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Buildings Catch A Wave

USC College ferries six new guest houses from L.A. waterfront to Santa Catalina Island for Boone Center.

Buildings Catch A Wave

Updated September 18, 2007

It should be guaranteed to float the boat of marine scientists: USC College shipped six new houses to Santa Catalina Island in August as part of construction of the new George and MaryLou Boone Center for Science and Environmental Leadership at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center.

The houses were ferried by barge and tug from Los Angeles’ Terminal Island across the San Pedro Channel, unloaded on the Catalina waterfront, hauled up a steep roadway by a semi-tractor and placed on steel-and-cement foundations already constructed at a site overlooking Big Fisherman’s Cove.

The move, begun August 1, was completed August 30 when workers welded the largest of the six houses to its foundation. Site work and landscaping will be completed in October. A date for the dedication ceremony for the new Boone Center will follow.

The USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies manages the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island, and it will manage the new Boone Center as well. Anthony Michaels of the College's biological sciences department is the institute director.

“The USC Wrigley Institute is a world renowned center for research, education and for the development of solutions to environmental problems,” Professor Michaels said. “The Boone Center on our island campus will be the centerpiece of our effort to build consensus, mediate disputes and create leadership on ocean and environmental solutions.”

George Boone is a USC Life Trustee and member of the College Board of Councilors. He and his wife, MaryLou, have provided inspiration and dedicated support to the Wrigley Institute and its mission. In 2004, the couple made a lead gift to establish the Boone Center. The gift was complemented by other USC benefactors.

The center’s mission is to create an upscale setting to attract leadership and planning retreats, training programs, high-profile conferences, and environmental conflict resolution negotiations to the island campus, officially called the Philip K. Wrigley Marine Science Center.

“We hope visitors to the Boone Center will find an ‘island effect’ that helps them work together,” Michaels said. “We know from experience that when scientists meet at marine labs, they find ways to collaborate that are often more creative and productive than would occur elsewhere. We want to create that same sort of environment for scholars and other members of society, who can come here and work on the really tough problems that we all must solve together.”

The Boone Center is comprised of six houses with a total of 11 bedrooms as well as a central meeting hall and video center in the main building. With access to the central dining hall at Wrigley, visitors to the Boone Center will have the conveniences of a conference center and university campus — including ready access to the Internet, food service and other modern conveniences — in an island setting.

Last year, the Wrigley Institute hosted 13 high-level scientific meetings and retreats, plus programs for nine USC schools and four departments in USC College. Before the addition, the facility could house about 100 people overnight in dorms and a few other cottages, which were built about 5 years ago.

The construction of the new buildings posed a logistical challenge. The houses were built on the mainland to save time and money, as well as minimize disruption to the research at the Wrigley Center. From start to finish, the Boone project was completed in about nine months, less than half the time it would have taken if all the work had been done on the island.

The extra expense if the houses were built on Catalina — estimated about $1.2 million — would have included additional hourly wages for workers to travel daily to the island, as well as the added costs to transport the crews each day and ship construction materials. Other increased expenses were expected from a logistical train that would have stretched across San Pedro Bay.

Building on two sites allowed construction to go faster. One crew on the mainland erected the wood-frame stucco houses at a rented site on the Port of Los Angeles waterfront while workers on the island excavated the Catalina land, built retaining walls, installed water and electrical lines, and laid cement and steel foundations.

The task of moving the houses by barge added significant drama to the project and drew media attention. And while the three separate barge trips went off without a hitch, the task required a crew of more than a dozen house movers and tug crewmen, heavy equipment, a barge and tugboat. The initial barging of the first two houses was taped and broadcast by a host of local television stations, and the Los Angeles Times covered it with two print stories and an online video.

The move itself required ingenuity and brawn. The houses are heavy — five of them tip the scales at 47 tons apiece, seven tons heavier than the weight limit for 18-wheelers on California highways. The sixth one — the centerpiece of the Boone Center — weighs 60 tons. Because they were built on Terminal Island, the trip to the dock was brief, under a quarter mile.

The barge itself had a 1,000-ton carrying capacity, so the two-house load was relatively light for the vessel and tug, albeit an extremely unusual site. The thorniest part of the move was getting the houses on and off the barge. The initial house loading and unloading took more than a day for each house, but by the third barging — with a steep learning curve surmounted and the trickier issues resolved — the houses were rolling on and off in under two hours.

Once the barge arrived at Catalina, they were pulled up a paved roadway that runs at a 13-degree grade by the research labs and to the foundations.

“The grade is not unusual for the house movers,” said Jay Fischer, USC construction project manager. “It just complicated matters a bit.”

A semi-tractor loaded with 25 tons of concrete towed each house up the incline. As a backup measure, each house was secured by cables and winches to another heavy-duty truck parked at the top of the hill.

The houses, of course, were built to travel, with steel frames, 2-by-6-stud construction (instead of standard 2-by-4) and added sheer walls.

“We knew they were going to be moved, so they were designed to be more substantial than tract housing,” said James McElwain, the College’s architect, adding that there was more behind the “beefy construction” than just ensuring that the houses survived the move. “We want these homes to be there for 100 years.”