The challenge of simply breathing at 14,000 feet in elevation, where the air is exceptionally thin, is tough enough. But add in the manual work done on a construction site, plus weather and Covid-19 precautions, and you’ve got a pretty challenging jobsite.

This is exactly what crews from Olson Plumbing and Heating dealt with on a recent project, the Pikes Peak Summit Complex, situated at 14,110 feet in elevation. Crew members who worked atop Pikes Peak in Colorado – at the highest ongoing construction site in North America – had to pass full physicals, were equipped with personal oxygen cans and watched each other closely.

“Any given day, you can almost guarantee that somebody on one of the crews – whether ours or someone else’s up there – would get altitude sickness,” said Dom Wilson, Field Foreman for Olson Plumbing and Heating. “We worked in the buddy system so you could recognize if your partner was not feeling well. What you think is a slight headache is really an attack of the altitude, and you need to get down to 11,000 feet and be evaluated by an EMT.”

The brand-new Summit Complex will replace the Summit House, built more than 60 years ago, and at 38,000 square feet, there was a lot involved with the new build. For contractors who had the ability, prefabrication of anything possible at a lower elevation was all but a necessity.

Enter Viega ProPress

The folks at Olson will tell you they use ProPress as often as possible, but using it on a job like the one, for “America’s Mountain,” was extra important. The ability to prefab so many of the pieces at their shop in Colorado Springs, and truck them up the mountain so there was less work to do at altitude, made perfect sense.

“We prefabbed all the domestic and hydronic piping, as much as we could, to minimize labor at the top,” said Josh Crippen, Superintendent at Olson. “We prefabbed our pump skids, all the water heater and boiler skids, all the waste and vent piping. As much as possible.”

Sections of pipe were then trucked up the mountain on special trailers purchased by the general contractor, GE Johnson Construction Company. Crippen said the trailers had movable axles to get through the switchbacks on the steep road to the top.

But before Olson could even think about putting together sections of pipe using ProPress, they first had to pass special specifications. The Summit Complex was constructed to meet The Living Building Challenge, which is one of the most rigorous proven performance standards for buildings. 

Certain products are not accepted by the LBC, so there is a strenuous submittal process that Olson and the other subcontractors had to adhere to. Viega certifies many of its products, including ProPress, to the stringent LBC requirements.

Unique construction conditions

Work on the new Summit Complex began in 2018 when existing central utility plants were demolished and a temporary utility plant for blackwater was installed to keep the old Summit House operational during construction of the new building, about 100 feet away.

“Midsummer was a big race to get all of the in-floor heat in and get the foundation done and the building footprint excavated,” said Crippen. “We were really close – three weeks before the weather shut us down.

Regular Colorado weather, which can fluctuate from 30 to 70 degrees in a day, pales in comparison to the weather at the top of a fourteener (what Coloradans call the state’s 58 peaks that are 14,000 feet or higher) like Pikes Peak. While the temperature in Colorado Springs near the base of the mountain might be 30 degrees and sunny, the summit temperature is likely to be –20 degrees with howling winds and nothing to stop them.

And with such treacherous weather conditions, crews working at the summit had to always be on their toes. Crippen described spring and summer lightning storms as “unbelievable” and noted that if there’s lightning within 20 miles, everyone has to shelter in place to stay safe.  

The added curveball of Covid-19 safety restrictions made things even more complicated. The logistics of getting everyone up the mountain safely, with vehicle capacities and mask requirements, was tough.

It was time for plumbing and piping in the summer of 2020, so that’s when the crews with Olson really got to work on-site. With a short window to get everything to the peak and in place, the clock was always ticking in the background.

Viega’s role

For the wastewater treatment facility at the summit, Viega ProPress Stainless connects the settling tanks and reclaimed water system. Blackwater is captured, treated through a chlorine UV light filter process and then – after about a year – the graywater can be reused to flush the toilets in the Summit Complex.

“This is not like your average gravity system for drainage!” said Crippen. “It’s a vacuum system like in an airplane or cruise ship. It’s part of the LBC and the green building, to be able to reuse materials. This build will be the first of its kind.”

There are settling tanks at the peak. Solids are pumped out to a truck (through copper with ProPress fittings) and taken down the mountain. The rest goes into other settling tanks where the treatment process begins.

Inside the Summit Complex are 37 water closets and 18 hand sinks. All of the bathroom facilities are serviced through copper with ProPress fittings. The entire building is heated from two electric boilers with 12 zones of in-floor heat, and the heating water is also supplied via ProPress.

The building has three sump pits to handle what Mother Nature provides, and that runoff water is pumped out through copper and ProPress as well.

Each year more than half a million people visit the summit of Pikes Peak. The new three-story Summit Complex will feature a large walkway as well as multimedia exhibits to tell the story and history of the mountain. These indoor and outdoor exhibits will also educate visitors about the climate and geography, recreational opportunities and conservation initiatives – like those of the LBC.

Final construction work was being completed at the Summit Complex in early 2021, with an anticipated open date of early summer 2021.

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