Field day for stadium crews Morale: Workers on the Ravens project take a high-adventure retreat aimed at building constructive relationships.

November 10, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Few things cut tension better than climbing a tree while a colleague holds you up by your pants.

So one day last week, contractors on a high-stress deadline to build the Ravens Stadium disappeared into the woods of the Eastern Shore for some outdoor adventures -- exercises meant to ease pressures, build team spirit and generate professional trust.

In the construction industry, competing contractors, clashing interests and intense pressure often get in the way of quick work. Stadium officials were looking for a way to purge their crews of everything from temper tantrums to lawsuits. The Ravens project is especially nerve-wracking, with a quick time frame and a hulking $200 million stadium on the line.

On Monday, 34 managers of construction workers, electricians, designers, engineers and plumbers joined an Outward Bound course in the woods of Talbot County, where they performed tasks such as dangling upside down over swamp grass and mud.

They built rope bridges. They pretended they were Sherpas on a Himalayan rescue mission and communicated in a make-believe language. They constructed rafts. They rescued artifacts while imagining that alligators surrounded them in the Amazon. They carried each other through a giant make-believe spider web. They climbed. They walked. They talked. They built trust.

By the end of the day, some hard-bitten stadium bosses were stomping out their cigarettes in the dirt so they could hold hands in a circle for large-group introspection.

"My biggest trust issue was that frickin' raft, because I can't swim," said Rick Jay, an inspector with Hillis-Carnes, which tests building safety. "That's where trust comes in. Especially on this stadium project. You can't do it alone."

For officials at the Stadium Authority, the $5,000 cost of the weekend retreat, including the adventure session, was money well spent.

The authority, using concession revenue, split the cost with the private construction companies building the arena. The stadium is scheduled to open by August 1998.

Already, the pressure is on. More than 200 workers are toiling up to 16 hours a day, six days a week. In the peak months of construction, more than 1,000 workers could fill the site.

The designers are still completing their final drafts even as construction crews wait to build. Among those feeling the strain are Steve Evans, a project manager with Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, the Kansas City architectural firm drafting the plans.

Plumbers are calling Evans wanting to know how many locker rooms, showers, sinks and toilets will go under the stadium for Ravens players and the visiting team. Meanwhile, construction managers are holding on the other line, asking when the plumbing pipes will be down so they can lay the concrete for the first floor.

"They're asking questions and we cannot answer them," said Evans, adding that it is routine in big-budget projects to begin construction even before the final blueprints are complete. The Ravens stadium design details that are in demand should be ready this week, he said.

Tensions are so common on construction work sites that some firms such as FMI in Raleigh, N.C., have made a business of counseling work crews on major projects to avoid conflicts.

"This is not like a manufacturing company where people work together for years and years and years," said Gretchen McComb, an FMI consultant who gave a seminar on teamwork at the Ravens retreat. "They need all the help they can get."

During the Orioles stadium project, construction workers and their families were given tickets to games and came to special events to build their commitment to the project.

"Often workers are told what their task is without being fully apprised of how it fits into the greater whole," said Janet Marie Smith, one of the Oriole Park architects. "If this is going to be the home of the Ravens, the people building it have to feel part of it."

But the architectural victory of Oriole Park only raises more tensions for the football crew. The baseball stadium, a huge popular success, no doubt will be compared with whatever the Ravens work crews build next door.

"If our stadium isn't as beautiful as Camden Yards, people are going to be disappointed," said Bruce Hoffman, the Ravens project executive at the Stadium Authority. The stadium will cost $68 million more than Oriole Park, will be 600,000 square feet bigger and will go up 10 months faster than the baseball stadium, he said.

The anxieties did not escape the Ravens stadium workers -- even in the woods.

"There are times when you lose it, and you have to take a step back," said Chuck Simmons, a construction project manager, as he sat on a log with his beeper still attached to his hip. "There are so many pressures, if you get off on the wrong foot, you're going to be in trouble."

With this in mind, the day in the wilderness focused on creating a quick feeling of closeness.

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