Built for the Ages

Merit Construction has all the tools to make cathedral project a success

By Jim Wogan

It would be nice to believe that construction of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus followed every passage in sacred Scripture about building the Church, but, in fact, it didn’t.

The house that King Solomon built for the Lord may have risen quietly, but any person who ventured into the work zone for the new mother church of the Diocese of Knoxville during the past three years was required to wear a hardhat. At certain times, protective ear muffs and safety glasses also would have been recommended.

The scale and scope of the project, and the always-impending construction deadline, made it necessary for artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen, and laborers to work together in dust, noise, and heavy equipment, often just a few feet from each other.

“There was one day when we had 37 masons doing just masonry work, plus the electricians, and the dry wall contractors, and the marble bricklayers, everything. I would say there were 70-100 employees here at times,” said Steven Cox, a project manager for Merit Construction Inc.

Merit Construction CEO Bruce Bosse, project supervisor Fred Atkins, and project manager Steven Cox.

Three years ago, Merit was chosen by the Diocesan Cathedral Building Committee as the general contractor for the project. The Knoxville company has established itself as a leader in commercial construction in East Tennessee with the building of hospitals, hotels, schools, government offices, and large civic facilities among its many accomplishments. Since 2000, Merit has completed more than 20 church-related projects for eight denominations.

Building the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was different.

“It’s a complex building,” said Bruce Bosse, Merit president and CEO.

Merit has built bigger structures. The LeConte Center in Sevier County measures more than 230,000 square feet. By contrast, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is 28,000 square feet, but Mr. Bosse said the interior space of the church (1.7 million cubic feet), and the level of artistic detail and the highest quality of materials used make it unique.

Merit also had to adhere to an almost unheard of level of precision.

“I think the biggest challenge has been working to the 1/16th of an inch,” said Fred Atkins, Merit project supervisor on the cathedral project. “The marble that came from Italy was basically installed as it was delivered. When we were told that a column had to be “X” number of inches to the 16th of an inch so the marble could fit, it had to be. In 41 years of doing this, this is the most precise piece of construction I have ever had to deal with.”

As the general contractor, Merit was responsible for every facet of the construction process, including schedules, budgets, ordering and delivery of materials, hiring of subcontractors, and safety. The materials list offers some insight into the scale of the work and the immense scope of Merit’s responsibilities.

Before construction could begin, Merit oversaw the removal of an entire hillside (112,000 cubic yards of soil) near the old cathedral to create a parking lot and building pad for the new church.

The new cathedral sits on a foundation anchored to bedrock by 111 concrete piers that were drilled into the earth in early 2016. According to Merit, 50,000 concrete blocks were used to build the cathedral walls. The exterior of the church is dressed with 300,000 Roman-style bricks and 20,000 pieces of limestone. There are 10,000 linear feet of mechanical piping and more than 107,000 feet of electrical wiring inside the church. More than 42 linear miles of wood were used to trim the interior.

Someone had to order all that material. Someone had to make sure it arrived on time. Someone had to make sure it was installed properly, that every bolt was tightened securely, and that every step of the process met rigid standards for safety and compliance. Adding to the complexity was the rapidly approaching deadline to complete construction.

“Last March, we set the cathedral’s cornerstone, knowing that this building was going to be completed by March 3 of this year. When you think about schedules in construction projects, a lot of times when you set those dates a year ahead of time, for one reason or another, they may not get met, but we knew there was just no option here,” Mr. Bosse said.

“We had to meet that date, and we made sure things that took an unbelievably long time to get, whether they were light fixtures or marble or what have you, were ordered in time so they would be here when they were needed,” he added.

Merit project manager Wes Crow.

Mr. Cox compared the general contractor’s role to that of Bernstein or Stravinsky, famous leaders in their own right.

“We are almost like the conductor of an orchestra. We conduct different trades and different facets of the project and get them in tune to complete the project on time,” he said.

In late 2017, the building project had reached a critical juncture. A series of meetings between Merit, architects James McCrery and BarberMcMurry, Bishop Richard F. Stika, and Father David Boettner, a vicar general for the diocese and rector of the cathedral, had determined that all efforts would continue toward the ambitious deadline of March 3, 2018.

Getting that job done didn’t fall onto one person’s lap. Merit’s team included project manager Wes Crow and safety director Rebecca Phillips. In 2014, before a spade of soil was even turned, it was unlikely that anyone on the Merit team fully understood the magnitude of the decision to award them the construction contract.

“I do remember when I got the call. I was at the corner of Kingston Pike and Northshore and I literally had to pull off the road for a second when Father David (Boettner) called, because I was just that blown away,” Mr. Bosse said.

“We didn’t realize that the process … I guess you never really do on the front end know all that is going to be involved to get to this point. We are very proud that we are here. It’s just a beautiful building that we are so proud of,” he noted.

The building’s location added to the complexity of Merit’s task. Plans called for the new cathedral to be built only a few feet from the old cathedral. A wrong turn or step after exiting the front door of the original Sacred Heart Cathedral would land a person in the hardhat zone. A short distance away is Sacred Heart Cathedral School.

Merit’s building plan incorporated intricate production schedules to accommodate children arriving at and leaving school each day amid the construction.

Merit believes at least 900 workers were involved in the project at various points of construction. There were an estimated 800 people — including students, teachers, school staff, and parish and diocesan employees — within walking distance of those workers.

“I don’t remember anybody asking me for a Band-Aid. I think we had a really good safety program,” Mr. Atkins said.

Bishop Stika visited the site almost daily. Photos and videos of his visits were often posted to his personal social media accounts. Local and national media outlets kept Merit and the cathedral project in the spotlight as well.

“It really helped the process because people knew there were eyes on it and (there were) expectations,” Mr. Atkins said. “Yes, the owner was here every day. It’s very different when you have an owner on site. But we just took the media and the owners and said, OK, that’s part of our construction team. We just scheduled it as part of the work process.”

In construction parlance, the diocese and the parish are considered the owners of the project.

In the weeks leading up to the Mass of Dedication, Mr. Bosse was on site every day, trading his pair of brown dress shoes for a pair of old ones he kept in his car. He frequently walked the construction site with Father Boettner.

“Father David was the perfect person to lead this project, with his engineering background and engineering skills, and with his pastoral skills. It was the perfect combination for leading this process,” Mr. Bosse said.

Mr. Bosse admits that this project was personal: “Going to church here, having had two children that went to school here — this whole church and school is just a part of my family and my life. So it’s been a real special project. It’s obviously an iconic building for Knoxville, for our entire community.”

For project managers Wes Crow and Steven Cox, and project supervisor Fred Atkins, the length of their work days extended beyond the time spent on site. E-mails were often read and answered in the dark hours of early dawn. Documents and reports were sometimes completed after dinner.

“I tried to get here at 7 a.m., but I worked at home before I left to come here. I did office work, computer work, e-mails, and everything. I started probably at about 5 a.m. doing that,” Mr. Cox said.

While many of the subcontractors hired by Merit aren’t Catholic, many of them have expressed their gratitude for being selected to work on a building that is spiritually, architecturally, and historically significant.

“There is tremendous pride with everybody in our company, plus all of the workers on site,” Mr. Bosse said. “By and large, most of the workers here aren’t Catholic, but they know they are a part of something very special, a really sacred structure. And I think it is a point of pride for them and for their families to know that they have been a part of something that is going to be here for many generations to come.”

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