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To build a tall building faster than a speeding bullet

Roger Watkins is into "erector sets." The large, blond-bearded, burly man who spends his days working out of a makeshift, trailer-office in front of one construction site or another, says he thinks of what he does for a living as "a very efficient way of putting together a giant Tonka Toy."

Some toy, Roger Watkins's current "erector set" is a 38- story hotel rising at lightning speed on East 42nd Street in New York City, a $48 million high rise taking shape under the direction of Mr. Watkins and over 20 foremen working together in a maze of schedules that crisscross like a fine hair net.

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Using a new system known as "fast-tracking," Mr. Watkins coordinates these schedules so that a new floor of the high-rise superstructure goes up every other day.

By the time they are finished, Mr. Watkins and his subcontractors will have poured 20,000 cubic yards of concrete; installed 5,100 fixtures, including 793 marble vanity tops, numberless ice makers, refrigerators, sinks, heat lamps; hoisted 1,700 tons of steel beams and an equivalent amount of rock; wrestled in two 20,000-gallon fuel storage tanks and two 18- ton boilers; and they will have done it faster, he claims, than anyone else in the city.

Taking you through the rising shell of this building (which is, as I write this, 16 stories high; and, by this time you read it, will be at least another six stories high), Mr. Watkins points proudly to the systems and technologies that help to launch this structure skyward in record time.

"It takes just about as long to design a building of this size as it does to construct one," he explains, as we enter a wire- mesh-sided elevator and loft up toward the higher reaches of this project.

"So, they are designing this while we are building it. When we came up out of the ground, while we were starting the first floor slab, we were chasing them around with bulldozers. We almost had to slow up to let them finish."

Construction of the foundation started before the architects and engineers had designed the structure itself. "All we needed was the building's live weight," Mr. Watkins says. "How many millions of tons of live load? What is the basic framing plan?

"The structural engineer's job is most challenging. He has to make a number of assumptions; and, when he isn't sure, he has to build in a 300 percent safety factor."

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In the case of this building, the architect changed the design, increasing the live load, and new footings had to be added. There were also unforeseen problems in the excavation. They had to underpin an old building next to their site, literally putting another bottom under it through the bedrock, because their work had exposed some deterioration in the neighboring building's foundation and they were therefore legally responsible for shoring it up.

When he finishes speaking, the elevator grinds to a halt on the sixth floor of the structure, and the heavy steel gate is slid open with a metallic clang by a worker in a hard hat, whose only job is to run this personnel elevator. (The building also has a materials elevator in operation, and another under construction that will be used only by the bricklayers).

Around us is the bare cement skeleton of the high rise with no walls to obscure the city streets below. Little pieces of rock fall through the shaftways in the innards of the structure, and men wielding crowbars and hammers peel away layers of plywood, in a process known as "stripping," done once the concrete is "set up" in the wood structures constructed to hold it until it dries.

Looking around at the feverish activity and listening to Roger Watkins describe the amount of time-collapsing that goes into this new system, you inevitably think of how people complain that these buildings are just "thrown up ," one after another.

"I don't like that word 'thrown'," Roger Watkins objects. "It implies something haphazard. There is too much meticulous attention to detail and planning that goes into these projects to use that kind of term. It is a frantic, calculated sequence of events. I admit it may look chaotic, but it really is a very synchronized venture."

Mr. Watkins acknowledges, however, that he is in a race with time to get his project done faster and more efficiently than a competitor might, or even than another project supervisor in his own company could, since he has to prove himself worthy of the next undertaking.

Most of his fellow supervisors, he says, are in their fifties; and he is the youngest project supervisor in the city. He says he has earned this premature opportunity by "staying ahead of the other guys," using, not only the most advanced scheduling techniques, but a careful public relations program with his workers to keep everybody tracking together.

This challenge, to orchestrate over 30 subcontractors in a highly compressed time frame, all working virtually on top of one another, is critical in a fast-tracking venture, where one building trade follows another on each floor in rapid succession, sometimes with only a half hour to complete their task before the next trade comes along.

Keeping harmony among "the trades" and their foremen -- many of them rough, nail-hard workers who care little about etiquette and less about personal niceties -- is the job of the project supervisor; and it is one that Mr. Watkins performs well, using a range of devices from jawboning, to "hurting a man in his wallet," to taking all his foremen to "a sit-down Christmas dinner" at his own expense.

Mr. Watkins developed these tricks of the trade in a career that has taken him through building a 38-story high rise a few blocks from this site, a central portion of the model city Roosevelt Island in New York's East River, and an airport in Saudi Arabia ("if I ever told the story of what goes on between contractors there," he says, "I would probably have to move to Oshkosh.")

After returning from Saudi Arabia and joining Morse/Diesel Construction, he was put to work on the Palace Hotel, "setting the pace of the job" at the rate of three floors a week. Once that job was moving, he was pulled off of it and put on this building, which is rocketing up beside The Christian Science Monitor's Eastern news bureau on East 42nd Street.

Leaving the sixth floor of this superstructure, we climb cement stairs up, beyond the reach of the elevator. On the 13th floor, we are under the level that is currently being cemented.

All around us is a forest of impromptu wood beams supporting the floor under construction. "Coke stoves," rusted buckets of glowing coal, heat the floor above, where the next layer of concrete is drying, so that the workers can keep pouring their cement in all kinds of cold and damp weather.

"I've got 20 foremen working here," he tells me, raising his voice to fight the noise of construction machinery. "One for each trade. There's a steel crew , a stripping crew, an erection crew. And all of them have foremen. The foremen are the key. They will either get the men to work for you -- if they like you -- or not -- if they don't."

Sources in the construction industry say it is the project supervisor, and not the foremen, who provides the key in a fast-tracking job. "Because of inflation," says one architectural magazine editor, "most owners will go along with fast- tracking, but their big question will be: Who is going to be manager of this thing? Who is going to be the project supervisor?

Since fast-tracking requires constant communication among everyone on the building site and the architects and engineers, the project supervisor becomes the central figure, feeding information back and forth in an endless stream of minor adjustments, corrections, and fine tuning maneuvers.

In Roger Watkins's back pocket is a key to this delicate task: a $1,500 mobile radio that is tuned in to several others on the site. "Most project supervisors don't have these," he explains, as we crawl up a makeshift ladder through a hole into the bright daylight around the top floor under construction. "I saw in the plans that they were going to use the radios for their security system, and I asked the owner to buy me several in advance, promising to return them to him in good condition."

Up on the open-air 14th floor, you have to stop momentarily to drink in what is going on around you: a sort of chaotic ballet of laborers moving to some predetermined choreography.

A man with a mobile radio stands near the edge of the building telegraphing directions to the crane operator 14 stories below, who cannot see the area where he is swinging the two-ton bucket at the end of his crane.

The crane used on this job weighs 165 tons. "It's like a walking 30-story building," he says. "When we lay it down to add more reach to it, it covers 2 1 /2 city blocks." The crane was moved onto its present platform over the two 20, 000-gallon fuel storage tanks with some trepidation, after an underpinning of several hundred four-by-four beams was placed over the chamber housing the tanks to support the weight of the crane.

"Four by fours are technically supposed to provide only 10,000 pounds of support. We had someone in here with a calculator figuring whether the number we had would support the crane," he says. But the morning the crane was moved into place, there were still some naysayers who believed the platform would not hold. It held.

The huge, lumbering paw of the crane arches over our head and swoops gracefully to a stop in the midst of a crew of workmen, who guide it into a narrow chute to receive the wet concrete. They are standing at the end of a long wide platform, on which are two men in "motor buggies" (a kind of motorized golf-cart-cum-concrete-carrier that swings and slides around the top of the building like a dodgem car in a Saturday fair). As they empty the concrete into its receptacle, the motor buggies carry it off to be poured onto the waiting surface.

A few feet away, a crew of men is sliding a flat board across freshly poured cement to smooth it out. Beyond them, yet another crew is further refining the finish on the cement. On the other half of the building surface, men are still laying pipe and conduit that will soon be engulfed in fresh cement.

"The steam fitter and plumber have exactly two hours to do their layout," explains Roger Watkins, as we pick our way over a network of steel conduit and rods, keeping a delicate balance. The steelworkers lay down a net of rods to reinforce the concrete, then the electrician comes in behind them and lays conduit, and then the steel workers come back through with another network of steel rods.

To cover this 10,700 square feet of floor space, it takes 35 men 11 hours. Within hours the cement will be set on one section of the building, and they will be throwing up the beams to support the next floor, while another section is still being conered in cement.

". . . Almost no hammering . . . goes on," says Mr. Watkins, explaining that all of the crossbeams are delivered with holes in them. The supporting beams have pre-driven nails. The workers fit them together like Lincoln Logs. When they have to come down, a worker simply kicks the bottom out, stacks them in a corner, and they are hoisted by a crane to another floor, ready for re-use.

"Actually," Mr. Watkins says, "this is a super-fast-tracking job." That means that, not only is the design phase collapsed into the construction phase, but also the time frame for performance of each construction phase has been telescoped, as well. This is a matter of ingenuity that leads the contractors to examine the tasks and see if there is some way to get them down to an even narrower critical path. Sometimes it doesn't work as planned. On the way up, Mr. Watkins pointed out two 18-ton boilers sitting on the third floor (most boilers are in the basement or sub-basement, but this building is designed differently) that were supposed to fit neatly between the floor and upper spandrel of the third level. The fit was miscalculated by seven inches, and the boilers had to be laboriously introduced into the structure through another route.

This is one of the literally thousands of details with which Roger Watkins concerns himself during this building's meteoric flight to completion.

But there are many more miniscule details, as well -- like making provision to bring coffee to the men for their breaks, because in this business a man's time is more important than even materials. ("It wouldn't even pay a sub-contractor to move materials he had left on one floor up to the next floor, because of the cost of labor," Mr. Watkins points out. "He's better off just to abandon the materials and save himself some money.")

On the way to the top of the building, he is stopped by a dozen hard-hatted construction workers: "Where were the tarps that had been sitting in the driveway? . . . Have the coke stoves been fired? . . . Has the hoist operator been a problem? . . . Will the crane operator take the time to pick up another load?"

There are over 200 men working on this site at the moment; and there will be another 250 by the time they "top out" the building in February. Currently, the payroll is running at over $150,000 a week, and rising. Things are becoming more and more complicated every day and will continue to do so until the building is handed over to its owner, Harry Helmsley, of the land-and-building-rich Helmsley-Spear, Inc.

But, right now to Roger Watkins the whole thing boils down to a manageable array of details he must remember and keep in order. As we stand on the top of the structure, he is arguing with the man who manages the delivery of coke. The fellow dropped his material down a shaft from too high a point and caused some damage to the completed structure below.

Mr. Watkins is telling him to watch how he handles the coke in no uncertain terms, and his opponent, a feisty little man in a green coat, is telling him he doesn't know what he is talking about; there was no damage.

"No damage? Tell that to the people at your home office. I've just charge $ 6,000 against the contract for the damages."

"Maybe that's why I'm not getting a Christmas bonus," the foreman quips, and then goes on to argue that the damage was far overstated. They finally end in a friendly stalemate, and, a few minutes later Roger Watkins mentions that, while he put in for $6,000, he will probably have to settle for half that amount. Then, he goes on explaining the clockwork mechanism of his system.

"You see the tops of these buildings around us," he says, gesturing at the peaks of skyscrapers above us, including the elegant art deco Chrysler Building looming in the background. "You draw imaginary lines from the tops of all those buildings, and they are the reference points that all the trades take their measurements from."

Everything is agreement and system . . . clockwork and timing . . . teamwork and system.

Right in the beginning, when they were still completing the basement structure, Mr. Watkins had a meeting with the steamfitters, the electrician, the plumber, everybody that had to lay pipes through the basement. Then and there, they agreed whose pipe and conduit would start at what height and what path they would follow.

"It's a system I learned from an old tradesman," Mr. Watkins says. "And it works a lot better than letting the trades come in, one after another, and find their own path."

Does this obsession with narrowing the critical path each of the trades must follow throughout the building, from top to bottom, but too many corners? Does it jeopardize the safety of the men?

One tradesman complained privately to me that now there's not always as much time for preparation as there is on conventional jobs, but both he and other workers I spoke to on the site felt the site was just as safe as a conventional one, despite a recent accident that killed a carpenter here. That kind of tragedy happens throughout the construction field, on all kinds of systems, he said, lifting a hopper of rivets and adding; "This is construction. It is a crude world."

According to workers I spoke to, this project is perhaps the safest and "cleanest" in the city, and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) inspectors reportedly gave the systems here a clean bill of health after the accident.

It may be a crude world; but it is a precise and demanding one. The day of the accident, a Friday, the job was shut down. But on the following Monday, construction was in full swing again. Men were climbing the side of the structure installing an elevator; other workers were picking their way along the edge of the building, and the crane was hoisting tons of concrete to finish the next floor.

After double checking safety measures on the site, Roger Watkins was busy in his trailer Office, consumed by the details of erecting a 48-story structure faster than anyone else in the city, as his men scrambled over the face of the building spreading concrete and laying steel pipe.

A local black "economic survival" group had come to the trailer objecting that he should not be using a particular black worker because he wouldn't pay his dues to their organization. Carl Morse, head of the construction company, was on the phone to offer him consolation about the accident, and one of his counterparts at the front office was complaining that his memos were being lost.

Just then, someone stuck his head in the door, one of the trade foremen, wanting to know if he would be able to proceed with work on the next floor.

"That floor will be up by noon tomorrow," Mr. Watkins said flatly. "I guarantee it."


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