ST. JOSEPH — Most people passing the construction site at Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph will only see the bare bones of the $160 million project.

Dr. Loren Hamel, president and CEO of Lakeland Health, sees something being born amid the steel beams, moving machinery and mounds of dirt.

“I see a place that enhances health and saves lives for generations,” said Hamel, following a behind-the-scenes tour of the massive project to erect a five-story, 260,000 square-foot patient tower.

The tower will include new space for the surgical department, intensive care unit, the heart catheter lab and the endoscopy department, and a “main street” corridor that will better connect departments.

It’s a place where patients will be treated “in comfort and with confidence” in the medical staff, Hamel said.

It’s the largest construction project ever undertaken by Lakeland, and one of the largest in St. Joseph history, according to Hamel.

Crews are about half-way through the work that started with a groundbreaking in October 2016. Construction on the patient tower is expected to be completed by spring 2019, and then work on another 70,000 square feet of renovations will begin, with completion slated for 2020.

So far, more than 800 individuals have spent about 80 accumulative years of time to prepare and dig a giant hole, fill the hole with 11 million pounds of structural concrete, and connect 6,400 pieces of structural steel with 33,000 bolts.

Pete Woeste, with Turner Construction, the lead contractor, said 100,000 cubic yards of dirt have been excavated, enough to fill several football stadiums.

With the superstructure completed, workers operating a 240-foot tall crane are moving into place concrete panels, some weighing up to 48,000 pounds. Glass panels will be set in place along parts of the tower, as well.

Around 180 crew members are working on the site at any given time, Woeste said. Along with employees of Turner Construction, another 15 sub-contractors are involved.

The project hasn’t been without its challenges, including the wet weather this spring and summer. Last week’s heavy rains left standing water on some of the floors of the tower.

The “topping off” ceremony, with the placement of the final steel beam and a good luck evergreen, was delayed three times because of weather conditions. Heat, with temperatures in the 90s, also has to be dealt with by crew members, who have to be careful to remain well-hydrated.

And a hospital is not your typical construction site, pointed out Phil Cooper, Lakeland’s project manager. Contractors must make sure that noise and odors don’t affect patient care, he said. That requires coordinating with physicians and scheduling the heavier work around surgeries.

“We can only be noisy from seven (a.m.) to seven (p.m.),” Cooper said.

Additional challenges, including infection control, will come into play during the renovation phase, he said.

Lakeland is trying to be respectful of its residential neighbors by not having employees park on nearby streets, Cooper said. The hospital added a deck to its parking garage and added surface parking, and First Church of God is providing space in its parking lot.

The project is introducing new innovations. The windows of the maternity ward will have a film that will allow patients to look out at gardens and landscaping, while preventing anyone from looking in.

Numerous large cylinders that hold ice as a back-up for the cooling system are a new technology, Cooper said. A GPS system is used to precisely locate the position for bolts, eliminating the need for drilling.

“You see the guts it takes to operate a building of this size,” Hamel said.

For the next phases, work on the front entrance is planned for February-December 2019, and the emergency room will be expanded from March 2019 to July 2020. The project includes the relocation of the hospital’s helicopter landing pad to the north of its current location.

Along with the nuts and bolts, employees from seven different companies work at computers to coordinate all the activities on the site, Woeste said.

It’s been a long time from gestation to delivery, Cooper said. The lead architect was pregnant in May 2015 as the design work began, and her son was walking by the time ground was broken.

Since then she became pregnant again and gave birth to twins, Cooper said.

Updates on the project, including architectural animations, are available at www.lakelandhealth.org/pavilion.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak