Moving to downtown Tampa: Smart Lab brings innovative view

Riverfront property in downtown Tampa is coveted ground. So when Related Group acquired the site for its Manor Riverwalk apartments on the west bank of the Hillsborough River, it had to deal with remnants of prior development above -- and below -- ground. 

“We had to make sure our 250+ deep foundations did not conflict with existing 1,500 obstacles that we knew to be underground,” says Ben Wilson, Project Executive for Suffolk Construction Southeast in Tampa.

Using archived information of existing structures, they overlaid images onto digital models to ensure there wouldn’t be problems at the jobsite. In this case, it shaved more than a couple of months off the planning process, which stepped up the timeline for leasing and recovering costs. The River Manor Apartments under construction.

“We took a site that had a massive probability for an unforeseeable condition,” he says. “We executed the foundation phase in less time than our schedule allowed.”

Suffolk brought this technology to Tampa through its Smart Lab in the old Channelside Bay Plaza, just a little more than a block from the new anchor of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa: the University of South Florida’s new 11-story Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute. Construction began on the $152.6 million building last September; it’s slated to open in late 2019.

Water Street Tampa is a 53-acre project by Strategic Property Partners, which will be developed during a 10-year period. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is part owner.

A view like none other

The Smart Lab’s walls have huge computer-like screens, some touch screen, that enable people to preview an entire development all at once. Or view it in three dimensions, with or without goggles.

“Our projects are so complex you simply cannot see them on a conventional screen format,” Wilson explains.

The technology is innovative. “It can be intimidating,” Suffolk’s IT Engineer Andrew Kunkle concedes. “But it’s really an extension of working off of your computer.”

Ultimately, sorting out the details digitally is cheaper. “Pixels cost less than bricks. If you find out on the front side, before you actually buy the equipment and install it ... you’re saving the owners a lot of money,” he says. 

Multiple screens allow users to pull up drawing plans on one and an aerial view on another, providing a more synergistic effect and opportunities for collaborative experiences. 

“It comes down to dollars. If we can go into that room and use this technology to streamline the building process from start to finish, then we’re winning,” he says. “At the end we come in at a better rate, and we win. Everybody does.”

The lab is about a mile east of Manor Riverwalk, an eight-story apartment complex being built on the site of the now defunct Tampa Tribune at 202 Parker St., whose building was demolished after the newspaper closed in 2016. Apartment rents will average $2,700 monthly. Leasing is scheduled to begin in July.

The project at 205 Brorein St. was home to a coal-burning power plant in the early 1900s, called the West Jackson Street Station, according to Tampa Electric spokesperson Cherie Jacobs. Later named the Peter O. Knight Station, the plant was razed in 1970 to make room for the Tampa Tribune and Times, the city's daily morning and afternoon newspapers. The afternoon Tampa Times folded in 1982.

Related preserved a night-time roost for birds and painstakingly moved a gigantic tree at the development, distinguished by a capital E in its configuration. 

“Using this type of system enables us to be able to look ahead at potential issues that will arise in a project, and make design decisions early on, so they don’t impact the schedule and ultimately the cost of the project,” says Julius Nasso, Construction Manager for the Miami-based Related Development.

The Suffolk lab, where a grand opening is slated Thursday, March 29, features a CAVE or Computer Aided Virtual Environment that enables people to experience a jobsite as if they were there. “We can see issues before they actually get built,” Kunkle explains.

Its conference room includes an interactive, panoramic Huddle Wall dedicated to pre-planning, where teams can collaborate on 3D and virtual models. It also includes a live Jobsite Feed and nine-screen Data Wall, which can use nine independent operating systems to measure progress on existing projects.

Capitalizing on local entrepreneurial spirit

The company, which settled into its Channel District office in April 2017, has been opening Smart Labs in major hubs like New York City and San Francisco. It added its Miami and Tampa labs more than a month ago.

“We think that the Smart Lab provide us with predictability in a sometimes unpredictable industry,” says Josh Christensen, Vice President of West Coast Operations for Suffolk Southeast. “We’re excited about the opportunity for us in the Tampa market, certainly now and in the foreseeable future.”

He believes Tampa Bay embraces this technology. “There’s also an entrepreneurial spirit here that we think embraces this. We thought it was a perfect fit,” he adds. “We’ve started to see our vision happening.”

The company has a number of projects in pre-construction, which have not yet been announced. He is hopeful they will commence within six months.

Although Suffolk’s Smart Lab is located in the midst of a construction zone, it isn’t part of that action right now. “We definitely like the area,” he says. “As of now, we’re not involved.”

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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