Building the skyline

Ironworker Kirk Galloway climbs down from the steel beams that will become the 32nd and 33rd floor of the Tower at PNC Plaza on May 8, 2014.
Ironworkers weld steel beams into place atop the 32nd and 33rd floors of the new Tower at PNC Plaza.
Ironworkers Kirk Galloway, left, and Shawn Richards guide a steel beam into place as it's lowered down by crane operator Ed Zona, atop the 33rd floor of the Tower at PNC Plaza.
Ironworkers wait while standing on the unfinished 31st floor as crane operator Ed Zona, not pictured, guides steel beams from street level to their location at the Tower at PNC Plaza.

Scores of people bustled along the sidewalk at the end of the lunch hour Thursday near Wood and Fifth streets Downtown. Not all were content with a quick glance up at the giant amalgamation of concrete, steel and glass under construction across the street.

Richard Anton, an 81-year-old attorney from Thornburg who has an office Downtown, stopped, craning his white-haired head back until it rested on the collar of his dapper blue-and-white checked blazer for a long look at the Tower at PNC Plaza, a 33-story office building project that has sprouted steadily from the ground over the past two years.

"I'm very impressed," he said, adding that he's been watching the process for a year. "It's a real jewel for the Triangle." Mr. Anton watched as the hoist, a rudimentary elevator anchored to the side of the building via a steel frame, took a load of hard-hat wearing workers up.

"I admire their bravery," he said.

According to PNC, the building's construction, which began in 2012 and is scheduled to finish by fall of 2015, will employ a total of 2,500 people, with up to 500 working at any given time. Last week, workers marked a milestone, putting in the final steel beam for what will become the new global headquarters for PNC Financial Services Group. It's anyone's guess whether the hundreds of white-collar workers who will eventually take their desks inside will give much thought to how their new workday home, which PNC claims will be the "greenest office tower in the world," was put together.

Tapping away at keyboards or punching phone numbers inside, they'll be surrounded by thousands of tons of beams and look out through thousands of windows that are part of an innovative system that helps cycle heat in and out to regulate temperature. Harder to visualize are the precise calculations that went into determining how much that steel skeleton would compress as floors and weight were added, the feats of skill and teamwork employed to drop the pre-fabricated windows weighing hundreds of pounds each into place and the minor miracle of scheduling and trucking that delivered the innumerable individual pieces of the tower to a congested Downtown job site every day, among other myriad details of the $400 million project.

""This has been really fascinating to see all these ground-breaking processes with the solar chimney and the outer wall," said Jeffrey Thorla, a contract manager for PJ Dick, PNC's construction manager. "Even though it's a worldwide building, it a very capable Pittsburgh-based workforce.""

According to PNC, the tower will stand 545-feet tall. The city Planning Department says it will be the tallest new building in the city since the early 1980s. The tower is also being designed to exceed the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certification, the organization's highest standard, in large part because of the glass curtain-wall system, though it will also employ LED lighting, a water recycling system and other features to make it energy efficient.

"We expect we'll be able to naturally ventilate the building for about 42 percent of the year, which will drive down costs," said PNC spokeswoman Emily Krull.

Ironworker Jeff Reick, 45, is a supervisor overseeing installation of windows at the Tower at PNC Plaza.
Ironworkers install windows at the Tower at PNC Plaza on April 29.

The windows feature electronically controlled "pop-out units" on the outer glass to allow air in and out of a narrow cavity between the double row of panes. The inner layer of windows will feature vents to allow air exchange with the building's offices. The "solar chimney," in addition to venting hot air in warmer months, will help warm air that comes into the cavity during cooler months to help regulate temperature.

Wrapping the 33 stories in a double layer of the high-tech glass, manufactured in a facility near Crafton by Permasteelisa Group, an Italian contractor that specializes in building shells and interiors, is no mean feat. A single-story pane can weigh anywhere from 600 to 800 pounds, while the two-story panes that will comprise some parts of the facade can weigh up to 2,500 pounds and measure 27 feet tall.

Iron workers hoist the packaged panes up to the floors, then unwrap and clean them before lowering them into place from the floor above with a small crane, securing the panes to a track laid into the floor, sometimes with a bit of bludgeoning from a boot or a block of wood.

Some days, the crew can put in as many as 25 windows in a day, completely finishing a floor in about two weeks.

"The average person working Downtown in an office building, they can't see behind the walls," said Jeff Reick, a 45-year-old iron worker from Brookline who is among the supervisors overseeing the installation of the windows. "They don't have a clue what we're up against every day. ... It's not an easy job on any level."

That sort of thinking, he acknowledged, goes both ways.

"We probably wouldn't have any idea what they're doing inside the building once we're done putting it up," he said.

Ironworker Kirk Galloway, 43, of Elizabeth Township, pauses to wipe a bead of sweat from his brow while waiting for crane operator Ed Zona, to hoist another steel beam to the top of the Tower at PNC Plaza on May 8, 2014.
Ironworkers Kirk Galloway and Shawn Richards, not pictured, guide a steel beam into place as it's lowered down by crane operator Ed Zona, not pictured, atop the under-construction 33rd floor.

From the stands at PNC Park, fans and visiting sports writers fawn over the view of the city skyline. And last month, from the 31st floor of the tower that will also bear the bank's name and become the newest addition to that man-made landscape, the view of home plate was almost as good.

Kirk Galloway, a 43-year-old iron worker from Elizabeth Township, was balanced on a narrow steel beam dozens of feet above the nearest solid floor and hundreds more above the street. Mr. Galloway's job? To guide the giant beams, which are suspended from a crane, into place, loosely securing them with bolts until welding teams following behind anchored them permanently.

It's one thing to do it at the core of the building, with the relative comfort of the corrugated deck underneath. It's another to do it on the edge of the building, 300 feet above the sidewalk.

"Walking a 6-inch beam, it's not for the faint of heart, so to speak," said Kory Callihan, a 39-year-old site safety manager from Slippery Rock who works for Century Steel Erectors, as Mr. Galloway shimmied up a beam. "You have to be somewhat of an athlete. You don't see any big heavy guys up there. ... The most glorified position for iron workers is the connector. You're like, 'Look at that guy.'"

From his lofty perch above the city, Mr. Galloway, one of about 100 members of Iron Workers Local 3 working on the building, can see a few other fruits of his labor: Heinz Field, Consol Energy Center, PNC Park and Rivers Casino.

"I've had a fortunate career," he said. "I just seem to be in the right place at the right time."

Safety features, such as mandatory tie-offs to prevent workers from falling more than a few feet, are some of the biggest changes Mr. Galloway has seen in his two decades of working on big buildings.

"It's come a long way," he said. Of more concern than falling themselves is the risk of dropping tools or material from job site hundreds of feet above a busy sidewalk, which is why workers use tethers for their tools and nets to keep debris from blowing away. Mr. Galloway said he lost his footing once, while working on PNC Park, though his safety harness made it a short trip.

"I'm not going to lie. You get a little banged up, but you pretty much go back to work. It hurts your pride more than anything," he said.

Though connecting the beams and the combination of acrobatics and nerve it takes is seen as younger man's job, Mr. Galloway said he has no immediate plans to do anything else.

"I still enjoy it. I'm still in good health. I enjoy what I do," he said.

He'll be the first to acknowledge that it's not for everybody.

"Just don't look down," he said.

Crane operator Ed Zona hoists steel beams from street level to the 31st-33rd floors of the Tower at PNC Plaza on May 9, 2014.
After the end of his shift, crane operator Ed Zona climbs down from his cab in the crane attached to the Tower at PNC Plaza.

Ed Zona has seen people that couldn't handle the height, clinging nervously to the hand rails on the narrow ladder that leads up to the cab of his crane.

"Sometimes it's overwhelming for certain people," said the 44-year-old crane operator from Clarksburg. "It can be a little intimidating. Nothing to be ashamed of."

Not for Mr. Zona, who grew up on a dairy farm and never considered doing anything except milking cows until he got a welding certification after high school. He worked as a welder for 12 years before becoming a field equipment operator with Local 66.

Now, from the cab of his crane, fixed to the side of the PNC tower's structure high above the city, he can see four other buildings that he helped add to the city skyline."

"I took to it like a duck to water," he said

After years of coming to the same job site every day, the investment of time produces a keen sense of accomplishment: A skyscraper where there once was nothing.

"It's a huge sense of pride when you see one of these buildings," Mr. Zona said.

And he gets the same satisfaction from the construction site as the farm, mostly because of being out in the elements and the daily infusion of Vitamin D, which he called the "happiness vitamin."

"I really enjoy my job now. I love being outside. Winter time's the hardest but you learn how to deal with it," Mr. Zona said. "I love the sun shining on me."


Story: Robert Zullo

Robert Zullo is a general assignment reporter who has worked for the Post-Gazette since September 2013. A native of Miami, Fla., and a graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va., The Courier and Daily Comet in Houma, La., and Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, NJ.

Photography: Michael Henninger

Michael Henninger is a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He was named the 2011 National Press Photographers Association region 3 Photographer of the Year. His work has been recognized by the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, the Northern Short Course in Photojournalism, the White House News Photographers Association, and the Society for News Design.

Other credits

Design: Andrew McGill