The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 13, 2012

First National Building gets first major makeover

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor



DETROIT – Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert is relocating his company’s workforce downtown by the thousands – and the building trades are rehabilitating several historic buildings to make a place for them.

In our last issue, we featured work that was wrapping up to renovate the interior of the 14-story, 505,000-square-foot Chase Tower in Detroit’s Financial District. Across Woodward Avenue, there’s even more going on: Gilbert’s 26-story First National Building is undergoing a project that will see floors 8-13 renovated by the end of July – and perhaps more floors later.

Led by the Brinker-Sachse Joint Venture, the First National Building renovation is the most extensive in the building’s history. Completed in 1930 as the First National Bank Building (“Bank” has been long-gone from the name), the structure comprises about 800,000 square-feet of space, and it’s an important and imposing part of the collection of mid-rises that ring Campus Martius Park.

“It's a beautiful building, but it needs some work on the inside,” said Gilbert last year. “We're talking to some major tenants to come to that space. It’s really exciting.” Gilbert bought the building out of bankruptcy, for about $8.1 million, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.

Sachse Project Supt. Marty Kozyn said work began on the First National Building in mid-February, with the six floors slated to be totally gutted and renovated. The first phase, including floors 8-9 and 12-13, are scheduled to be handed over to the owner on July 13. The second phase, floors 10-11, are set to be complete by the end of July. “There’s a good potential for work to be done on the other floors, but there’s nothing set in stone yet,” Kozyn said.

About 100 Hardhats are currently working on the project in three shifts. “You always get a few surprises with an old building, but we haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary,” Kozyn said. “I think the real challenge is that the building is about 75 percent occupied, so we’re working around tenants, and the compressed schedule. But we’re doing well.”

The entire building will be served by a new forced air heating and cooling system, including new pipes and ducts throughout. “It’s an old building, it’s hard to make things line up very well,” said Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 journeyman Ron Cristofori, working for Ventcon. Pointing to a section of ceiling of the 8th floor, he added: “finding points where you can run ducts straight is just about impossible.”

The quirky building itself probably challenged the original builders, too. The structure conforms to the confined lot that was available when construction took place in the 1920s.

“Every office room in the building will have outside light, the majority opening on street frontages and the remainder either on the opening court facing the Detroit River or high above surrounding buildings,” said an article in the Feb. 26, 1921 issue of United States Investor. “There will not be a dark or poorly ventilated office in the building.”

The S-shape of the building maximized natural light and ventilation, but with a limited number of 90-degree angles, the structure likely wasn’t exactly easy to build.  For this renovation, a material hoist mounted on the exterior of the back end of the building is greatly helping the movement of materials.

Eric Draper, Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 foreman for Ram Construction Services, acknowledged the odd shape of the building and the tight site. His crew has been performing patching of masonry on the interior of the building where minor demolition work has taken place, and re-sealing and repairs on the building’s exterior, which is mostly comprised of limestone panels.

“We’re doing lots of stone patching, and a lot of miscellaneous sealants on the exterior,” Draper said. “The exterior is in very good shape, we’ve seen very little steel rusting behind the panels. There has been good maintenance on this building over the years.”

According to Mlive, since January 2010, Gilbert and his real estate purchasing arm Rock Ventures Group, has purchased nine buildings, three parking structures and one parking lot in an effort to lure companies and people to downtown Detroit.

Besides the First National Building, Gilbert and his Bedrock Real Estate owns the Dime Building, the Madison Building, Chase Tower, Wright-Kay Building, Layne Bryant Building, Arts League of Michigan Building and the Federal Reserve Building.

“We realized when we moved down here... we realized we needed to control the hardware, or the buildings – the real estate,” Gilbert said. “The good news was there was a skyscraper sale going on in Detroit at the time.” And there’s more good news: Gilbert is building union. “He’s been great, very supportive,” said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “We wish every owner was like Dan Gilbert.”


THE 26-STORY First National Building in Detroit is undergoing a major renovation.


A CEILING BEAM enclosure is drywall mudded by Damien Victory of Painters Local 213, working for Brinker.


A CLEAN 13th floor hallway is brought to you by laborer Reggie Lane of Local 1191.