Charting New Ground in Construction: NASA SMiRF

For more than five decades, Cleveland’s NASA Glenn Research Center has been at the forefront in testing spacecraft and engines, utilizing facilities that can mimic conditions from supersonic flight to the vacuum of space. One such installation, the Small-scale Multipurpose Research Facility (SMiRF), was slated for relocation to make way for runway expansion at neighboring Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. In early 2002, NASA announced a bidding process for the construction of a new, $22 million SMiRF facility.

Specifications that Push the Limits

Reading the specifications, nothing about the project was going to be conventional. The final design drawings were not yet complete at bid time. The project involved limited access to a two-acre postage-stamp site bordered by Abram creek, a steep ravine, the airport, and existing NASA facilities. Automation and instrumentation plans were sketchy at best. The test facility involved the use of highly explosive cryogenic materials such as liquid hydrogen. And, although NASA had operated a similar test facility nearby since the early 1960s, much of that technology was obsolete and the new design specs bore little resemblance to the old site. No one had ever built such a facility before.

On the financial side, the risks were palpable. If the project wasn’t finished by the scheduled due date, the company would be assessed $60,000 liquidated damages per day.

With expertise in working with layered management structures and finding creative solutions to complex construction challenges, Independence Excavating was confident that it could overcome all of the obstacles presented by the NASA project. Independence Excavating had the added benefit of being able to meet the strict insurance requirements that allowed them to bid the job.

On August 26, 2002, Independence Excavating broke ground on what was to be its largest building contract as prime contractor. The project called for the construction of four buildings, 7,000 lineal feet of underground utilities, hazardous soil removal, excavation, cast-in-place concrete and structural steel buildings, asphalt roadways, and interior monitoring and control systems employing miles of wiring, cables, and process piping.

Overcoming Narrow Site Access

The exterior construction involved its own challenges. First, access to the site was so narrow that even a truck delivering water to the trailers would shut down all other deliveries, illustrating the need for hour-to-hour scheduling. The scheduling was so tight in fact that, if a delivery arrived late, the carrier had to wait at the back of the line.

Adapting Binwalls to Become Blast Walls

The blast walls were designed to protect adjoining facilities, should an explosion occur in one of the test cells. To construct these walls, Independence Excavating employed a unique application of vertical binwalls, filling the void between with stone. This was the first time that binwalls, typically installed at an angle in highway construction as sound barriers, were adapted for use as a blast barrier. Since on-site assembly of these walls was impossible due to space and schedule limitations, Independence Excavating fabricated huge sections off site—some as large as 30 feet long—and then delivered the pre-assembled sections to the project where they were lifted into place with cranes.

Construction Without Full Drawings

Construction started even though automation and instrumentation drawings were still in design, a unique and unconventional approach. As drawings began arriving, design changes—resulting from the ?design in theory? nature of the project—and approval delays were a common occurrence. Even the layouts for the control panels and connecting piping had to be created as the initial drawings were merely conceptual.

Custom Fit Process Mechanics Made Off-site

The process mechanics—including pumps, valves, chiller units (to maintain the liquid hydrogen), pipes, and tubing—had to be custom fit and fabricated. Vacuum jacketed piping, gauges and instruments required for the test facility needed to be custom-designed, tested, fabricated, approved and calibrated before installation, many requiring a four-to-six month lead time. The size of the project and limited workspace demanded that hundreds of feet of small stainless steel tubing had to be fabricated off-site, utilizing critical isometric engineering specifications. The shop fabrication involved creating large sections of complex and compound angles of tubing that were to be mated with control panels and feed lines at carefully placed field joints at the job site.

Demanding Electrical, Mechanical and Performance Specs

Electrical power distribution, control wiring, as well as communication, fire detection, video, and security systems were part of the complete package. Two high-voltage substations, miles of control wiring, and more than 30,000 feet of underground wiring ducts were laid in 8-to-12-foot-deep trenches, cut into the native shale. As with many aspects of the project, the duct banks themselves were pre-assembled in 40-foot sections and trucked to the site as needed.

The uniqueness of the project necessitated some other unusual solutions as well. For example, because the test facilities involved the use of explosive hydrogen, all of the electrical conduits had to be airtight to prevent vapors from collecting in the electrical ducts and tubing. The electrical subcontractor also worked with NASA engineers to develop power distribution systems that fit both the small site and the original buildings.

Because the buildings were started before all mechanical drawings were complete, the designers had to assume spatial requirements. As those drawings were completed, it became evident that some structures were not always large enough for the eventual mechanical specs. Independence Excavating overcame these physical challenges through very creative collaboration and field engineering.

NASA could not finalize its performance specifications until the designs and changes were finished. It wasn’t until the project was nearly two-thirds complete that NASA handed Independence Excavating the Required Systems Validation Acceptance Criteria (RSVAC). The RSVAC provided, in detail, how each aspect of the facility was expected to function, and compliance was mandatory. To do this, the contract called for Independence Excavating to actually test their installation. While the test results could have been potentially dangerous, Independence Excavating completed the tests safely and successfully.

Meeting NASA’s Space-Age Vision

Despite the many design and specification changes, as well as site and construction obstacles, Independence Excavating was able to deliver the facility that NASA had envisioned—and on time.

The resulting SMiRF complex is impressive. When Independence Excavating completed its work in December of 2003, the site contained three new buildings. One is a shop building for storage and machining operations. Another is the small multipurpose research facility, including a vacuum chamber capable of sea level to 220,000 feet—in two minutes. A test cell, for testing spacecraft insulation systems and alternate fuels, is also in the complex.

Additionally, the project involved gutting and refitting an existing remote control room located a quarter mile from the SMiRF complex.

The Results

Thanks to the hard work and creativity of Independence Excavating and its team of Ohio subcontractors—including New Era Builders, Doan/Pyramid, North Bay Construction, Protech, and Stevens Painton—Cleveland’s NASA Glenn Research Center can once again simulate the environment of space, right here on earth.


Cleveland, Ohio


Construction of a Small-scale Multipurpose Research Facility (SMiRF) for the Cleveland NASA Glenn Research Center. Challenging specifications conditions required creative engineering solutions.

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