Is This Carpentry?
Occasionally, as a carpentry contractor, your construction projects will require building things that are not made of wood; like concrete; or steel; or aluminum; or sheet-metal; or industrial plastics; or who-knows-what. You can always pay someone to do the non-wood related tasks, but if you do the work yourself, you could save on subcontractor expenses while you learn the arts of working with new materials. You will discover that many of the same building concepts that apply to wood, also apply to other elements of construction.
One of my experiences working with new materials began in the summer of 1989, in Clifton, Virginia. As a small-job general contractor, I had established a two-year reputation for designing and building a wide variety of projects in the area. One afternoon, I received a call from Thomas Henderson, the president of a rural homeowner’s association, expressing concern about a failing bridge, spanning a small creek, that provided the only access to the subdivision’s seven homes and properties. The existing bridge was built using 4x12 oak planks, supported by I-Beams, supported by concrete abutments. The road leading up to, and away from, the bridge was made of #21A gravel. The creek was modest, but there were times during the year that it had been known to swell to levels above the bridge’s surface.
No one that lived in the subdivision knew the age of the existing bridge. George Washington hadn't lived too far away – perhaps he used the old bridge from time to time back in the 1700s, who knows... The bridge was still intact, but the banks behind the concrete abutments were continuously washing out with each new flood. Another contributing factor, believed by many of the homeowners in the subdivision, was that moles might have burrowed behind the concrete abutments causing even further erosion.
Thomas Henderson suggested replacing the existing bridge with culvert pipe, because he feared the same thing would happen again if we were to rebuild it using the same design. Replacing the bridge with Corrugated Galvanized Pipe (CGP) would also be much less expensive and time consuming. All we would have to do with CGP is to remove the 4x12 planks and the I-Beams and drop the pipe directly into the creek. Since the bridge was the only access to the homes in the subdivision, a speedy job was an essential requirement.
The next phase of the project was to determine the diameter of pipe to use. Using pipe that is too small could wash out in the spring rains. Using pipe that is too large would create a hump in the roadway that could ice up in the winter and make crossing the creek difficult. Another factor to consider was weight - the pipe needed to be able to support twice the weight of the largest vehicle that would be accessing the subdivision. After much study, we decided on two five-foot diameter pipes at .064 gauge.
The project took about six months of meetings with the homeowner’s association and permitting authorities before finally getting approved on the 15th of November. I called the pipe company and ordered three five-foot diameter pipes, twenty feet long, and scheduled the delivery for two weeks later. That put the delivery date near December 1st - the coldest December I had ever experienced. This project deployment date was also getting uncomfortably close to my planned Christmas vacation to Corpus Christi, Texas on December 19th, but if all went well, I should be able to fly out of Dulles airport as planned.
The weather took a severe turn for worse. Before Thanksgiving we received approximately six inches of snow and it had been snowing almost every day for two weeks. The pipe arrived on schedule, but the severe cold and a foot of snow on the ground made working conditions undesirable, so we decided to wait for the weather to improve. We waited and waited. Yes, conditions changed. They got worse. Temperatures near zero with unimaginable windchills.
On Sunday, December 17th, I met my partner, Aaron Larkin, on the job site to inspect the creek and working conditions. Aaron was a skilled heavy equipment operator and general construction worker. His common since approach to solving problems, and his die-hard persistence, made him an indispensable person to have around on jobs like this. The creek was beginning to freeze solid which would make the job impossible to do until it thawed sometime in the spring. But there was still plenty of water flowing under the icy surface, so we decided that we better begin the project the next day - the existing bridge was showing signs of collapsing, or we would have waited for better weather.
To prepare for job day, we ordered a load of #57 stone, to use as a foundation for the corrugated pipe, and a few loads of #21A gravel to build up the road and to cover the pipe, once installed. We rented a large backhoe to help demolish the wooden bridge, and to carry the heavy sections of CGP from a nearby pasture to the creek bed. We scheduled the backhoe and gravel to be delivered first thing the next morning.
Aaron and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, wondering if we were doing the right thing; exposing ourselves to severe cold and icy conditions. We decided to get some beer and head over to Aaron’s garage to make a list of tools to take to the job and to talk about the next day’s schedule. After a couple of brews, we worked out the job details, and left the remaining cans of beer on Aaron’s workbench – thinking that the chilly weather would keep them cold.
Afterwards, I drove home and prepared for a good night’s sleep. While lying in bed, I got a nervous feeling in my stomach thinking about the next day’s work. What if the gravel doesn’t get delivered? What if the forklift doesn’t show up? What if we can’t finish the job in time for the homeowners to get in and out of their subdivision? After about 30 minutes, I finally drifted off into a deep sleep.
Monday, December 18th, I woke up at 3am thinking about the enormous job that I was facing, and that I was only about 26 hours away from flying home to Texas for Christmas. With any luck, this job would wrap up early and I could still make my flight. It was too late to reschedule and too late to get a refund for the ticket.
At 5am, I got out of bed and put on a pot of coffee. It was job day, after all, and time to get moving! I looked at the thermometer I had mounted outside my window - 22 degrees (somewhat warmer than it had been in two weeks). I knew that dressing for extreme cold was imperative. I drank some coffee and jumped in the shower. I took a hot steamy one, thinking that it was going to be the last time that day that I would be warm. What to wear? I started with a pair of silk long-johns that are supposed to be better than standard cotton thermals because you don’t sweat under them (so they say). Then, I put on a thin pair of cotton socks covered by some wool socks, a t-shirt, jeans, a cut-off sweatshirt, an insulated flannel shirt, and a pair of insulated rubber work boots. All of this clothing to be covered by a pair of insulated coveralls and heavy coat, when I got to the job site. I filled my thermos with coffee, grabbed my coveralls and heavy coat, and made it out the door before dawn.
On the last curve of the road, before arriving at the job site, I noticed that the gravel had already been delivered. Good, I thought, one less thing to worry about. Aaron was already on site, leaning against his Ford pickup, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette in the crisp morning air. I parked my Toyota truck nearby, rolled out of the driver's seat with all of my heavy clothing, and began walking towards him.
"Cold enough fer ya?" I asked, with a country-boy accent.
"Hell no! Bring it on!" he replied, with a chuckle.
"You just keep telling yourself that, Bozo," I said, continuing the accent. "It's colder than a well digger's keister out here, and it aint likely gonna get better!"
I noticed that he was wearing similar clothing and we laughed at each other for being bold enough, or stupid enough, to be working in such icy conditions. We talked about the project, shivered, told jokes, and drank coffee for about fifteen minutes until the backhoe arrived. We unloaded it from the flatbed trailer and went to work.
I had ordered three 20-foot pipes. I planned to only use two pipes side-by-side. The third pipe was to be cut in half and banded to the two 20-footers to make two 30-foot pipes. I needed the 30-foot lengths of pipe so that the gravel on 16-foot wide roadway would not be too steep on either side of the road, and so the ends of the pipe could be left exposed.
All morning and afternoon, the sun was out and the wind was calm. It got too warm for my heavy coat, so I took it off and worked in my coveralls for a few hours. We were feeling good working in the snow and the job was going according to plan.
Is This Carpentry? Probably not...
While I was cutting one of the pipes in half with a torch, Aaron was using the backhoe to remove the oak planks from the bridge and expose the I-beams. We were surprised at how difficult it was to remove the I-beams from the concrete abutments. They were cemented in better than we thought they would be. I put the banding material on the pipe sections, bolted them down, then wheeled the torch over to the bridge to cut out the I-Beams. We cut and removed two of the smaller I-Beams and it took too long. On the larger beams, the melted steel was solidifying on the cut before it could fall to the ground, thus rewelding the I-beam as fast as I could cut it (because of the cold, we guessed). We finally ran out of oxygen and acetylene and I suggested that we rent a quickie-saw and a couple of blades to cut out the I-Beams. We drove Aaron's truck to Fairfax and picked up the saw we needed from a tool rental company. We decided to take a break and get some dinner before returning to the creek. It was about 4pm and getting dark and cold. On the way back to work, we passed a bank sign with a scrolling message below it – No Monthly Service Fees and No Minimum Balance Requirements... 15°F... Merry Christmas! We realized that we were going to be working well into the evening and began to get a little nervous about our schedule.
We got back to the job site about sundown and gassed up the two-cycle saw and started cutting the steel I-Beams. It worked well, and sparks from the metal made a nice display against the snow-covered ground and night sky. Thomas and some of the homeowners came out to watch the light-show.
"We should charge admission!" I said to Aaron, loud enough so that the homeowners could hear.
"Yeah, maybe we could make a little extra beer money!" he replied.
Everyone laughed hard. I think they were surprised at our good spirits, given the inclement circumstances.
After a couple of hours of cutting, we got the last I-beam out and were ready to prepare the creek-bed for the corrugated galvanized pipe. At this point, the homeowners, except for Thomas, decided that the cold was too much and retreated back to the warmth of their homes.
We chose to leave the concrete abutments in place and bury them, along with the new culvert pipe, under a thick layer of compacted fill. We used the backhoe to break up the frozen surface of the creek so that we could add a layer of #57 stone in the creek bed. We used the #57 stone as a base for the pipe and to make it easier to grade the creek bottom. Once we prepared the creek bed, it was time to install the two 30-foot pipe sections. The prepared pipes were lying in a pasture on the other side of a barbed-wire fence about 100 feet away. Aaron drove the backhoe across a frozen cattle-guard and maneuvered the machine into position in front of the first pipe. We tried to chain the pipe to the backhoe, with some support in the middle, so that the banded sections wouldn’t come apart. Aaron lifted the first pipe, and the banded section broke. We decided to take the sections one at a time and band them together in the creek. The 20-foot sections of pipe weighed about 1500 pounds each, which was nothing for the backhoe, but the bulk of the five-foot diameter pipe made them difficult to manage. Banding the pipes in the creek meant that I had to wade through about 8-inches of freezing water. Thomas was on the bank of the creek watching me from above.
"My mother taught me better than this," I said.
"I’m sure she did, Matt," Thomas replied, with a smile.
We placed the pipe sections in the creek, banded them together, and got them positioned in place around 11pm. We could see that our long day was coming to a welcomed end. Aaron hopped on the backhoe and began filling the remaining #57 stone between the pipes, then he began adding the #21A gravel on top of the pipes, while I tried to locate our tools in the deep snow and darkness.
Aaron added just enough gravel to provide pedestrian access across the creek – our minimum goal for the day. Around midnight, the cold was becoming unbearable.
"You guys did a great job today," Thomas said. "I’m heading inside where it is warm. I suggest you guys do the same."
"Thanks, Thomas!" I said. "Have a nice evening."
"You too, Matt and Aaron," he said, as he briskly walked towards his house.
"Well, what do you want to do, Aaron?" I asked.
"For now, I say we get in my truck and warm the hell up," he said.
"That sounds good to me."
We got in his truck, fired up the heater, and turned on the radio to discover that the temperature had dropped to 1 degree above 0 at Dulles airport (that’s right… Dulles… the very airport that I should be at in less than 6 hours, in order to get to the ticket desk, check in, and take my seat on the 7am DC10 headed for Dallas).
After we got good and warm, we couldn’t imagine getting back out into the cold, with at least two more hours of work ahead of us to finish the job. We were beat. We decided to call it a day and come back in the morning to finish up. Well, that was it. I just made the decision to miss my flight. We packed up the tools that we could find in the deep snow and drove down the icy roads to Aaron’s garage. When we arrived, we remembered the cans of beer we left on his workbench and decided to have one. The beer had frozen solid. Aaron put the beers in the kitchen sink under hot water to thaw them out, while we finished unloading and stowing the tools in his sub-zero garage.
After a while, we checked the beer in the sink and, sure enough, we left them under the hot water too long! They went from being too cold to too hot, but they tasted good and might even have been the most memorable beers I have ever had - especially after a long day in the bone-chilling cold.
At about 2am, I left Aaron’s house and turned my truck’s heater up full-blast to try and break the spell of the frozen winter night. I never told Aaron about my flight to Texas. I’m sure he would have been okay with finishing the job by himself, but it wasn’t his responsibility to do that. It was mine. I needed to see the job through to the end and I knew it. Thomas was counting on me to make sure everything was done as we had discussed, over the past six months, and I wasn’t about to let him down.
Aaron and I met at the job site at 8am the next morning, allowing ourselves a little sleep-in time. The skies were overcast and a light snow was beginning to fall. He started up the backhoe and began spreading the remaining stockpile of #21A gravel over the pipes. The pipe manufacturer required a minimum of 18 inches of gravel above the top of the pipes, in order to adequately distribute the load induced by the vehicles traveling over them. We agreed that we didn’t have enough gravel to sufficiently cover the pipes, so we ordered two more truck-loads. We finished up the job around 3pm, and gathered up the tools that we couldn’t find the night before. To put a cap on the project, we shared a couple of beers in the chilly weather, while we smoked cigarettes and watched the creek flow through the new corrugated pipe – it was a beautiful sight. After we finished our beer, Aaron left to meet his father for their annual holiday hunting trip, and I headed down the snowy road back to my home in Centreville. On my way, I stopped at a grocery store and bought a big steak for dinner to celebrate the job's success.
Once I got home, I cooked my steak and made hot apple cider. I looked around and realized that I hadn't decorated my apartment for Christmas. Since I am going to spend Christmas in Virginia, I should make the most of it, I thought. After dinner, I found a string of colored mini-lights in a cardboard box and strung them across the ceiling. As I enjoyed the glow of the lights and the warmth of my living room, I could see snow accumulating on the leafless limbs of oak trees growing outside my window. Soon the remaining light of the day turned to darkness, and I headed for bed and a good night's sleep.
After that day, I knew that, no matter how many construction jobs that I would work on over the years, I would always remember replacing the old bridge in the frozen waters of Castle Creek, Clifton, Virginia, 1989.
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