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As vice president of LandCraft Survey and En-gineering in Milwaukee, Wis., Bill Henrichs, RLS, is accustomed to going the extra mile for his clients. So when he got the call from builder Larry Gruber of Monarch Homes asking for help on a project with a tight timeline, he responded as he always does: “Absolutely. We’ll take care of whatever you need.”
This time it was a pretty tall order.
Monarch Homes had been selected to build a home for an episode of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” to help a Wisconsin family, and LandCraft was Gruber’s choice for surveying and engineering services. The concept of the immensely popular television show would make this project unlike any LandCraft had ever undertaken. The family’s existing 1,000-square-foot home would be demolished, and a new 4,000-square-foot home constructed in its place--simultaneously. And this would all take place in a matter of days, not months.
“This wasn’t just a fast track, this was the Autobahn,” says Mike Doble, PE, LandCraft’s president. “In order to have all the upfront work completed in the time allotted, we would not only be providing our usual services--the surveying, engineering and environmental aspects--we would need to obtain all the necessary zoning and environmental permits, be responsible for erosion control inspections, and as it turned out, even take on the task of installing the silt fences. If we were going to meet the strict deadlines, we would need to take care of things usually supplied by other entities. And that’s what we did.”
A Secret Mission with No Second ChancePerforming with lightning speed wasn’t the only challenge. Another basic premise of the show proved even more daunting: all the preliminary work had to be performed in complete secrecy. Though the family knew they were candidates for a new home, they could not know they had been chosen until the cast knocked on their door--the day before hundreds of volunteers swarmed their property with the tools of their trades and a mission.
To maintain the veil of secrecy, even the nearly 2,000 eventual volunteers were involved only on a need-to-know basis. It wasn’t until a mere week before kick-off that the producers got everyone together in an auditorium to make the announcement. Until then, only a select few knew the project even existed, and many of those only knew it would unfold somewhere in Wisconsin. Of course, the producers had to make sure the project was feasible and that the municipality was on board. Roads had to be closed to create staging areas for all the equipment and materials; the sheriff’s department needed to provide 24-hour security and crowd control; and the workers responsible for permits and prep work needed to work their magic.
The family was whisked away on the pretense that they were going to be interviewed for further consideration. The builder, municipal authorities, septic tank installer, well driller and LandCraft staff met at the home. LandCraft typically guarantees a two-week turnaround for a survey. In this case, LandCraft would have to hand over the completed drawings the very next morning. They had been told they would have a little more than two hours onsite to complete the survey, with no chance for a second visit to gather more data. Their next trip to the site would not be until the day the cast knocked on the family’s door.
“We knew we wouldn’t have a second shot,” Henrichs says, “so we needed to get our hands on every conceivable piece of relevant data. I spent two days at the county courthouse researching deeds and adjoining surveys, pulling every record I could find. We were working in a vacuum.”
When You Absolutely, Positively Have to Have It OvernightAt the site, Henrichs and Joel Johnson, LandCraft’s director of surveying, went to work with a three-man field crew. “My guidance to our survey crew,” Henrichs explains, “was to collect every possible piece of data that may or may not have an impact on the site, and we would sort it out later. We had to collect everything humanly possible in the couple of hours allotted. We didn’t know what to expect when we returned to the site to do the staking and follow-up work, so we set up offsite monumentation with GPS as a backup.”
“The actual survey was performed pretty conventionally, using our Topcon 312 total station,” Johnson explains. “On this site we used the Topcon HiPer Lite GPS and a Sokkia B1 Automatic Level. TDS Ranger data collectors with TDS Survey Pro software computed and stored all of the field-collected data. The property was in Dundee, a rural area approximately an hour from our office. It was platted around the turn of the century, but fortunately for us there was enough survey work done in the last thirty to forty years that we were able to find monumentation out in the field, and the lot corners actually did match the deed calls. If they hadn’t, we would have been in a real pickle. That would have required subsequent trips to the site and hours of boundary work.”
A relentless rain added another layer to the many unconventional aspects of the surveying, leaving the team soaking wet and Henrichs giving thanks that none of the equipment was damaged. Ordinarily, they would have had to reschedule the job, but there was an attitude, from the producers of the show to the last volunteer, to get the job done no matter what. And that’s what they were determined to do.
The crew returned to the office around 7 p.m. The data was uploaded into LandCraft’s Autodesk Land Desktop software, and Henrichs worked until the wee hours to draft the survey for presentation at the builder’s office the next morning at 8 a.m. Total turnaround time from setting foot on the site was 15 hours.
The Paper ChaseWhile LandCraft is no stranger to permit applications, they’re not usually responsible for the entire permitting process for new home construction. Not only had they agreed to obtain the necessary permits, but they were required to do so on the same breakneck timetable as the rest of the project. “That would be tough enough on a run-of-the-mill property,” Doble says. “But this property had a real mill on it--an historic mill that would be restored to working condition as part of the extreme makeover. The property abutted a mill race (the current or channel of a stream) of the Milwaukee River, which led to the mill. So in addition to typical zoning and erosion control permits, we needed to apply for Chapter 30 [grading on the bank of a waterway] and NR216 [stormwater discharge/erosion control] environmental permits, have the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] review them, and have them issued--all within a week.”
Fat chance. Unless, of course, you have an incredibly good cause and the allure of a national TV show to run interference. A call from the producer to the governor’s office was followed by a call from the governor’s office to the DNR, and the permit was in the fast lane.
“Our major erosion control measure for this site was the silt fence,” Doble says. “We don’t usually handle that, but volunteered to do it. We assembled a crew of LandCraft surveyors, engineers and office staff, rented a bus and left the office at 4 a.m. When we arrived to the site, it was an hour before daylight and the street was already lined with people. To top it off, another storm was blowing in, with high winds and heavy rain that pounded us off and on for three days.”
A Site You Had to See to BelieveTimelines. Secrecy. Weather. If that isn’t enough, try surveying a site overrun with workers, a television production crew and a sea of spectators. Surveyors are usually the first on a site and the first off. The LandCraft crew had to work in tandem with a cast of thousands. “They wanted us there the night before demolition of the old house to place the stakes for the new one,” Johnson says. “Then the producers decided they didn’t want anyone to see the stakes in the initial shots of the old home, so we had to knock them flush with the ground, which meant the excavators couldn’t find them the next day. As they were razing the existing structure, we were placing the corners for the new one. There were fifty to sixty workers on the site at that point, along with two excavators and numerous dump trucks. That made use of our lot corners and control network impossible. We had to rely on our offsite control, which was problematic amid 4,000 to 5,000 spectators at any given time. We had to move people just to find some of our control points.”
Ordinarily, the second visit to a jobsite is for a footing check, taking an hour at most. But this would be another 14-hour day. The LandCraft crew was needed onsite to support not only the excavators, but the masons as well, staying until the footings were ready to pour.
Every detail had to be exacting.
“We always provide a balanced grading plan,” Doble says. “But when there’s not a minute to spare, you’ve got to be absolutely sure there isn’t going to be a shortage of dirt for fill or any excess to haul away. We needed to avoid the no-touch areas the DNR wanted, steer clear of the septic system and have just enough dirt left to fill in the basement area of the old structure. Oddly enough, a lot of the people we work with who aren’t surveyors or engineers don’t realize what goes into setting yard grades, creating drainage patterns and balancing the site. We had to make sure that everything went according to a carefully orchestrated plan.”
The Power of CooperationAccording to Henrichs, there isn’t an orchestra that could have played more perfectly in tune. “The amount of manpower thrown at this project was mind-boggling. Everyone was working right on top of everyone else, yet they worked in perfect sync. As quickly as the windows arrived, they were put in place. As fast as the drywall sheets came in, guys were calling out dimensions and cutting them, and they were up. There was an incredible synergy and a lot of pride going into that home. Everyone brought their A-game, right down to the movers who carried in the furnishings. Principals of companies were there, not only supervising, but working right along with their crews. Even with the short timeline and people falling over each other to do their jobs, it was amazing how the preparation and cooperation avoided problems. This was a four-day build, and the producers told us that the punch lists of things to be corrected on these homes are less than those of a home that takes six months to complete.”
The family for which the house was built had lost their husband and father to cancer just as the project got underway. It was a great cause and a labor of love for everyone involved. What you see on the show is not staged, and the emotion is real. There were no budgets because every bit of time, sweat and material was donated. The show’s producers ordinarily want 1,200 volunteers during the course of a week. Milwaukee’s Metropolitan Home Builders Association had no sooner put out the call than it had 1,800 volunteers and was forced to turn people away. Of LandCraft’s 28-member staff, 16 worked on the project. “We would have had a 100 percent turnout if our people had a heads-up and knew it was coming,” Henrichs says.
An Eye-Opening ExperiencePulling off a construction feat of this magnitude--in less than a week--demonstrates that amazing things can be accomplished when you have the right people, the right leadership, the right tools and the support of everyone involved. “It was a great thing to do,” Doble says. “It was really gratifying to see everyone come together like that. And I think it had another benefit to us as surveyors. Many people, even those in the trades, have no idea what a surveying and engineering company brings to the table from the start of a project to the finish. We’re practically invisible. They think we show up for a few minutes, look through our instrumentation and our job is done. Yet what we do is a crucial element in any successful project--a home, a commercial development, a high-rise, a bridge, even a parking lot--before a single shovel is stuck in the ground.”
“It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” Henrichs says. “Not only for other professionals, but for the thousands of people who showed up each day to watch. People were photographing our crew, asking questions and really getting an insight into what we do.”