Keeley Construction’s Marc Ciaglia Builds Cold Storage Facilities

There’s more to the construction of a 227,000-square-foot freezer in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood—and much of Keeley Construction, Inc.’s work—than meets the eye, as Marc Ciaglia explains

Photo by Sheila Barabad

After 146 years, the Great Chicago Fire is being put on ice. Rather, ice is being put on top of the Great Chicago Fire—in a manner of speaking.

In Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Keeley Construction, Inc. is building a 227,000-square-foot freezer on a plot of land that contains a fair amount of history—although Marc Ciaglia, Keeley’s vice president of construction, concedes he didn’t know just how much until earthwork began. In order to build the foundation of the facility, Keeley had to hire a specialty ground-improvement contractor, Hayward Baker, to complete rigid inclusions—a process that drills into the soil, displaces it, then pumps an 18-inch diameter full of a concrete/grout mix. Before that could go into the dirt, however, rigid inclusion machines had to pull out what the dirt covered. That included “hunks of concrete the size of these machines,” foundations dating back to 1850, and nearly 400 tons of wood timbers that were dumped on the site after the 1871 inferno.

“We had no idea what we were going to find under there,” Ciaglia says. “It’s an interesting bit of history.”

The wood timbers were hauled off for disposal, and the concrete has been ground up to form the specially-designed load transfer platform (LTP) that sits atop the rigid inclusions. The LTP will subsequently create a bridge that supports both the building loads as well as the foundation of the new cold storage facility. Although putting that kind of history-laden mixture into the foundation of a warehouse-sized freezer—let alone building a freezer the size of a warehouse—seems a little out of the ordinary, it’s just another day on the job for Ciaglia.

As a specialty contractor, Keeley Construction, Inc. relies on word of mouth to spread its business. Marc Ciaglia, vice president of special projects, says the key to this strategy is making sure the clients with which they work are involved—or at least informed—at all stages.

“You need to manage expectations,” he says. “Some of these companies work on such small margins that you need to be sensitive in how you present the project and how the cost model’s set up. It’s a sticker shock to anybody when you’re doing a building like this that can be $20 million. They really need to be involved from day one—even if it’s the CEO. They need to be [in the meetings] because they need to see how we’re going to design the building, how we’re anticipating growth, the reason we’re doing everything we’re doing. If I was investing $20 million, I’d like to make sure that the company doing it is on point, keeps me informed of what’s happening, and shows me that they’re paying attention—they’re doing what we’re asking them to do and they’re bringing their ideas as well.”

“We do very interesting projects with very interesting clients,” he says.

For a start, Ciaglia mentions food-processing plants, bakeries, automotive-parts manufacturing plants, and cold-storage facilities as just a few examples of Keeley’s work. If you think these are just different names for some big-box-styled warehouses, think again.

“[When] you do a warehouse, it’s a different animal,” he says. “It’s a box—you’re concerned where the docks are. When you’re doing a food plant or a manufacturing facility or cold storage, it’s about getting the product in, getting it out quickly, and streamlining the efficiencies of making that product or widget.”

In other words, it’s more than just building the shell. More often than not, building these warehouse facilities means that some unique challenges are bound to crop up.

“We did a project in Mundelein [Illinois] for a food processing company and their precooked product,” Ciaglia says. “They had a machine called an IQF machine. It’s huge. It’s like the size of a bus, and it flash freezes food. Now that machine—just physically getting it into the building—came after the [building’s] construction. They said, ‘We’re thinking of doing this.’ I’d never seen anything like it—ever. How do you get [this machine] into an existing building?”

Ciaglia says the solution was cutting a hole in the side of the building to get the machine through, but once it was in place and the hole was repaired, another issue presented itself.

Marc Ciaglia says construction of warehouse-sized freezers, like this one for Preferred Freezer Services in Chicago, is more complicated than “putting up a box.”
Freezer storage areas require some of the tightest tolerances and detailing for any type of building.

“Someone just said in passing, ‘We should probably look at the floor, because these things are really, really cold, and when this machine freezes food, it forces all that air down,’” he says. “Below the machine, there’s two to three feet of clearance, but he heard of a case in a different building where the repeated use of this thing had lifted a similar machine one to two feet off the ground because it built up this huge block of ice underneath. Luckily, we caught this early enough and were able to reinforce and thicken the floor.”

Ciaglia says his background in architecture—which includes the four years he spent designing schools for STR Partners prior to arriving at Keeley—helps him in terms of planning for the interesting contingencies that accompany these projects. Nevertheless, he’s still impressed by some of the curveballs thrown his way.

“[The projects] are more specialized because they require a lot of attention and a lot of detail—all the work that’s done upfront makes the project move,” he says. “There’s a lot of time and effort put into understanding what a client’s process is and why they might want to move, or expand, or how to get efficiencies out of what you’re going to put into a building. It’s not simply putting up a box and putting a line into it.”

All that effort and experience should pay off in May 2017, when work on the Freezer 3 project in Pilsen is scheduled to wrap. At press time, Ciaglia said Keeley was still in the process of putting roughly 3,500 rigid inclusions into the soil to make the site firm enough to support the structure. From a site development perspective, Ciaglia says it’s one of the most challenging projects he’s worked on, but that’s fine—the lessons learned from this project amount to more useful knowledge for future work. You might even say the challenges provide a spark—if not a fire—for the company.

“Once you get around the challenges, you know how something’s done correctly,” he says. “Once you’re above that, things go very smoothly.”