HVAC: Delivering on Promises For A Safe, Collaborative Environment

The Helm Group helped the RUSH University Medical Center with its new facility, maximizing on-time and cost-saving services.

The Helm Group did the HVAC and sheet metal work for an outpatient cancer center at one of the most renowned healthcare facilities in the world — The RUSH University Medical Center in Chicago.

RUSH University Medical Center, a private research hospital, is adding the Joan and Paul Rubschlager Building to their Chicago campus. The new 11-story, 500,000-square-foot facility houses the RUSH University Cancer Center. This outpatient care center will allow doctors to treat thousands of patients in a premier environment. 

The Helm Group has been involved in this project since the earliest planning sessions in May 2017. “The owner wanted the specialty contractors on board early enough to have input into design and constructibility,” says Tom Matus, strategic growth manager for Helm Mechanical. “We had countless meetings with the owner, the design team and the construction manager during the bid process so we could get a solid understanding of what the project entailed.”

Helm encouraged the medical center to consider both constructibility and function. “We have a long-standing relationship with the construction manager and the engineer as well as RUSH University, so we felt comfortable having frank discussions about the design,” Matus says. “Through meetings with the entire design/project team, we pushed each other to maximize the design to meet the needs of RUSH not only for the present but also the efficiency of system maintenance for the life of the system.” 

RUSH University provided co-location offices for the design team on campus. “Quite a few clients in the health care market allow us space at their facilities,” Matus says. “Say the client assumes it will take us four and a half weeks to reach a goal, but we know we can do it in three. That conversation is not going to happen unless we’re all in the same room together, so co-location is extremely beneficial.” The office was within walking distance of the site. “If we needed to investigate something, we could go as a team. We find this pushes the schedule a lot further along than sending an email and waiting for a call back.” At peak, Helm had seven people in the co-location office full-time. 

COVID hit just as construction started. “We got boots on the ground in April 2020, but the city of Chicago shut down on March 14, 2020, at 5 p.m. and didn’t reopen for quite some time,” Matus says. Quarantine requirements disrupted the workforce, and minor supply chain issues ballooned, so Helm had to get creative to meet the target schedule. “Everyone in the world was in the same boat, but we asked how we could paddle our boat a little bit faster.” 

To meet the schedule and improve costs, Helm Mechanical reconsidered its process for installing the rooftop units. “We had everything, including the curb and all flashing, combined into one unit during manufacturing,” Matus says. “This improved installation efficiency for all trades involved. When the integrated unit came to us, we set the units almost in a plug-and play-method, which reduced the schedule.” 

RUSH University’s dense, 8-acre campus, located right next to Interstate 290 in Chicago, has limited lay-down space, which means access to the construction site can become congested. “We utilized a 650-ton crane due to the nature of the picks from both a vertical and horizontal standpoint,” Matus says. The unique logistics required 60 to 70 hours of planning and training. “We don’t take shortcuts on safety. It’s too imperative that every single one of our employees goes home every single night.” Helm usually had about 10 sheet metal workers onsite, peaking at 30. The owners, general contractor and other tradespeople coordinated their schedules with the crane, ensuring everyone followed safety protocols.

The constrained workspace also influenced fabrication. “We fabricated every pound of ductwork in our own shop,” Matus says. “Through coordination with our project trade partners, we maximized all fabrication and modularization that the building and site logistics would allow.” 

This project kept a team of 25 to 30 people busy in Helm’s Rockford, Illinois, shop, which fabricates about 3 million pounds of sheet metal annually. “Most of our shop is fully automated,” Matus says. “The laser cutting and plasma cutting are generated from exact measurements on a computer. We have many people doing traditional welds, but we also have an automatic seam welder. It’s more accurate, safer for the team, and fast.” To keep a highly skilled workforce, Helm helps with training in the JATC and provides advanced training from manufacturers in their shop. 

Helm utilized just-in-time delivery, fabricating as much as they could everyday and putting it directly on a box truck or a semi to focus on LEAN principles. To avoid traffic, they timed deliveries to arrive either at night or extremely early in the morning, so the fabricated material was ready for immediate installation. 

Helm installed 780,000 pounds of sheet metal for this project — most of it galvanized steel. The lab space, pharmacy space and MRI rooms are primarily stainless steel with some aluminum. The building has four custom air handling units totaling 175,000 cfm, nine custom rooftop units totaling 252,000 cfm, and 788 VAV boxes — the two mechanical spaces total 24,000 square feet. 

Helm’s team took pride in doing the best possible work. “We were building an outpatient Cancer Center at one of the most renowned healthcare facilities in the country,” Matus says. “Our top priority was to deliver on the promise we made for a safe, inclusive and collaborative environment. We worked closely with the entire project team not only on COVID mitigation on the job site, but also on any design changes necessary to combat the virus in the future. The design was so well done that no changes were necessary.”