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Precast Plays Role in Historic Church Project
C.R. Barger & Sons manufacturers a 195-foot-long Stone Strong retaining wall for a historic cathedral project in Knoxville, Tennessee.
When the Diocese of Knoxville broke ground on its new cathedral in April, C.R. Barger & Sons, Inc., of Lenoir City, Tenn., was called on to manufacture a Stone Strong retaining wall that would replace an aging structure that was already in place. Part of a larger, $25 million construction project, the 195-foot-long precast concrete retaining wall is constructed from large, engineered wall block that increased gravity wall height, required no tiebacks or geogrid, installed easily and quickly, and now serves as an attractive backdrop both for the new cathedral and a neighboring bank building.

“We are very pleased with the way the Stone Strong wall looks and how safe and long-lasting it will be,” says Father David Boettner, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville. In place for more than 25 years, the existing structure was constructed from railroad ties and was no longer doing its job. The wall was beginning to physically shift and allow dirt to move around, for example, thus necessitating an entirely new, sound structure that would keep the surrounding earth in place. “Both our church and the adjacent bank are happy with the new structure.”

Paving the Way for Success
Home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, Sacred Heart cathedral is in the midst of creating an “architectural landmark within the city of Knoxville and the Bearden community,” according to the church. The $25 million project broke ground in April and construction officially started in June. Expected to be completed during the fall of 2017, the monumental project is a huge undertaking that’s being coordinated by general contracting firm Merit Construction.

Once completed, the new cathedral will increase the structure’s current worship space from 7,500 square feet to 20,000 square feet and expand seating capacity from a little more than 550 people to over 1,000 individuals. In a press release, church officials said they need to expand because the cathedral has outgrown its current space and is unable to hold the children who attend its Cathedral School.

"We are literally bursting at the seams and have weekly challenges with logistics and space," said Boettner, in the press release. "But we are a church that is committed to the city, and because of that, we want to remain in our current location and upgrade the space to suit the growing needs of Catholics and others in our region."

According to Boettner, the current cathedral will be renovated and used as an auditorium and a meeting center, while the new structure will be situated directly in front of that existing building. In addition, the present school that’s onsite will be renovated and updated and a rectory will be torn down. The church will remain open during the entire construction process.
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We are very pleased with the way the Stone Strong wall looks and how safe and long-lasting it will be.
Father David Boettner - rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville
Precast Takes Center Stage
Installed by excavating contractor Whaley & Sons Inc., of Kodak, Tenn., the cathedral’s new precast retaining wall was one of the first structures to go up on the construction site in Knoxville, where the total project will take about two years to complete. Zac Whaley says his company got involved with the historic undertaking after being selected as a potential bidder by Merit Construction. “The general contractor didn’t want just any company giving them a number on a project of that magnitude,” says Whaley. “When it came out to bid, we bid pretty aggressively on it and wound up winning the job.”

Whaley says the excavating contractor has worked on similar “rough grading packages” in the past with good success, and says the company is charged with prepping the site (i.e., rough grading, storm drainage, water, sewer, and so forth) in a manner that will allow contractors to “get in there and commence working on construction of the cathedral.” As part of its overall job, Whaley & Sons had to replace a 25-year-old retaining wall that was made of railroad ties.

“We went out and looked at the wall, which is located on the northern end of the project, and it was clear that the railroad ties were coming loose,” Whaley recalls, “and there was a lot of dirt behind it that needed to be contained.” After carefully surveying the existing structure, Whaley and his team realized that “if the church wanted a good and long-lasting fix, then they would have to use a system other than a railroad tie wall.”

The project owner considered a few different design options for the wall. Each design focused not only on the actual structure of the proposed wall, but it also incorporated an aesthetic design, look, and feel. “The church selected the type of wall that it wanted, and then I worked with the precast manufacturer to come up with the actual design and budget for that aspect of the project,” says Whaley. “After a few tweaks, the church told us to go forward with the Stone Strong wall.”
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Beating Tight Timelines
According to Eric Barger, vice president at C.R. Barger & Sons, the wall itself was nine feet tall, 195 feet long, and incorporated approximately 1,600 square feet of precast concrete. The manufacturing process didn’t present any unusual constraints or challenges for the project, although the entire structure had to be made and installed within a fairly short timeframe. “We got together with Zac, the church, and our geotech engineer quickly, knowing that we had a pretty short start-to-finish timeline,” says Barger. “There was very little wiggle room on the schedule, based on the fact that the actual cathedral construction needed to start in a timely fashion.”

To ensure a timely delivery schedule and smooth installation process, Barger was onsite during the entire process, “making sure everything went quickly and that there were no hang-ups or issues,” he says. According to Whaley, having Barger onsite was a big help on a project where time was of the essence. “He was out there with us every day; we really worked well together,” says Whaley, who had originally allocated 4-5 days for the actual installation process – a time frame that was met and even beaten once the engineered Stone Strong wall blocks started being placed in their respective spots. “We got to the point where we exceeded the amount of square footage we could install per day,” says Whaley, “and that helped to speed things up.”

“By the time Eric and I got out there and put our heads together, and with both of us standing there monitoring the wall block delivery, installation, and coordination,” says Whaley, “the project was basically in place and completed in under five days. It went very well and the owners are very happy with the result.”

A Strong, Reliable Solution
As he anticipates the final completion date of his diocese’s new cathedral in late-2017, Boettner says he’s pleased with the progress thus far. “We’re basically taking a parish church that was designated as a cathedral over 25 years ago and building our diocese’s first cathedral church from the ground up. It’s a historic undertaking,” says Boettner, who adds that the weather has been cooperating and the various construction crews have been working well together. “Everyone is really in sync; we’ve met some great people as a result of this project so far.”

In assessing the new retaining wall that now separates the church from a bank and various other outbuildings, Boettner says the new structure plays an important role in the overall cathedral project. “In looking at the old wall, we could tell that it was starting to slide a bit,” he explains. “We knew that we needed to get in there and do something to stabilize the hillside and retain that section of land.” When introduced to the Stone Strong concept, Boettner says he saw the option as a “perfect fit for our application.”

Boettner says Whaley and Sons and C.R. Barger & Sons worked together to not only engineer a solid, safe replacement for its existing structure, but they also joined forces to ensure a fast and easy installation process. “The wall system went in so easily, with all of the wall blocks fitting together perfectly,” says Boettner. “The end result is a wall that’s very attractive, and that the neighboring companies/building owners are also very happy with. It has really dressed up everyone’s properties.”

Even more importantly, the Stone Strong wall gives the diocese peace of mind that its new wall will continue doing its job well into the future. “I’m very confident that no one is going to have to worry about that retaining wall,” says Boettner, “or its integrity and reliability anytime soon.”