Westin Peachtree window replacement a high wire act

At 73 floors above downtown Atlanta, you can’t hear much except the wind.

In fact, for the guys who’ve spent the past nine months replacing the glass that sheathes the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel, there have been times when they couldn’t even see each other -- or the ground -- because of clouds as dense as mashed potatoes.

“It was eerie,” Pete Casciano, 49, said of the pervasive silence that was occasionally interrupted by a bird or a passing helicopter.

Standing 31 floors above International Boulevard on Wednesday on a swing stage -- a steel platform about two feet wide that supports the workers outside the building -- Casciano and Bud Jones were the model of calm in a job that would have most people on edge. They leaned casually over the protective railings to ready the next glass panel, even as the platform wiggled and squeaked in response to the movement.

They are part of a team slowly working its way down the cylindrical landmark, replacing each window panel as they go. Their muscular forearms are telltale signs of men who hoist 280-pound glass panels into place all day, every day. At this time of year they drink water like camels preparing to cross the desert, trying to stay hydrated while working on steel that gets as hot as 104 degrees in the Georgia sunshine.

Crews from Skanska USA Building and subcontractor Harmon Glass started the job last October. Their task is to replace all 6,350 of the hotel’s windows, many of which were damaged in the freak March 2008 twister that tore through downtown. Instead of only replacing damaged panels, hotel management decided to replace all the glass.

As of Wednesday the workers had replaced more than 4,700 panels on the hotel, the world’s tallest when it opened in 1976 but now merely the tallest hotel in the southeast.

The crews have worked through cold snaps, rain, heat and dense fog. The project is expected to be finished in early October.

“We’ll do something big to celebrate,” Westin general manager Ed Walls said.

There are 75 workers on the project, 55 of whom are replacing the glass, officials said. They hail from all over the nation, but most are Georgia-based. Officials said the poor economy worked in the project’s favor because the workers’ specialized skills normally keeps them in high demand.

“These are pretty unique individuals,” said Graeme Kelly, Skanska USA vice president of operations and project executive on the Westin job. “And there are not many of them. These are guys who have to be able to work at great heights comfortably and safely.”

Standing on the platform above International on Wednesday, Jones, a California native, was relaxed. The heat had not quite hit him by Noon, but he was drinking plenty of water anyway.

He shrugged when asked if the height gives him pause. After more than 10 years dangling from the outside of buildings, being hundreds of feet in the air is second nature.

“You have to respect the height,” he said. “You have to make sure you are have taken all the safety precautions. After that, you just get out there and do your job.”

The installers work in groups of six. Jones and Casciano work from the outside, while their four partners work from inside. Window panels are lifted into place with large suction cups.

Jones, 48, began installing glass after losing a trucking job for Coca-Cola. Prior to working on the Westin, the tallest building he had worked on was 25 floors.

“It’s all the same if you fall from it,” he said with a smile.

There are challenging moments, he said. The biggest on this project has been setting up the pulleys and ropes on the hotel roof that hold the swing stage in place. To do that, he had to climb over a wall on the roof and dangle from the other side to add hooks to hold equipment and workers.

Fortunately, the wind was calm that day, so he wasn’t swinging in the harness that was the difference between him and an 800-foot drop.

“A lot of guys don’t want to do what we do,” he said. “They are smarter than us.”

“My mom doesn’t want to hear about it,” he laughed.

Casciano, a native of New Jersey who has been living in Atlanta since 1991, began working in the industry in the early 1980s after leaving the Marines.

“Ironically, when I first got into this, I was scared to death of heights,” he said.

What changed?

“Repetition,” he said, leaning nonchalantly against the railing high above downtown. “At first, I worked white-knuckled.”

The more he worked on the platforms, the more comfortable he became. And that was in the days when the platforms had only one railing at the back. Today, mutiple steel rails crisscross the platform to ensure safety. Crews also wear harnesses and are connected by ropes.

There have been no accidents on the Westin Peachtree job, officials said.

“The biggest problem we have now is being complacent,” Casciano said. “When we were at the top, we could barely see anyone. Now that we are 31 floors up, it feels like we’re on the ground.”

The project is expected to be completed in early October.