Sunday, February 22, 2009

About Construction

Greetings! Sara here again.

OK, so I do know a thing or two about construction. I spent a great deal time before my sons went to preschool (they're now 4 and 3) cruising the city looking for construction sites. For some reason, Nels and Gabe are more construction-crazy than other kids, according to moms I know. I'd look for a crane and drive toward the base and park for hours while we watched the goings-on. Depending on the weather, we'd watch from inside the car or on the roof of the car with a picnic because sidewalk space is often limited and I was never successful at talking the GC into letting us into their little on-site trailer. I’m sure Turner and Crutcher-Lewis think of me as that crazy lady in the white station wagon.

Aside from my curiosity in the natural sciences (botany, geology, etc.), before kids I wasn’t much interested in things having to do with the physical world (civil and mechanical engineering, for example). I was more into theory, politics, and social science -- leave the building stuff to people who can’t handle the realm of ideas (how’s that for elitist!). Thanks to my sons, that has changed and I've learned a lot though their eyes. Here's a sample:

1) Demolition is the funnest to watch. Seeing huge excavators ripping apart buildings as if they were made of legos really pumps me up. I'll never forget those weeks a couple years ago when the Green Lake Albertsons was being demolished at the same time the Vita Milk Dairy facility was being torn down. Just blocks apart, we could spend all day watching the action, comparing the machines (and, for me, the cuteness of the crew, it being summer...), and videoing the spectacle to show Dad later.

It takes enormous talent to separate the rebar from wood from cement, especially on a small site. The skill of the driver -- her precision, her delicacy -- is beautiful to watch. (Like how I oh-so-subtly snuck in that female pronoun? Part of my gender-neutral parenting.)

It would be a lot easier and cheaper to just haul it all away to the landfill. But construction and demolition waste already makes up the biggest percentage of the mile-long train leaving Seattle every day to the landfill in Eastern Washington. Reducing that load would save garbage ratepayers money and decrease the emissions of its transport. Plus, there’s a lot of reusable stuff in torn-down buildings. So even though it’s a hassle, it’s worthwhile to separate the material and the City of Seattle is working with C&D companies to incentivize even more recycling. (For more info, search for Resolution 30990 at:

2) During excavation, everything depends on the dump truck. Each section of those double dump trucks (called truck and trailers) can hold only 3 scoops of dirt from the Hitachi ZX650LC-3, 6 scoops total and that truck is off to Pacific Topsoil or where ever to dump its load, stuck in traffic like everyone else on I-5. I know that if there's not a line of dump trucks staged on the side of the site ready to assume receptive position once the previous truck is filled and gone, the action is going to be slow. Without the dump truck, the excavators and bulldozers just move dirt around into piles, which is important but not that exciting. Either that or the crew stands around and smokes, waiting for something to do.

Getting cars off the road by providing more mass transit would make it easier for dump trucks to get to and from the construction site. Ka-ching! This is one of many policy examples that negate the supposedly irreconcilable differences between enviros and Industry.

3) It's a big drag when they discover sediment that looks to be laced with a petroleum product or some other type of unexpected toxic substance. Then everything stops while the digger guy calls the foreperson over and they get out baggies and maps to take samples and note their location. For a single-issue neighborhood activist looking to appeal an EIS, this can be sexy but for a 2 year old -- boring. And for the dump truck driver, a nice smoke break.

4) If it's a small project, the time between excavation and concrete pouring is dull -- best to find a different site. For bigger projects, however, this is the time for pile driving which is awesome to watch. I guess I never realized how extensively we alter geology, stabilizing the ground by shoving giant I-beams of steel into deep holes. And that’s piddly compared to how people managed to construct giant edifices, like the pyramids, before they had gas-powered machines. Slavery and indentured servitude. Now we have unions and Caterpillar.

What does all this have to do with beer? Nothing, but give me a minute and I’ll think of something.

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