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A new medical school, a state-of-the-art teaching hospital, a unique partnership—projects like the Dell Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas just don’t come around very often. As Austin’s only level one trauma center for adults and the community’s safety net hospital, the 517,000-square-foot facility serves as the primary teaching hospital for both Seton/Ascension Health and the newly created Dell Medical School at the University of Texas. Dell Seton replaced the decades-old University Medical Center Brackenridge as the centerpiece of a new health district in downtown Austin. Meeting the needs to support medical education while fostering a collaborative environment and continued advancements for doctors, researchers, staff, students, and patients, the design and construction approach were integral to achieving project success for the university as well as the community who benefit from higher-quality care.

The transition to an integrated healthcare system that both elevated the teaching environment as well as equipped doctors and healthcare professionals to better administer care required buy-in and a commitment from all partners to deliver an exceptional project for the owner, no matter the challenges, from design through completion. With an aggressive 27-month schedule, hard opening date, and a congested urban site, the success of the complex project came down to doing three simple things exceptionally well: collaboration, prefabrication, and communication/coordination.

It’s All About Collaboration

Working alongside three other general contractors in an evolving medical district meant collaboration—early and often—was key. Mindful of the tight space and all contractors’ needs, the team worked together to ensure the design took any site limitations into account. “The construction and design team had the same goal in mind: to have the building designed and built so it wasn’t necessary to have materials dispersed throughout the site,” said Dave Prusha, principal at HKS Architecture. “We hosted design charrettes during the construction documents phase to develop the best solution that met performance and constructability requirements and to ensure the required details were built into the design documents. This was a very involved process, but with the buy-in from all stakeholders and collaborative planning from day one, the team had tangible cost and time savings that would not have been available had we used a traditional approach at Dell Seton Medical Center at UT.”

A Prefabrication Success Story

Situated on a 4.5-acre site, the construction area was barely larger than the footprint of the building, creating a tight urban site with zero lot lines and laydown limitations. This is where prefabrication—built into and accounted for in the design documents—became vital to meeting the schedule, allowing for phased, more efficient work from all partners.

“To facilitate safety, speed, and quality construction in the field, we prefabricated both exterior and interior repetitive elements. This not only led to greater quality control, safety, and cost savings, but it also resulted in construction schedule reduction,” explained Cliff Larson, JE Dunn’s general superintendent. “By staging and testing components prior to delivery, there were significantly fewer surprises on site during installation, and all trades could complete their tasks on schedule and without unexpected delays.”

Coordinate and Communicate

Projects of the magnitude of Dell Seton have many moving parts, which were amplified by the site conditions and number contractors present. Prior to putting any work in place, JE Dunn, HKS, Seton Healthcare, trade partners, and all other key stakeholders held weekly coordination meetings to identify constructability issues and bolster preconstruction efforts. “We implemented All Contractors Meetings to discuss and coordinate work schedules with the other GCs and held them from preconstruction all the way through construction,” said Larson. “This was particularly important when there were eight cranes erected on all sites for more than a year, three of which were for the hospital. Ultimately, all GCs communicated multiple times daily with each other through radios and took advantage of the group meetings to communicate and orchestrate future crane operations. I can’t state enough the importance of communication for this project.”

In addition to coordinating crane operations, the GCs also worked together regarding City of Austin lane closures. This allowed each company to work most efficiently, even sharing use of temporary barricades for traffic control, and coordinating the shared costs for those closures. Once the team completed critical components, they turned over the space to UT’s contractors to complete their duties, working around each other on a regular basis through daily field communications.

Equipped for the Future

Designed to deal with the constraints of this urban site, the team recognizes that Dell Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas must be prepared for growth and expansion.  “We knew that to maintain its level one status and to adapt to changing technologies, the hospital needed a design that could accommodate future growth. That’s why the north bed tower is designed to expand vertically by four floors, with the potential for an additional 135 patient beds. Horizontal expansion is already planned for the second-floor surgical suite, and the podium level is also designed to accommodate a third-floor ancillary expansion,” said Prusha.

Primed for growth of the facility and the community, Dell Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas provides the foundation for the university’s new medical district and will undoubtedly stimulate the creation of many other public and private sector medical and research related facilities, as well as generate thousands of new jobs. Chuck Lipscomb, VP of Business Development at JE Dunn and Board Member of Opportunity Austin, a Regional Economic Development Program echoes the relevance of this facility to the community. “Knowing this project would provide job growth, higher-quality care for Austin residents, and help educate the next generation of medical professionals, it became a personal commitment for the entire project team to deliver on the promise to the greater community: transform the delivery of healthcare and Central Texas with the opening of Dell Seton Medical Center.”