One giant step

Scott Leonard (left) and Colby Arney, who work for Buckner Steel of Graham, N.C., begin construction on the new Boeing 787 plant. The first steel beam was placed Monday.

Grace Beahm

Boeing Co.'s new 787 assembly plant began to take shape Monday, with a lone 35-foot-long steel beam jutting straight from the ground.

After the piercing blast of an air horn, company executives and elected officials watched as the gray beam was lowered into place, a major milestone for Boeing's $750 million investment that's expected to bring several thousand jobs to North Charleston and put the Lowcountry on the map as a major aviation hub.

Work crews will install hundreds of the I-shaped girders during the next six months, slowly forming the skeleton for the planned 1.2 million-square-foot building that will reach 114 feet into the sky at its peak.

Despite abnormally heavy rainfall in recent months that sent construction managers scrambling, the massive new plant at Charleston International Airport is expected to open on time in July 2011, according to Boeing.

After that, nearly 4,000 workers are expected to report to the 787 final-assembly site, with major components made around the world entering one end of the building as individual pieces. At a rate of three a month, fully assembled, test-ready Dreamliners will emerge from the other end.

The beam put in place Monday will help support the northeast side of the factory.

"It looks like a simple thing, but it's a lot of work," said Marco Cavazzoni, the site's general manager, who sounded the air horn.

A towering yellow crane lifted the stick of steel off the ground and swung it over packed foundation-ready dirt. Construction workers carefully guided the post using ropes.

The beam was lowered onto a patch of concrete, the exposed top of a rebar-enforced stake that skewers the ground by roughly 80 feet. Within minutes, workers screwed on jumbo-size caps to secure it into place.

Over the coming months, crews will pour 1.08 million cubic feet of cement to lay the site's foundation -- enough to fill 12 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Boeing broke ground on the Dreamliner project in November. Days later, heavy-equipment operators had all but finished clearing 150 acres of dense forest behind Boeing's two existing Dreamliner fuselage plants.

Next month, workers will begin putting on the roof, and construction activity will peak early next year when the frame is enclosed.

The manufacturing plant will be anchored by two 75-foot-tall office towers on either side. Unlike most industrial spaces, design plans call for a strip of windows to let natural light into the building.

The entire structure has a footprint of 12 football fields. Two 787 Dreamliner jets, each with a wingspan of 197 feet, will be able to fit side by side inside.

Boeing's contractor said crews are working at a furious pace to make up for heavier-than-expected rainfall. Since November, the Charleston area has received a drenching 25.9 inches of rain, which is about 9 inches more than average, according to the National Weather Service.

At one point, construction officials ordered dump trucks to haul off the soaking dirt and bring in dry material.

Overall, 27 million cubic feet of earth have been moved around the site, or enough to fill 69,764 dump trucks.

So far, Boeing officials have spent more than 90 percent of the project's budget using South Carolina-based companies, much of which has gone toward the Greenville-based general contractor, BE&K/Turner Construction.

"That's a considerable number when you consider how specialized this building is," said Luther Cochrane, chief executive officer of BE&K.

He added that some features differ from the airplane assembly buildings at the company's manufacturing headquarters in Everett, Wash. It's going to take, for example, 400 tons of equipment to cool the building.

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or kstech@postandcourier.com.