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Capitol Visitor Center Diaphragm Wall

By Guido Pellegrino, Vice-President, Nicholson Construction Company and

Brian OGara, Business Development Coordinator, Nicholson Construction Company


The U.S. Capitol is undergoing its largest expansion

since 1800, the year that Congress gathered in the
buildings first completed section. Faced with the need to
make the building more accessible, comfortable, secure,
and educational for its 3 million annual visitors, Congress
directed the Architect of the Capitol to design and
construct a new visitor center. Major construction began in
summer 2002 and is on pace for completion in spring
The Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), located
underground below the East Capitol grounds, contains
580,000 square feet (53,880 m2) of floor space on three
levels. By comparison, the Capitol Building encompasses
775,000 s.f. (72,000 m2) The CVC project footprint
covers 193,000 s.f. (17,930 m2) larger than the Capitol
itself whose footprint is 175,000 s.f. (16,260 m2) The
CVC structure reaches depths in excess of 50 feet (15 m)
below ground. A two-level auditorium will extend to the
east of the plaza. A service tunnel will extend to the
northwest of the CVC. The new building will also include
space for exhibits, food service, two orientation theaters,
gift shops, security, mechanical facilities, storage, and
much needed space for the House and Senate.
The CVC is being built in two separate contracts. The
first major construction contract called Sequence 1
Foundation/Structure involved the installation of the
excavation support and foundation system by diaphragm
(slurry) wall and caissons, mass excavation, portions of
site utility work, completion of the roof slab and floors,
and construction of a new service tunnel. Sequence 2,
involves the build-out and finishes.
The Architect of the Capitol, the entity responsible to
the United States Congress for the maintenance, operation,
development, and preservation of the United States Capitol
Complex, awarded Sequence 1 to Centex Construction
Company of Fairfax, Virginia. As part of the contract,
Nicholson Construction Company, based in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, was awarded the subcontract to construct
the diaphragm wall, the jet grouting water cut-off, and the
lateral support system.

The Capitol is founded on spread footings placed on

dense water bearing granular and cohesive soils. A
continuous cut-off by concrete diaphragm wall and jet
grouting surrounding the entire perimeter of the new
addition were selected to limit settlement from dewatering
during excavation and control movements of the Capitols
The project documents provided a design that included
the wall reinforcement and a top-first lateral support and
construction sequence.
The construction sequence
involved the installation of the concrete diaphragm wall
and drilled shafts for the interior steel building columns
from the existing grade, the excavation of the first lift, and
the erection of the top steel frame at plaza level prior to
any substantial excavation. The mass excavation was
proposed to take place below the deck and around the steel
columns, while the walls were secured by up to 4 rows of
anchors for lateral support.
In collaboration with Centex and GEI Consultants of
Winchester, Massachusetts, Nicholson conceived and
proposed a revised construction sequence that allowed for
conventional bottom-up construction. This called for
drilled shaft construction from the base of the excavation,
conventional building column erection, excavation and
anchor work unimpeded by a forest of pre-installed
columns, and overall improved schedule and safety.
The alternate construction sequence was evaluated
using geotechnical modeling to demonstrate acceptable
performance. In cooperation with the project geotechnical
engineer, Weidlinger Associates of Cambridge, MA,
Nicholson and GEI developed a fast track temporary
design development and review program to confirm that
the proposed construction sequence satisfied the contract
performance requirements. The structural analyses of the
support system were performed using both beam-on-elastic
foundations (BEF) and finite element (FE) models. The
BEF program (WALLAP, 1997) was used for the
structural design of the wall system. Two FE models
(PLAXIS, 1998) were run to verify the BEF results, and to
provide ground deformation predictions to compare to

contract requirements. Soil properties were selected based

on geotechnical laboratory testing, as well as published
values from test section case histories in the Washington,
D.C. area.
The projects primary design concern was the control
and minimization of the Capitols movements. The
diaphragm wall foundation was designed to achieve this
goal and to act as a permanent water cut-off and structural
wall for the three-level underground structure. Particular
consideration was given to the fact that the Capitols
foundations are within two feet (600mm) of the wall in
some locations.
Prior to the beginning of any heavy construction, the
project team completed several critical preparatory tasks,
including relocating all utilities within the project
footprint, implementing a comprehensive tree protection
plan, preserving historic elements, and establishing
alternate visitor screening facilities.
Diaphragm wall construction commenced in July 2002
and was completed by May 2003. A total of 125
diaphragm wall panels, extending to depths up to 80 feet
(24.4m) were installed.
The diaphragm wall is 32 inches (813mm) thick and
heavily reinforced by structural steel, epoxy coated for
corrosion protection. Single panel cages weighed up to 23
tons (21 tonnes). Particular care was required when setting
the heavy and long steel cages within inches of the
faades historic stone work. In order to minimize the
ground movement risk, the panels adjacent to the building
foundation were limited to 10 feet (3m) in length; in areas
away from the building, panel lengths reached 26 feet.
(8m) The total perimeter of the diaphragm wall is 2,400
feet (732m), with a total surface area of 130,000 square
feet (12,077 m2).

Placing the Steel Cage in Close Proximity

to the East Faade

During the duration of diaphragm wall installation and

mass excavation, the building and the surrounding ground
were closely monitored to detect any deflection or
A dense array of monitoring points,
inclinometers, piezometers, and seismographs were
continuously monitored to assess the ground response to
the various construction activities, while the building itself
was monitored by dedicated instrumentation.
In order to maintain the strict tolerance requirement
and achieve the high productivity in the granular terrace
deposits as well as in the dense Potomac formation,
Nicholson selected hydraulic slurry buckets with lengths
of 10 feet. Two different types of digging equipment
configuration were utilized to negotiate the tight corners
and perimeter geometry: conventional cable-hung
hydraulic bucket mounted on a Liebherr 853 HD and a
telescopic kelly carried by a Link-Belt 418. Upon
completion of diaphragm wall construction, over 14,000
cubic yards (10,700 m3) of structural concrete and 1,500
tons (1,360 tonnes) of epoxy-coated structural steel were

Cable-Hung Hydraulic Bucket

for Diaphragm Wall Excavation

During the mass excavation of the CVC site,

Nicholson installed over 500 temporary anchors, with
capacities up to 375 kips (1,668 kN). The anchors were
installed using the duplex drilling method to minimize
ground disturbance and loss under the building
foundations. A tri-dimensional model of the anchor
configuration was developed to avoid reciprocal
interferences in the inside corner areas. Internal steel
bracing was also used in limited areas. The anchors were
progressively detensioned as the construction of the
concrete slabs and floors proceeded.

Anchor Installation Below the

US Capitol Foundation

One of the unique challenges of this project was the

extremely tight security measures under which all
construction activities took place. All workers were subject
to background checking, security screening on a daily
basis, all delivery trucks were also x-rayed and inspected.
The predicted deflection of the slurry wall for the BEF
and FE model analyses, as well as inclinometer data for
the most heavily loaded design sections were graphically
represented. The FE model included the simulation of
tieback anchors within the soil mass. The difference
between the movements predicted by the BEF model and
the larger movements predicted by the FE model is
essentially the free field movement behind the anchor
zones of the tiebacks. In other words, the BEF and FE
model had good agreement in predicting the local
movement of the wall. The actual wall movement is less
than the values predicted by both models. This behavior is
likely the result of the combination of conservative
modulus values for the soils, and conservative estimates of

building surcharges used in the models. Overall, the wall

movements for the entire site are less than predicted, even
in sections where there are no building surcharges. It
should be noted that in certain critical areas, the
installation of the upper tier of anchors took place in
slots sequentially excavated to increase movement

Wall Movement Comparison

Nicholson installed 380 linear feet (116m) of jet grout
wall at the Senate tunnel and central stairs for the
extension of water cut-off around and below existing
structures. To form the deep cut-off connections,
Nicholson utilized a mono-directional jet grouting
technique using a cement-bentonite grout mix. The monodirectional jetting produced intersecting flat panels of
cement-bentonite grout, providing the required cut-off to a
depth of approximately 75 feet (23m). This method
allowed the continuous grout treatment of a relatively wide
area with a substantial schedule improvement as compared
to installing conventional jet grout columns. The
performance of the jet grouting wall was demonstrated in a
full-scale pre-production permeability test program.
Circular jet grout columns were installed for the
structural connections between the diaphragm wall and the
existing structures for support of excavation and ground
water control. For these structural columns, a neat watercement grout was utilized, resulting in higher strength. The
effectiveness of the jet grouting parameters selected by the

contractor was confirmed by the installation of a test

column cluster.
Jet grouting was also used to overcome an unforeseen
condition at the site. During the excavation of the slurry
wall against the US Capitol foundation, an ancient stone
well was encountered; this occurrence caused loss of slurry
during the excavation and work stoppage. The project
team quickly reacted to this new condition devising the
installation of a series of small diameter columns to protect
the building granite block foundations. Subsequently, the
entire area affected by the well was consolidated by
double-fluid jet grouting utilizing a low-strength cement
and bentonite grout. Eventually the diaphragm wall
installation resumed through the consolidated obstruction
and was completed successfully.

the contractor resulted in substantial savings in terms of

schedule and overall cost to the project, while satisfying all
the performance requirements and objectives of the
modified top-down approach prescribed in the original
contract documents. Also, the proposed conventional
bottom-up construction method allowed for a safer
construction and minimized the reworks.
The foundation work, performed by DFI Member
Nicholson Construction Company, won the prestigious
2004 Washington Building Congress Craftsmanship
Award, aimed at recognizing quality in construction.

Erection of the First Steel Column

Installation of Structural Connections

by Jet Grouting

As this article goes to press, the foundation and civil
work is nearly finished and the fit-out of the CVC is in full
swing. The alternative construction sequence proposed by

Owner The Architect of the Capitol
General Contractor - Centex Construction Company
Architect - RTKL
Geotechnical Engineer - Weidlinger Associates, Inc.
Foundation Contractor - Nicholson Construction
Nicholsons Design Engineer - GEI Consultants, Inc.