The Chapel at Duke University is a unique sight standing tall among Durham, North Carolina’s skyline. This iconic structure is a landmark for the University and is recognized nationally and globally as the centerpiece for Duke. Not only does it serve as a church and sacred resting place of some of the most influential people associated with Duke University’s existence, it’s also one of the area’s most beautiful tourist attractions.
What started as an investigative research by Romeo Guest Associates at the request of Duke University to determine the cause of falling mortar joints in the limestone ribs of the Chapel’s vaulted ceiling, then evolved into a complete restoration. The goal of this project? To retain the overall appearance, elegance and majestic nature of the building while enhancing and updating the building’s structure, materials, systems and technology. Romeo Guest, realizing this was a once-in-a-lifetime project, instilled the attitude that “this job is personal” into all partners involved.
The work started off with Pinnacle Partner Associated Scaffolding Company devising an elaborate scaffolding plan to provide safe access to multiple areas both inside and outside of the building, including access to the 73-foot high ceiling, which enabled concurrent activities for various trade work. The scaffolding, which appeared to have consumed the entire space, was in fact a maze of metal and walk-boards which allowed exceptional levels of safe travel and work areas, including a work platform (also known as the “dance floor”) which provided a stable platform for ceiling work and a barrier of protection for those below. With over 487 tons of scaffolding, daily inspections were vital to ensure safety for over 200 workers using the scaffold to complete their scope of work.
The reroofing of this project alone was a major feat. Although several materials existed which could have been used to reroof the Chapel, based on the goal of retaining its appearance, the same lead-coated copper roofing used over 80 years ago was again the natural choice. Lead-coated copper roofing is neither inexpensive nor easy to install, especially at heights of over 100 feet and in areas exceeding 23,000 square feet. Pinnacle Partner Baker Roofing Company’s employees hoisted over 101,000 pounds of lead-coated copper to varying levels of the Chapel roof for installation. Each panel required customization to ensure a weathertight seal and match the original roof appearance.
The deteriorating mortar joints had initiated the restoration of the Duke Chapel. Falling mortar sparked an elaborate investigation of the limestone mortar joints across the entire ceiling of this gravity structure. The original material had become brittle, expanding and contracting to the point of release. Each of the 2000 joints had to be removed to full depth of the limestone, and then replaced with an advanced, more flexible mortar material. The grinding of the mortar created a very fine dust which had potential to affect air quality, as well as damage the working components of the three pipe organs adorning and servicing the Chapel. Protection of the 11,600 pipes and working components of the organs was of utmost importance to ensure beautiful music would resound through the Chapel once work was completed.
Much of the beauty of Duke Chapel’s interior resides in the ornate woodwork throughout the facility. The 80-year-old hand-carved English oak adornments had become brittle, dirty, and discolored. Though only a minimal amount was replaced, all the wood components—every nook and cranny—had to be hand-cleaned. Once cleaned, every inch was then hand-rubbed to ensure consistency in color, protection, and finish. Though time consuming, this attention to detail was the only way to restore the woodwork to its original splendor and radiance.
Regarding the mechanical upfit of this project, high volumes of air are required to manage the thermal comfort inside the Chapel—but space was limited for the new air handling units required to service the Chapel. Romeo Guest built full-size mock-ups of the air handling units to ensure their fit within the area provided and to clearly identify existing or proposed utility lines that required relocation.
Electrical system upgrades included re-lamping all chandeliers, installing a new 17,000-pound transformer, replacing the main distribution panel, and installing an elaborate A/V system. Detailed planning along with extensive field investigation lead to the installation of over 33 miles of conduit and cabling with little or no visibility to the public.
Because this project is both a tourist attraction and centrally located on a prestigious university, there were significant logistical challenges to keep workers, students, staff and visitors safe throughout the year-long project. The result of the crew’s efforts included over 150,000 man-hours worked with zero recordable incidents. Given the scope of work and an exceptionally aggressive schedule, the repairs to the Chapel at Duke University were safely completed on time and approximately 10% under budget.