New hospital, hidden from view, is a construction site to behold

Special thanks to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted



Kert Irwin of Leeper (left) and Frank Monteross of Conneautville, both working for Easley and Rivers Contracting of Monroeville, finish framing a wall on the second floor of the new UPMC Northwest hospital. Other workers at the opposite end of the hallway have started the job of covering the metal framework with drywall.

The single largest construction project in years, maybe ever, in Venango County is probably the single biggest secret, too.

And that is despite a noisy workforce of nearly 200 hard-hatted workers, lots filled with mud-caked excavating equipment, and rows of construction trailers, all crammed into the middle of a very open 144-acre tract in Cranberry Township.

The reason for the secrecy?

Simply, geography.

Put succinctly, the new $65 million UPMC Northwest hospital under construction off Route 257 is huge.

It sprawls and glistens and shudders with what seems to be an anticipation of what is to come - a mid-November 2004 opening of a brand, spanking new state-of-the-art hospital.

Four stories high, the 211,000-square-foot building appears quite suddenly after a slight bend in a muddy, rutted path that will be transformed into the main entrance road. Looking back, a visitor can not see Route 257 or much of anything else, except for a stray barn or two, because of trees ringing the expansive hospital lot.

But ahead, the scene is jarring: this light-colored brick building towers over what had been a simple farm field.

The isolation is surprising, given the magnitude of what is being built there.

And it needles Pam Niederriter, manager of community relations at UPMC Northwest, that very few people can even see the building project.

"It's back from the road, and there really is no vantage point to see this. I wish that people could get more excited about their new hospital, but I suppose that's hard if you can't see what's going on," she said.

She makes her comments during a stroll through a to-be hospital corridor framed in shiny steel studs and laced with heating ducts, electric wires, medical gas hoses and copper plumbing.

Niederriter, her shoes muddied after trekking through the still unpaved parking lot and her face rosy from cold breezes wheezing through unfinished windows, guides small groups of visitors, most of them hospital employees, through the building project a few times each week.

Her escort is usually John Williams, UPMC Northwest's manager of facilities and services. On this job, he is better known as the project manager, one who quickly volunteers that the building project is "exciting, really exciting."

"We're a little behind, what with the rain, but they hope to have the entire building enclosed by mid-October and then get the boiler up and running," said a cheerful Williams, clearly in his element as tour guide.

A visitor familiar with the sturdy but aging Oil City and Franklin hospitals is immediately struck by the sense of 'newness' in walking through the lobby, a sleek two-story atrium now draped in plastic sheeting as it awaits glass installers. Dangling trouble lights point the way inside a cavernous Erector set-like ground floor.

"There's where the reception desk will be and on that side will be a coffee bar and gift shop. An ATM will be installed there," said Williams, ticking off where everything goes.

His walk throughout the new hospital is punctuated with remarks as to the overall design, whether it be elevator shaft dimensions or surgical suite layouts.

In the maze of steel studs and structural steel beams, corridors filled with natural light, thanks to banks of windows, wind through and around dozens and dozens of rooms. A few rooms have finished plaster walls, but most are only framed in metal.

The halls are filled with pallets of electric wire spools, plumbing and heating pipes and clamps, workmen's wood chests holding the tools of their trades, stacks of plaster board, and books of master drawings, worn and color-coded and marked by penciled-in notations.

Workers are everywhere, pounding and cutting and hoisting and drilling. There is the heavy hum of work, punctuated by tunes from a radio somewhere deep inside.

"We have anywhere from 160 to 180 workmen on site daily, and we've gone as high as 200. And a lot of them are local people, hired out of local union halls. Every time we bring people through, someone knows someone," said Williams, a 23-year veteran of the health center and a former house builder.

He adds, "I love to show people around. Everyone is always so surprised when they actually see it."

One mechanical system draws Williams' attention. The hospital, he said, will have a pneumatic tube conveyor system, reminiscent of the old tube-and-canister apparatus in retail stores but geared today to whisk lab results, patient information and more between departments.

Even in an unfinished hospital, some areas already speak to the seriousness of the medical trade. A decontamination room, designed to handle bio-terrorism incidents, is at one entranceway. In another area, 6-foot thick concrete walls form a cubicle to hold radiation oncology equipment.

There are amenities, too, like an inner courtyard, a patio leading from the cafeteria and a large room for conferences and educational classes. There is talk, said Williams, that a water pond, complete with fish, may even be in the works.

"It's nice to start from scratch because you can do it right," said an appreciative Niederriter, listening to Williams explain that receptacles, pipes and other necessary apparatus will be flush-mounted in each patient room. "And there is so much built-in flexibility in all this."

The enormity of the hospital project shows atop the building roof, a level built so that another floor, if needed, can be added in the future. Radiating out from the hospital building are driveways, a covered walkway to a free-standing one-story $3.5 million behavioral health building, a heliport pad, a main ring-around-the-hospital highway, four staked out parking lots and several traffic islands, and leveled lots suitable for more UPMC Northwest facilities. A tree-lined circumference marks the hospital property boundaries.

There will be more construction, too, said Williams.

"The developer is working on talking to physicians for a 38- or 36-office building on site. And there are plans for a child development center. And a TCU (transitional care unit) and rehab facility might be built," he said.

In all, the UPMC Northwest project boasts about 160 beds, including those in the main hospital and the behavioral health center and several more that are classified as 23-hour beds in the emergency department. Another 30 could be added if a TCU and rehab building is constructed.

Off the grounds and back on Route 257, a traveler confronts traffic delays as crews install new water lines alongside the roadway. The work is in anticipation of adding a third lane, done in part to accommodate what will certainly be congestion once the hospital opens.

The traffic stops offer time to gaze out the car window.

There is not a hint, save a this-is-the-spot sign advertising the project, that a multi-million-dollar building project, one that may help spur economic revitalization in the area, lies just beyond the berm.