure that I care why, but they do. This is why the layout of the lighting and other ceiling components is critical to almost any design. Nothing looks like more of a miss than seeing a light just slightly off-center in a corridor, or over a table. Those execution fails quicky highlight to people in-the-know that the effort just wasn’t there during the layout and rough-in phase of the project. It’s somewhat unfortunate to say that, especially when you consider that it’s just “assumed” the lights magically fell in line, and dead center to multiple elements across the space. Not many people notice the successes, but everyone comments on the failures. To that point, each light fixture in a boutique such as this has a purpose. A dedicated spot over a glass vitrine. A directional trim recessed fixture highlighting a stone and millwork fireplace. A bespoke ceramic chandelier, suspended by multiple aircraft cables which also has an off-center incoming power feed that when assembled, is intended to fall centered over a massive display table (not coincidentally centered on the fireplace, which is centered between multiple rows of recessed lights, which are equally spaced between linear slot HVAC diffusers…).

So, you get the point. Everything has a center. Once the lighting, which takes ultimate precedence over everything, is laid out, then comes the ancillary RCP layout. Sprinkler heads, which are bound to specific spacing from each other and obstructions to maintain code compliance. Speakers, which are meant to be placed at optimal location for audio quality, yet integrate with the layout to not look forced. Then the fire alarm devices, which also need to be placed smartly and also in compliance. Last but not least, a sea of cameras. This is really the only element on the ceiling where we can exercise function over style, and we are given some leeway in regards to final placement without creating any blind spots. The final factor one needs to consider above and beyond all that I’ve listed here, is the physical space needed ABOVE the ceiling to allow all of this layout to work. It’s easy to draw a 3 ½” diameter circle on the plan for the recessed light trim, but when the housing for that light is the size of a boot box, the coordination that happens above the ceiling is just as important as what happens below it.

Complexities of unusual components integrated into the typical sequence of work

The Vault

Not too often do you need to shoehorn a 30,000lb structure into an 11’x7’ area. Thankfully this does NOT happen on all projects.  When it comes to a vault, I will just say this based on lessons-learned: Communicate to the nth degree all constraints, obstructions, limitations, logistical challenges, and any other potential issue you can imagine to the vendor and installers well in advance to their arrival. Add a factor of 2 to every number the vendor tells you. 20’x20’ laydown area?  Make it the entire site.  1 day delivery?  Easily double that.  We are sending 2 installers.  They need 4.  It’s going to take 4 days.  Make it a month.  OK, let’s move on.

Venetian Plaster (where does it fall in the sequence of tasks?)

When building our overall schedule, I struggled with the Venetian Plaster and where to insert them into the sequence. 2/3rd of the store is plaster walls and ceilings, so it’s not a small scope of work. It’s also highly susceptible to damage, and very finicky to repair. Does it go in before millwork, and run the risk of damage at the corners and ceilings? Does it go in after millwork, but overly complicate the site by cutting off large areas due to scaffolding and the abundance of thin plastic protection covering every non-plastered surface? During the Pre-Installation Meeting with the plastering subcontractor, I asked him what he felt. Hindsight being what it is, I can see now that his response was solely based on making his life much easier and faster, without taking into consideration the time and money it will cost us to have them back making repairs and multiple mobilization costs. If I could turn back the clock (or watch), I would have done the following in this order once drywall taping and sanding was completed: 1) Plaster primer coat. 2) plaster base coat. 3) plaster finish coat only in critical areas that cannot be accessed after millwork, but are visible. 4) millwork install. 5) plaster finish coat and final waxing. This sequence would have eliminated about 20 phone calls, 20 pre-punch observations, 20 emails, and 20 pointed fingers all on the same topic.

Complexities of a facade

Façade: Noun. The face of a building; the principal front that looks onto the street.

The one thing that everyone sees from all angles, near or far, in dark and in the light. Once revealed from behind the construction barricade that segregated the construction activities from public view for weeks on end, it is subject to the most intense scrutiny possible. And rightly so. It’s the Name. It’s the Brand. It’s the Façade.

Facades are always difficult for the following reasons. There are multiple different surfaces; stone, glass, metal panel, glazing assemblies. All of which are set on their own vertical plane. All of them are installed by separate contractors. All of them have to contend with existing conditions of the surrounding building. The substrate needs to be set back to allow proper install allowances; stone clips for the limestone and granite. T-bars and angles for the back painted glass. Fire department connection face plates which are established in the infancy of the project before a wall is even framed. Door swings, aluminum extrusions and posts with shim space needed. Interior finished floor elevations which transition to a sloped vestibule, complete with an inlaid walk off mat on one side and a custom marble tile mosaic on the other, which both meet an existing sidewalk that is pitched in 2 different directions and doesn’t have the slightest hint of being straight in any sense of the word. The façade is literally the MacGyver of the project. Take every different construction material available, plan it out, and put it all together to work as a cohesive assembly. And make it look nice, because everyone with eyes and an opinion will be looking at it for years to come.

What I’ve recounted here may sound commonplace to some, foreign to others, and completely horrible to the rest. “Why on earth would anyone want this job?”, they surely ask themselves. To all those who fall in that camp, I can say that even with all the challenges faced, both expected and unexpected, at the end of the project they all morph into one thing; experience. I don’t recount all the horrible details of how much I was disappointed that X, Y, or Z happened at an inopportune time, or the heated debates often had between two ‘A’ personality types. When it’s all said and done, and the keys are handed over, there is a sense of accomplishment that vastly overshadows most of all other feelings. The struggles faced throughout the course of construction only add to the memories & relationships that will remain with me no matter how many revolutions the hands make over the face of the watch.