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Raise your game for roof-top installations

Event Production, Features | June 1, 2012 | By:

Urban settings often call for rooftop tents—but, first, you have to raise your game.

If you think you splurged on your holiday party, consider the host who spent $27,000 for a 20-by-20-foot tent to keep guests out of the December chill (and off his carpet). Okay, the five-figure bill also included flooring and heat but it was still about $23,000 more than he might have paid if he lived in, say, Nebraska. That’s because there isn’t much open ground space in the Big Apple, where the Fifth Avenue party thrower wanted a tent 30 stories high on Trump Tower.

“We do a lot of rooftop installations in New York City,” says Stephen Frost, president of Stamford, Conn.-based Stamford Tent & Event Services. “There’s not much you could do on a roof for less than $10,000, and it goes up from there.” The Trump Tower tent (on a 22-by-24-foot terrace) took his crew of five two days to install.

By elevator

“Everything had to be cut into smaller sections to be brought up through a freight elevator measuring four feet by four feet by eight feet,” Frost says. Additionally, they had to work within normal business hours. “We couldn’t work overnight. There was one freight elevator we shared with everybody. It took us almost a day to get the equipment up to the terrace to build the tent.”

The elevator posed another challenge for Stamford. The fire code did not permit transporting fuel on an elevator and it would take a considerably longer cable than was feasible to reach a 30th floor terrace from a street-level generator. Frost says a generator works for rooftops only up to eight floors; after that, you have to get power out of the building. While expensive, he says, cranes often are used for installations from six to eight stories.

In older buildings, a freight elevator is essentially a padded passenger elevator, says Howard Tabackman, vice president of Choura Events in Torrance, Calif. His company used such an elevator to bring fittings and small tent pieces to the roof of the eight-story L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

By crane

But the elevator was no match for a 60-by-40-foot clearspan structure, as well as 40-by-85-foot and 30-by-50-foot Jumbotrac™ frame tents manufactured by Aztec Tents—let alone air conditioners, a stage and furniture for a 2011 Grammy Awards party hosted by Interscope-Geffen-A&M. So Choura hired a crane.

“We had to close down a major boulevard,” Tabackman says “That required a flagman and a person on the roof, as well as on the ground, to direct the crane. Because this was a pretty tight location, we had to build the beams on the ground. Each beam was 60 feet. We had to raise it in one piece with the crane, and then we had to have two guys guide it down onto the base plates.”

While Tabackman says getting the equipment to the roof was the biggest challenge of the job, it wasn’t the only one.

“The installation took four days. It took one full day to scaffold the swimming pool. Then the crane was in use for three days for installation and two days for the strike.”

Choura used Red Head® concrete anchors to secure the tents, and the hotel decided to keep the 40-by-85-foot frame up to use for other events, with Choura replacing the skins when necessary.

By hand

For The London West Hollywood all-suites hotel rooftop, Classic Tents of Torrance, Calif., custom made a clear-fabric, 100-by-36-foot tent to create a 360-degree-view venue for weddings and other events during the winter.

Space was insufficient for a crane to lift the tent poles 10 stories, says James La Scala, senior account manager for Classic Tents. Fabric portions were carried up by passenger elevator to the ninth floor and then transferred to a freight elevator servicing the roof another story above. A crew of eight to 10 (with three or four on the ground and the rest tethered to solid structures on the roof) pulled the tent poles up the side of the building by hand with a rope.

“If we were doing this on the ground with the same-size crew, we could have put the tent up in five or six hours,” La Scala says. “This was an all-day job, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. You can only pull pipes up one or two at a time.”

Fortunately, that part of the job only had to be done the first year (2010). When the tent comes down in April, Classic Tents takes the fabric back to the shop for repair, stores the poles and hardware in a storage area on the roof and caps the anchor holes until the following October when the tent goes up again.

By chopper

Steve Sadenwasser, sales director for the shade division of Rainier Industries of Tukwila, Wash., couldn’t use an elevator or crane for a tent on the seventh-floor terrace of the 14-story Citizens Hotel in Sacramento.

“They wanted to completely cover a 55-by-53-foot deck to create a space they could rent out for weddings, banquets and receptions,” he says. “None of this stuff will fit in an elevator. And it was such a tight spot that a crane wasn’t feasible.” So the general contractor hired the services of a small helicopter to lift eight crates to the deck.

“The contractor blocked off the street and within an hour-and-a-half we had the tent on the deck,” says Sadenwasser, who was on-site to manage the tent installation. “That was a lot easier than having a crane in there, because a crane needs more permits and more street blocking.”

Once the pieces were on the terrace, 17 leg brackets had to be mounted to the outside wall of the building and a 3.5-foot parapet opposite it. The contractor used a motorized, one-man lift and pulleys to lift the center of the 27-foot-high tent frame.

“For one-and-a-half hours until the four main rafters were placed, I didn’t take a breath,” Sadenwasser says.

Anchor or ballast?

While getting a tent and its accouterments up the side of a building and onto a flat surface gives installation crews something fun to talk about at the dinner table, rooftop jobs present plenty of other challenges.

“A lot of roofs have pavers on them for drainage,” says Jamie West, special events coordinator for Ultimate Events in Minneapolis, Minn. “Unless you can anchor to something concrete, you have to be very careful about loading.

“I have never staked a roof,” he continues. “I have used anchors and eyebolts and strapping on concrete perimeters. You have to use some type of ballast; the ones we use are concrete tubes with rebar reinforcement and attachment points.

“I also distribute loads, using base plates and plywood on the roof,” West says. “It’s a balancing act. That’s the reason you need to bring engineering into the equation.” To prevent damaging the rooftop, he uses rubber weightlifting mats at base plates.

“You can’t just drive stakes through a roof,” says Alex Renaud, international sale manager for Fiesta Tents Ltd. in Quebec, Canada. At the same time, the extent of ballast depends on the amount of weight the roof can support per square foot. “We build platforms or bigger floors to more evenly distribute the weight,” Renaud says.

For a recent installation at the seven-story Congress Center in Montreal, Fiesta Tents used existing lampposts to anchor tents to concrete. “We custom made the tent so the legs would fall on those pillars and made custom base plates to attach the tent,” Renaud says.

The center requested a 60-by-60-foot tent. But, Renaud says, “We needed something as self-standing as possible and didn’t want to rely on that because of wind conditions.” So Fiesta placed two 30-by-60-foot tents side by side and created a custom-covered gutter system between them.

“Most code officials aren’t that used to tents,” he continues. “And if you add rooftop installation, the level of comfort isn’t very high. So we had our civil engineer on site and worked with the building engineer to present it to code officials.”

Stamford Tents & Event Services has installed a 16-by-52-foot tent for The Press Lounge at ink48 in New York City. The Midtown Manhattan hotel rents the tent for events and uses it as overflow space for its lounge from October through April.

“Typically, we try to attach the tent to the building in any way we can. In many locations, we have received permission to drill anchors into the retaining wall,” says Frost. “In the case of The Press Lounge, we removed the terrace flooring and bolted the frame to the building.

“On the one hand, it made it easier because it gave us something to anchor against. The problem was what we were anchoring against was a glass wall, so we had to design the tent so all the uprights matched the uprights on the building.”

The dynamics of wind are more demanding at heights and are affected by surrounding structures (typically high-rise buildings), requiring extra precautions. When Stamford previously supplied ink48 with a 16-by-52-foot tent for a one-day event, it used approximately 22,000 pounds of ballast. Renaud and West say they use twice as much ballast in rooftop installations as they do at ground level.

Safety first

Wind, of course, is a consideration for the installation process itself.

“For one-day installations, we have a good idea of the weather,” Frost says. “We tell people if the winds aloft are greater than 25 to 30 miles per hour, we are not going to install. It’s not safe for our crew, it’s not safe for their guests and it’s not safe for people on the ground. We have a cutoff [time], and we will make that call. On tents that are up six months at a time, we have those engineered.”

Rooftop installations also require more labor considerations, no matter the method of getting materials and equipment on deck.

“Just having a crew using an elevator, going up and down, takes more time,” Tabackman says. “And bringing up the tent in one piece means you have to be prepared to get it into the right spot. Safety is a major concern when dealing with a 60-foot-wide beam swinging through the air.”

And, as West points out, “It’s almost a burden to have a crew working while a crane is operating. It’s best to make the move on its own, then go into a building situation.

“You can’t rush anything,” West says. “If you push and push and try to beat a deadline, that’s when you can have mishaps.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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