Providing the Facility with State-of-the-Art Mechanical Systems and Controls

Building Clarity Sets the Bar High for Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center


The U.S. Cellular Center (USCC) is a jewel in the heart of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. The beautiful facility hosts a variety of events such as conventions, trade and consumer shows, athletic competitions, the arts, educational programs, concerts, and other entertainment events.

The city undertook interior upgrades at the center in 2010, and in 2017 the city began planning for much-needed mechanical upgrades. Mr. Walter Ear is the Program Manager for the City of Asheville’s Construction Division. He explains: “We needed to replace 40-year old equipment, such as boilers that would frequently go down and leaking air handlers.” They had two 9,000 MBH cast-iron boilers that had cracked and been re-welded over the years. “They were really just limping along every year,” says Ear. Many of the air handlers were also showing their age, especially in the arena. “There were times when some of arena’s overhead air handlers leaked water on guests below,” he reports, “which obviously is not a good experience for our guests and is not a good look for the city.”

The city also wanted to improve storage and special use spaces at the center. The arena needed a designated space for members of the press during high-profile events. They selected a storage area to be converted into a state-of-the-art press room. The facility also needed a large, versatile storage area. The city identified a location for a new high-bay storage area on the exhibition level of the facility.


The city issued a Request for Qualifications to select a construction manager at risk (CMR) to manage the renovations. As Mr. Ear explains their final selection, “Building Clarity really stood out from the others. They didn’t just talk about their company. They actually got into the nitty gritty of what they might suggest going forward and were able to draw on previous examples of work they had done.”

Building Clarity formed a team of professionals to work with Mr. Ear and his team. They pulled in their in-house engineering team, brought in USCC maintenance staff, and drew on their own expertise with complicated renovation projects that have a significant mechanical, plumbing, or electrical scope. Some of the achievements of this early, collaborative approach include:

  • Identified prospective maintenance difficulties with the new system and helped bring a technician-level view to the design team to simplify future maintenance. For example, select steam traps were relocated to more accessible locations.
  • Identified work safety concerns and effectively planned mitigation strategies to avoid injury to the contractors, city staff, or others.
  • Identified life safety deficiencies in mechanical rooms that, if not discovered, would have caused significant post-bid change orders. Building Clarity worked with local code officials to identify work needed to bring those areas up to current grade.

The collaborative approach helped minimize surprises during construction that would have required a change in scope and budget.

One significant success of having Building Clarity as the CMR was the pre-construction cost savings they brought to the project. The city had initially thought about changing their HVAC system from steam to hot water, an approach that would require re-piping the entire facility. Instead, Building Clarity proposed an alternative approach: a modular steam boiler system that would be efficient and reliable without the need for expensive re-piping. This is just one example of how Building Clarity helped the city prioritize tasks and choose approaches that would fit both the need and the budget. “We had about $6 million worth of work and were only able to fund about half of that, “says Mr. Ear. “Building Clarity helped us identify the most critical items so we could really make the best use of our funds.”

The final mechanical scope of work consisted of the following primary items, along with some interesting challenges:

  • Two old cast-iron steam boilers were replaced with new modular steam boilers. Building Clarity phased the replacements to limit downtime for the facility.
  • A new rooftop cooling tower was installed, which required a crane in a busy area of downtown Asheville. Building Clarity worked with the city to conduct the work when there would be minimal disruption to facility events and downtown activities.
  • •13 of the 21 arena air handlers were replaced with new air handlers and controls. Ten of the air handlers being replaced were suspended from the arena ceiling 60 feet above the floor and accessible only via a catwalk.
  • New controls were installed on the remaining eight air handlers.
  • Old, inefficient lighting in the mechanical rooms was replaced with new LED lighting.
  • A new building automation system was installed that tied all of the mechanical systems into one integrated control system.

Scheduling flexibility was crucial throughout construction to minimize impacts to the USCC lineup of events. Week by week, Building Clarity worked with the facilities staff to plan the work tasks to adapt to the needs of the venue. As Mr. Ear describes, “There was downtime, but it was scheduled. That was a major factor because this is an occupied facility. Any downtime is potential lost revenue for the city, so we tried to schedule as much work during ‘off-season’ times as possible.”


Managers and guests of the USCC are now enjoying a superbly outfitted facility with state-of-the-art mechanical systems and controls. Mr. Ear is enjoying a project completed professionally, on-time, and for less cost than he and the city had originally anticipated.

The actual costs were within 1% of Building Clarity’s budget, reflecting their expertise in planning and completing complex mechanical retrofitting projects. In addition, the project was completed with minimal downtime for the facility thanks to Building Clarity’s flexibility and coordination with Mr. Ear and the city. As a result, the stellar lineup of events at USCC went on uninterrupted and the city did not lose any revenue due to the work.

The USCC project is a great example of how well the construction-manager-at risk model works when the CMR firm works collaboratively with the client, designers, engineers, facility personnel, and other skilled professionals needed for the project scope.

Mr. Ear succinctly describes the city’s satisfaction with the project when he says “I would definitely choose them again.”