Block 9

“Why are there no skyscrapers in Fargo?”

If you were expecting a punchline to that question, sorry to disappoint you. What sounds like a setup to a joke, isn’t. Not even close. But it does have a fascinating answer… later.

The current construction buzz in downtown Fargo is Block 9, and MEI is the electrical contractor for the core and shell electrical work. Here’s the topline info for those of you in a hurry:

  • Project name: Block 9
  • Project location: In the heart of downtown Fargo, ND
  • Project type: Mixed use mid-rise tower,
  • Project physical size: 290,000 sf + 149,000 sf parking ramp, 234 feet tall
  • Project cost: $117 Million
  • Parsons involvement: MEI is installing electric and prepping the core and shell for tenant fit-out. Parsons Technical Services is providing testing services.
  • Parsons budget: $2.9 Million
  • RFP type: Bid Spec
  • General Contractor: McGough Construction
  • Project owner: Block 9 Partners, LLC

Block 9 History

The 200 block of the east side of Broadway was once home to a brick structure called the Keeney Block. Built in 1882 at a cost of $80,000, it was named after Fargo’s first postmaster, Gordon J. Keeney. The Keeney Block housed numerous small businesses, including a law firm, a dentist, a Turkish bath, the Western Union telegraph office and a music school. Then, on June 7, 1893, disaster struck Fargo. In a matter of hours, the worst fire in the history of Fargo incinerated over 160 acres of North Dakota living rooms and livelihoods. Wooden boardwalks became boulevards of flame. Much of downtown’s stick frame construction was reduced to ash. More than 31 blocks of businesses and residences were destroyed, including the homes of most of Fargo’s 6,000 citizens. Despite its brick construction, Keeney Block burned, as did all of its neighbors. By November of that year, Fargo rebuilt, this time with strict fire codes and stone sidewalks. By 1910 the Keeney Block was replaced with another multi-story building called the Continental Block. It, too, burned when, in 1976, an arsonist lit up the building. The damaged structure was demolished in 1983 and has been a parking lot ever since.

The Project

Block 9 broke ground on September 12, 2018. The project is an 18-story mid-rise, mixed-use tower that will top out at 234 feet; when completed in 2020, it will be the tallest building in Fargo (and only 9 feet shorter than the state capitol in Bismarck, the tallest building in ND.) Prior to breaking ground, the location was home to a 48,000 square foot surface-level parking lot. The project includes headquarters for hundreds of team members of R.D. Offutt Company, ground floor retail, a boutique hotel, restaurant, and residential condominiums.block 9 aerial

Located in the downtown core at the busy intersection of Broadway and 2nd Avenue, Block 9 shares 2nd Avenue with many of the important civic buildings in the city: the Fargo Civic Center, the downtown Fargo library, the downtown Fargo campus of North Dakota State University, and Fargo City Hall. The city and project ownership hope that Block 9 will be the jumpstart to a renewed and renovated 2nd Avenue promenade. The street would feature abundant green spaces and a pedestrian/bike corridor running from NDSU’s downtown campus, connecting all the way to Viking Ship Park in downtown Moorhead.

The Owners

The owners are Block 9 Partners, LLC, a partnership of Kilbourne Group and the R.D. Offutt Company. Kilbourne Group describes themselves on their website as “redevelopers, realtors, designers and investors passionate about and dedicated to a community that thrives in the Great Plains. But more so, we are citizens of Fargo, working to make our home one of the world’s most vibrant communities.” The Kilbourne Group was founded in 2006 by current North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

R.D. Offutt Company, a family owned and operated potato farm operation headquartered in Fargo, is the largest potato grower in the United States. Think McDonalds and French fries. The company operates farms in seven states, and harvests 50,000 acres of potatoes every year. R.D. Offutt Company also owns RDO Equipment, a large agriculture and construction equipment dealer with 78 stores across 10 states, as well as partnerships worldwide. R.D. Offutt Company has annual revenues of $2.6 billion, and employs more than 4,400 people. A Block 9 headquarters gives the company the opportunity to bring together hundreds of employees scattered over multiple satellite offices.

The Architect

In 2015, Kilbourne Group engaged Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), to design Block 9. SOM is one of the world’s largest and most influential architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms. Their work includes 7 World Trade Center in New York City, Al Hamra Tower in Kuwait, the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels, the John Hancock Center and Sears Tower in Chicago, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is currently the world’s tallest building at 2,722 feet.

The Challenges

While nowhere near the height of the Burj Khalifa, erecting a tall building in Fargo has its own complexities. The city sits on waterlogged clay, once the bottom of a lake that formed at the end of the last ice age. Under a tall building, that clay can compress significantly and lead to destructive settling. Beneath the lake bottom is a mix of clay and gravel brought by glaciers during past ice ages and compacted by them, with the deepest layers being the most dense. The construction solution, then, is a foundation that reaches down to the dense layer. For Block 9, that foundation consists of 367 concrete piers, 110 feet deep. 19 tons of rebar and more than 300 truckloads of concrete create the stability needed for an 18-story building in downtown Fargo. That’s why most Fargo buildings are only four or five stories; that’s the limit for a building without piers. The piling requirement carries such an expense that it’s played a major role in shaping Fargo’s skyline.

Another constraint when building in the heart of downtown is the need to minimize disruption to traffic and commerce. Kilbourne Group has made this a core commitment of the Block 9 project. McGough is delivering on this imperative by spreading the Block 9 construction site across the city and region. Many concrete components will be pre-cast and steel components pre-assembled, then trucked in only when workers are ready to install them. There are no on-site storage or lay-down areas, so everything is scheduled for just-in-time delivery. Schedules are designed to prevent lines of waiting trucks that would further disrupt traffic flow. To further maintain that flow, there is no on-street parking for any crew. All parking happens at a leased lot blocks away from Block 9.

For MEI, communication with other trades has been imperative and constant because of an aggressive timeline and tight spaces between floors. BIM has played a critical role in collision avoidance and efficiently planning-out the above-ceiling space. In addition to collaborating via shared virtual model, the electrical, mechanical and sprinkler fitting teams have a biweekly one-hour meeting to coordinate tasks and eliminate collisions.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP is known for its precision design and engineering. For Block 9, the rigorous testing protocol outlined by SOM provided a great opportunity for MEI to bring aboard Parsons Technical Services. As a third-party testing agency, Technical Services ensures that MEI delivers on the complicated testing specifications set forth by a world-class firm like SOM.

A unique electrical load metering system was designed specifically for Block 9 and is being integrated into the building management system. Power usage will be monitored per system, not just structure zones. Electrical loads for exterior lighting, interior lighting, receptacles, HVAC and more will be measured separately to deliver the big picture about energy usage. Branch circuit wiring will pass through a current metering transformer as it leaves each panel. With each floor more likely than not to have multiple panels, and each panel feeding multiple branch circuits, the complexity builds quickly. But Block 9 managers will have a granular view of where their power is flowing.

MEI Division Manager Mike Rasmussen shared his thoughts on the build. “I think Block 9 is key to a re-energized downtown. Being part of the team, for MEI, and for me personally, it’s Fargo pride. When I was a kid, I came downtown to watch the Radisson Tower go up. Now here I am, on the team building the future of Fargo!”

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