Construction 'a massive undertaking'

Boeing Dreamliner 787

It's going to take a Herculean effort -- one that will test the strength of the local construction trade and then some -- to transform the wooded acreage at Charleston International Airport into Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner assembly plant.

General contractor BE&K Building Group and a partner, New York-based Turner Construction, have been tapped to execute the task, which even BE&K Chief Executive Officer Luther Cochrane acknowledges will push his established general contracting firm to the limits.

"From a speed and logistics standpoint, it'll be as challenging as anything we've ever done," Cochrane said.

In a few weeks, bulldozers will begin clearing the land for the 584,000-square-foot plant, which eventually could employ more than 3,800 people.

Behind the scenes, project organizers will have to coordinate all future construction activity on the site with various groups, such as environmental regulators, building inspectors, the airport's governing authority and Charleston Air Force Base.

"Think about all the other authorities ... who have to be aware of, if not involved with, what we're doing," Cochrane said Wednesday.

As they build an underground network of tunnels and reconfigure existing roads, crews also will have to be careful not to disrupt operations at the two existing factories nearby where Boeing and Global Aeronautica make parts of the 787 fuselage.

The construction team also faces a tight deadline: Boeing executives project an opening date of June 2011.

"To put that much work in place in even 22 months is a massive undertaking," said Cochrane, who noted that a large conventional warehouse typically requires two years to complete. "That's moving at the speed of superfast."

But timing is critical, he added. The sooner the building is complete, the sooner Boeing can build and deliver airplanes. The 787 program is about two years behind schedule.

Cochrane said his firm offered to team up with Turner because of the magnitude and demands of the project.

Turner, which has cultivated a good relationship with Boeing, understands how the aerospace giant prefers its monthly reports and construction data, he said.

As for BE&K, it developed relationships with businesses in the local construction industry while building the existing Boeing and Global Aeronautica factories in 2006 under the name Suitt Construction Co.

Parts of BE&K's management team have worked on some other notable projects in the area, including the Gaillard Auditorium's renovation, the construction of the North Charleston Coliseum and expansions at the Medical University of South Carolina. Its subcontractor network could help it recruit the estimated 2,000 construction workers needed for the project, Cochrane said.

Mike Blanchard, who runs a commercial building firm and is president of the Charleston Contractors' Association, estimated that only a dozen or so local specialty contractors have the size and resources to handle a project of this scale. He said smaller firms could benefit from the additional work the 787 plant is expected to generate.

"With the actual Boeing plant itself, you're probably not going to see a lot of local guys get that work, but the spin-off business they'll attract is where we'll have a lot of opportunity," Blanchard said.

Cochrane said roughly 600 to 700 construction workers could report to the Boeing site at the peak of the project, adding to the traffic in an already highly traveled corridor that includes the airport, a major shopping destination, hotels and the Charleston Area Convention Center.

"Think about moving that many people in and out," he said. "Think about traffic when the shifts change and they have to go out on (Interstate) 526 or someplace else to go home."

Charleston County Council is looking into the issue of Boeing-related congestion. Its economic development committee is set to meet today to discuss whether to spend $150,000 on a study to address traffic around the new plant.