Still Standing

Features - Cover Story

Pittsburgh-based demolition and excavation company Noralco Corp. continues to change the face of the Steel City with its latest project, the Civic Arena.

March 21, 2012
Kristin Smith

George Boehm has seen a lot of changes to the Pittsburgh landscape over the years, many of which he is responsible for. He has spent more than four decades working on demolition projects in and around Pittsburgh that have forever changed the look of the city: the Jenkins Arcade, the Jail Annex and the Bloomfield Bridge, to name a few.

But Boehm, the vice president of Noralco Corp., is in the midst of a project that perhaps will have its biggest impact yet on the Pittsburgh skyline. The Civic Arena, located off of Centre Ave., has stood in the center of the city for more than half a century, entertaining crowds for countless concerts and events. Nicknamed “the Igloo” by hockey fans, the structure also played host to many games and history-making plays by hockey greats like Mario Lemieux during their careers with the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL team. The Penguins played there from 1967 through the 2009-2010 season.

With all the history that has taken place at the arena as well as its distinct dome-shaped look, it was no surprise when the decision by the Sports & Exhibition Authority (SEA) and the Penguins organization to demolish the iconic arena was met with some opposition. But according to Boehm, the building had become outdated.


Ornamental Recycling

Steel recovered from demolition sites is typically melted down and made into a multitude of different products, but leave it to The Steel City to come up with a charitable way to recycle steel and give it back to the community.

Wendell August Forge, with retail locations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, produces handcrafted metal keepsakes. The company used stainless steel, recovered from the roof of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, to make Christmas tree ornaments.

One of the ornament designs features an image of the iconic Civic Arena and the Pittsburgh skyline. The other design features an image of the arena and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ logo.

All proceeds from the sale of the ornaments benefit the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation youth charities.

More information is available at www.pittsburghpenguins

Razing the Roof
The Civic Arena was built between 1958 and 1960. Both Boehm and the project’s structural engineer, Bud McCutcheon of KU Resources Inc., Duquesne, Pa., say the arena’s architecture was ahead of its time. The arena was built so well, in fact, that the building hasn’t always been cooperative with what demolition crews have been doing to it.

“It is a well-built structure that structurally compensates. For everything that we do to it, it has an answer,” McCutcheon comments. He jokes that somewhere there is probably an 80-year-old engineer laughing at them.

“So we have to think of something they didn’t think of,” Boehm explains.

Demolition began in the fall of 2011 under the supervision of Boehm and superindendents John Mullen and Michael Tomasits, both of Noralco. First, crews gutted the inside of the arena and removed the asbestos-containing material and the seating. In February, the crews were bringing down the roof one section at a time, a task which proved to be more difficult than planned.

There are eight panels on the roof which are called leaves because of their shape. Six of the leaves are movable and two are fixed. They are all supported in the middle by two center pins.

The building was designed so the movable panels could slide open and rest under the fixed panels. Concert goers could listen to the orchestra and also have a view of the Pittsburgh skyline through the open roof.

Crews worked on taking down the leaves by cutting beams with shears.

“The first drop went perfectly,” says McCutcheon. But during Round Two, the center section of one of the leaves jumped up in the air rather than coming straight down as it “should have.”

“It caused us a little grief,” says Boehm. “It’s nothing that can’t be overcome. It just changed the plans for that particular leaf of the building. As far as the rest of them, they will go the same as the first one. We just didn’t expect that jump up.”

Planning for the Unexpected
It is McCutcheon’s job to know the building inside and out. “Right now we have looked at the blueprints so much that it is virtually memory,” he says. Based on the blueprints, he can help predict how the building will react to the actions crews are taking. When the jump up happened, he was almost in disbelief.

“You think of everything, every nuance. You make a cut, and what you think is going to happen doesn’t because the building compensates in some way,” McCutcheon says.

Boehm jokes that by the time the Civic Arena roof is down, both he and McCutcheon will be experts at removing arena roofs.

“Demolition is a challenge. There is always something a little different about each building,” observes Boehm.

For the dozens of demolition jobs Boehm leads each year, he says, “I have to think of the things that are going to happen at a building that no one else has thought of.

“It keeps you on your toes,” he continues. “You don’t fall asleep when you’re tearing a building down.”

Black, Gold and Green

Just across the street from where the old Pittsburgh Civic Arena is being torn down stands the new home of the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL hockey team, the Consol Energy Center.

The arena, which opened in time for the 2010-2011 NHL season, already is going down in history as the first NHL arena to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

According to a news release issued by the Penguins and the Sports & Exhibition Authority in August 2010, the project received high marks for recycled materials, demolition and construction waste diversion, water use reduction, regional materials, certified wood and energy efficiency.

When the news of the LEED Gold Certification was announced, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl observed, “As we get ready to celebrate the grand opening of Consol Energy Center, this announcement will send the message to residents and Penguins fans at home and across the world that we are indeed a black, gold and green city.”

Boehm, who says he was hired off the street and worked his way up through the ranks at Noralco, learned early on that the good owners and vice presidents of demolition companies didn’t spend their time sitting in an office. “Everybody is hands-on,” he observes. “The more dangerous the situation is, the more I want to be right there.”

Boehm wants to be sure that whatever cuts need to be made are made exactly right. “You can’t do that by sitting in an office or standing on the ground,” he emphasizes.

Noralco has developed a reputation around Pittsburgh for being able to handle the out-of-the-ordinary demolition jobs. “I have a knack for getting the jobs that no one else has ever done,” says Boehm. As one example, the company completed what he calls first-ever demolition of a nuclear power plant located in Shippingport, Pa., in the late 1970s.

Noralco celebrates its 60th year in business in April. A charter member of the National Demolition Association (NDA), Doylestown, Pa., Noralco was also an early adopter of LEED practices, Boehm says.

Boehm says, “When LEED first started, we actually helped educate one of the bigger companies out here, PJ Dick, as to how to do the projects.”

Excavation and demolition on the site now occupied by Civic Arena’s successor, Consol Energy Center, also was completed by Noralco. That project achieved LEED Gold Certification. (See sidebar, “Black, Gold and Green” )

Focused on Recycling
The Civic Arena demolition project also is on course to achieve a 95 percent recycling rate. Boehm says the target will be easy for Noralco to achieve.

The recycling rate for LEED projects is computed by weight. “It is easy to get your quotas if you know how to do it,” says Boehm.

Boehm estimates that 300,000 pounds of stainless steel and 5,000 tons of steel will be recovered from the site. The stainless steel was removed from the roof and has been sold to a forging company where it is being made into souvenir Christmas ornaments, with proceeds going to charity. (See “Ornamental Recycling,” left).

All of the concrete is being crushed and recycled onsite and will be reused as infill for the development of residential and commercial buildings that will eventually be built on the 28-acre site.

Demolition crews are using a Liebherr 964 excavator with a 95-foot boom and a 330 Caterpillar excavator with a 75-foot boom. In addition, several other 70,000-pound excavators, several front-end loaders and a crusher all have been utilized onsite.

More to Come
Boehm expects demolition to be complete on the Civic Arena by the end of May 2012, but Noralco’s work in Pittsburgh is far from over.

The company is getting ready to start demolition work to clear the way for the PNC Tower, which is a LEED Platinum project with a 95 percent recycling rate target.

Boehm hopes Noralco will continue to be Pittsburgh’s go-to demolition contractor for the tough jobs. “It’s the excitement of the job, the adrenaline rush, the challenge that you are going to do something that no one else has ever done, the reputation we have of being the best,” Boehm reflects, “and we like to keep that tradition going on.”

A video report of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena Demolition is available at

More photos of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena Demolition are available at


The author is associate editor of Construction & Demolition Recycling and can be reached at