By Michael D. Cole
The 123 national cemeteries located throughout the United States are tributes to those who have served our country so valiantly – and during times of war they become larger-than-life icons of American pride and reverence for those who serve. As final resting places for our veterans, these national shrines sacredly honor those interred or memorialized.
As the veteran population ages, however, the entire national cemetery system faces mounting and widely acknowledged demands for additional burial space. The Veterans Administration has sought new and innovative solutions to help alleviate that space issue while still reconciling it with that ultimate call to honor veterans and their families with the utmost dignity, respect and compassion.
Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis is one cemetery that has successfully achieved that balance over the past few years. During the most recent phase of an overall plan to add 21,000 burial spaces, Fort Snelling, the third-largest national cemetery, recently added 5,568 columbarium niches. Installed were 58 precast concrete columbarium units, each holding 96 niches. They are all aligned as perfectly as an organized soldier’s procession in a tranquil new courtyard area of the cemetery.
As cremation becomes a more prevalent choice for interment, the $2.8 million fast-track project marks the first time that columbarium units (which by definition allow for the respectful above-ground storage of cinerary urns for cremated remains) have been established at the 436-acre Fort Snelling cemetery site.
“Being mindful of that, what we really tried to create was a very understated plaza that related to and was sensitive to the simplicity of the existing national cemetery, while also evoking a feeling of this military type of precision,” says Wally Case, lead project manager with Dahlgren, Shardlow & Uban (DSU) Inc., the Minneapolis-based architecture and engineering firm that completed the master plan and schematic design.
As a landscape architect, Case was enlisted to help beautify and create a dignified look to the columbarium addition from a holistic standpoint. “We really sought to create that sense of privacy, a place for thoughtful reflection and visitation,” he says.
By all accounts, the unique design of the columbarium units played a pivotal role in contributing to that respectfully solemn, quiet and serene setting and optimizing space by allowing for interments in niche units above ground. In the past, all crematory remains at Fort Snelling National Cemetery were confined to burial sites.
The precast columbarium niche units were engineered and fabricated by Wieser Concrete Products of Maiden Rock, Wis. The company partnered with Frontier Construction of Deer River, Minn., the general contractor.
Wieser Engineering & Mfg., Wieser Concrete’s form building division, developed a form design to help expedite the project. Whereas the previous design of the 96-niche units used by other national cemeteries had been constructed by linking four 24-niche units through mechanical fasteners, Wieser Concrete came up with an innovative alternative; one-piece monolithic 96-niche units, which provided greater stability.
According to John Henderson, project manager with the Veterans Administration, that one-unit design delivered superior quality, adhered to the VA’s rapid timetable and ensured better value.
“It certainly made the installation easier,” he said. “Instead of trying to set four individual pieces, we had one solid piece to work with to set and level. That in turn reduced the man-hours and machine time required dramatically.” According to Henderson’s estimates, the crane operator spent drastically fewer hours to get the job done – three times faster than expected.
Henderson said Wieser Concrete’s innovative niche design met the strict tolerances outlined by the VA. To meet the VA’s expectations, the height, length and width tolerances allowed no more than an eighth of an inch deviation.
“We were fortunate to be dealing with one solid niche bank instead of trying to line up and level four of them,” Henderson says. “The result was a more consistent look. If you have one solid niche bank over time, it is less likely to shift, settle or move. And not only was it a cleaner installation, it just looks better from an aesthetics standpoint.”
Andy Wieser, president of Wieser Concrete Products, says the one-piece niche units reduce opportunities for product damage, particularly during transportation, since there is less handling involved. Wieser says the uniform one-piece design ensured that each accompanying cast-stone cap and cast-stone base and foundation fit consistently.
While the actual installation process became much less demanding thanks to the new design, the preliminary process of creating the prototype mold for the columbarium niche units proved to be a challenging endeavor, according to Wieser. “These are like eggshells, as the space between each compartment was only an inch and a half thick,” he said. “They are really thin-walled and you have to be able to demold them without putting stress on them and damaging the product.” While each unit weighs approximately 13,000 pounds, Wieser said the mold weighs 22,000 pounds. “As a rule of thumb, you’re typically looking at close to a 1-to-1 ratio (between the weight of the mold and the final product),” Wieser noted, “but the difference in this project gives you some idea of how intricate it was.” The double-sided units, with 48 niches on each side, extend 12 feet and 2 inches with a height of 5 feet and 9 inches; each unit is 3 feet and 8 inches wide.
Wieser Concrete used a 5,000 psi fiber-reinforced mixture that was also self-consolidating, which reduced the chance for air voids to develop. A moisture sensor in the aggregates helped achieve the prescriptive moisture levels. “A unique aspect is that we also pumped our concrete into the molds through a hose using a concrete pump,” Wieser says. “We feel that helps aid the quality of a unit like this.”
Wieser Concrete and Frontier Construction began work on the project in June 2005. To keep the project on deadline, all 58 columbarium niche units were cast by October 2005, and in the midst of the molding, two were poured per day at the company’s Maiden Rock, Wis., manufacturing facility.
To get each unit from the plant to the project site, each unit was lifted with a recessed lifting lug, transported on site and then installed. Wieser Concrete transported between six and eight of the 58-niche units per day.
This was the second large-scale project by Wieser Concrete and Frontier Construction for the Fort Snelling National Cemetery. In 2003, both firms teamed up to produce and deliver 10,500 pre-placed double-depth precast burial vaults for the cemetery. That solution offered a cost-effective option for burial as two caskets were placed in one grave with a divider between them. It was also designed to open land for more burials for veterans.
“That’s been one of our strengths throughout our history: to take unique projects and improve on the design to save the customer and owner money,” Wieser says.
Jeff Tilden, project manager with Frontier on both the precast burial vaults and columbarium unit installations, says that keeping everything straight and true for the latter project required dedication by the entire Wieser-Frontier team.
“You don’t build projects every day with those types of tolerances,” says Tilden, whose company is a Native American-owned organization that is considered a Small Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and was enlisted by the Veterans Administration to work on the project as an 8(a) contractor. “In our preconstruction meetings, I showed everyone an eighth of an inch. Everyone on board understood there was no margin of error whatsoever as there sometimes is with other projects. Maintaining that high level of quality, workmanship and craftsmanship was challenging, but we all understood that we were building a national monument.”
Pride in building such a lasting memorial kept the team motivated.
“I’m a veteran myself,” Henderson says. “This is an important place, not only for veterans being interred but for their families who come to visit them. It should be something that’s impressive to their loved ones who visit.”