Discovery Park of America Construction Today - Alan Dorich

It is not always easy to keep an audience entertained while educating them, but the new Discovery Park of America will be ready to do just that. Located in Union City, Tenn., the $65 million center will have 15 facilities that present nature, science, technology, history and art exhibits. According to Discovery Park, it will operate with the mission of providing education and entertainment that will enhance children’s and adults’ educational experiences, and inspire them treach their full potential.

“Discovery Park’s exhibits and programs will compel visitors of all ages to see beyond their current level of knowledge in many areas,” the organization states.

Spread across a 50-acre site, its structures will include an amphitheater and lawn area for outdoor events; a building showing how farm equipment has changed over the years; and a train depot with fully operating steam engines. The centerpiece, however, will be the 100,000-square-foot Discovery Center, which will have nine exhibit galleries.

Union City-based Allen Searcy Builder-Contractor (ASBC) Inc. is the general contractor for the center, which started construction in 2009. ASBC President David Searcy says he believes the park will become a prominent destination in its region.

“For myself, this project has become more than just a job,” he says. “We’ve [become] really engaged in this project and made it very personal. I think it’s going to be something that we can all look back on 30 to 40 years [from] now.”

Jim Rippy, the CEO of the project’s benefactor, the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation, agrees. “It is probably the most unusual project I’ve ever seen and been involved with,” he states. “Ninety-nine percent of it has some educational value and at the same time, it’s very entertaining. I don’t know of any project like it.”

A Winning Combination

For the project’s design, the Kirkland Foundation hired Boston-based Verner Johnson Inc. as the architect; Mount Laurie, N.J.-based Maltbie as the exhibit fabricator; and New York City-based Thinc Design as the exhibit designer. Verner President Lou Sirianni adds that the three firms approached the foundation with a unique proposal.

Most design firms would bid for the project separately, the three “went in with a turnkey proposal where we had the contract for architecture, exhibit fabrication and exhibit design,” he recalls. “It’s worked out brilliantly.”

By working together, all three firms have communicated more efficiently and met each of their deadlines. “We were able to maintain a nice, smooth schedule,” Sirianni says.

A challenge that the firms encountered was stretching dollars on the project. For example, in the design of the Discovery Center, “We [created] a pretty good looking building with some pretty exciting spaces for $300 per square feet,” he says. “I had to pull out all the stops on every trick I knew.”

One of these tricks included designing the center without a panel ceiling. “All the duct work and the electrical stuff are exposed,” he says. “We have so many pretty lively and colorful exhibits [that we can] get away with that.”

Working Through the Issues

The Discovery Park is aiming for completion in the second quarter of 2013. So far, 25 percent of it is finished.

“We’ve got all the site work done,” Rippy reports, adding that the majority of the concrete work is complete.

Mother Nature’s cooperation also will be important for meeting the schedule, Rippy says. Recently, work had to be stopped for two days due to rain. “Weather’s going to be No. 1,” Rippy admits. “We’re going to have to hope we get good weather.”

Searcy also notes that ASBC is coping with the challenge of working on a museum site. This not only carries the regular challenge of constructing multiple structures, but also preparing them for future exhibits. “[We have been] working through all the issues,” he says.

Searcy adds that ASBC has developed “a great relationship” with the Kirkland Foundation. “It’s been a true pleasure,” he says, adding that the contractor enjoys serving an organization that contributes so much to education.

The foundation also allowed ASBC to utilize the subcontractors that it preferred to work with. “With a project that [is] this complicated, that is a big asset right there,” he says.

Searcy adds that he sees more projects ahead with Discovery Park, as well as work in the institutional sector. “In [this] market, we’re fairly busy,” he says. “In this economy, that’s a plus right now.”