Piping-hot competition

Sept. 26, 2003

Whenever there is a cutback in money from municipalities for construction, Cranbrook Construction Co. sees more competitors.

Whenever there is a cutback in money from municipalities for construction, Cranbrook Construction Co. sees more competitors.

"What happens is when there's a cutback in highway work, then the highway guys start bidding pipe work and dirt work and a lot of times they'll bid it cheaper until they get a couple of jobs and they realize that they should be higher," Dan Crandell, vice president of Cranbrook, told Roads & Bridges. "People that aren't familiar with a specific type of work will come in and bid it cheaper because they're not aware of all the unseen costs that you have to include."

Cranbrook sees the costs involved because the Albany, N.Y., company makes a living doing underground piping work, including water, sewer, water pumping stations, storm water piping, catch basins and manholes. The company also does roadbed preparation work, such as sub-base placement and grading, and some pavement patching but generally hires subcontractors to do paving. In the off-season, Cranbrook keeps a few workers busy doing equipment maintenance and some emergency pipe repairs. Sometimes a hibernating jobsite has to be manned over winter for safety reasons.

If the job goes to the lowest bidder, as most municipal jobs do, and the competition thinks it can do the job cheaper, a contractor may have to scramble to put together a winning bid.

"You just keep analyzing the job," said Crandell. "You cut back on your overhead and profit. You really hammer the job to make sure you make absolutely no mistakes and the thing's executed perfectly. And you also look for an angle on the job, something somebody else might have missed."

While Cranbrook is not a road contractor per se, the company's work often involves tearing up and replacing road pavement. To give the company an edge on road tasks, Cranbrook recently acquired an Asphalt Zipper, a reclaimer/recycler that attaches to the bucket of a wheel loader or skid steer and grinds up asphalt into a material that can be reused or recycled into new asphalt pavement. It eliminates the need to saw the asphalt into chunks and haul it away.

"When you're doing pipe in existing streets where traffic control is involved and maintaining traffic is involved we thought we could save an operation," said Crandell, "and whenever you can save an operation, you can save labor, you save money.

"You can reuse it yourself for sub-base or trench backfill, you can give it back to the municipality for future use or if you're looking for a spot to dispose of the material it's a lot easier to give somebody the ground-up material where they could spread it and use it for a driveway or parking area."

Cranbrook used the Asphalt Zipper from Asphalt Zipper Inc., Pleasant Grove, Utah, on a project in the village of Round Lake, N.Y., where the water and sewer systems were very old and needed to be replaced. The Asphalt Zipper chewed up the narrow streets through the village, first where Cranbrook had to install the water and sewer mains and later where the service had to be connected. The village took the opportunity to install natural gas lines throughout the village while the streets were already torn up.

Some parts of the village were lacking paved streets for up to six months, Crandell said, but that was shorter than it might have been: "We were able to use the Asphalt Zipper on that because we were trying to minimize the amount of time people didn't have pavement and also the disposal space was at a premium."

Cranbrook was finishing the restoration work on the $3.8 million Round Lake project in late August.

The trickiest part of the work was keeping the old water and sewer systems in service while replacing them with new systems that met modern standards.

Cranbrook did the grading preparation on the streets but hired a subcontractor to do the actual paving.

Back to school

The two-year Round Lake project was probably the toughest job the company has ever done, said Crandell.

One of the biggest issues on the mind of the vice president of Cranbrook is the difficulty finding qualified people to operate equipment and perform all the other tasks the company needs to do.

"There's less and less people every year that want to get into construction," said Crandell.

"It's not only laborers. It's people running equipment, carpenters, every phase of construction. At every business I talk to it's hard to find people, and I think it starts right down in the level of elementary and high school."

Students are encouraged to go to college and get a job where they can work indoors and not get dirty, Crandell thinks. "As a result there's not many folks that want to work outside on work that can be seasonal."

Cranbrook, with the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), is trying to help build a program that would educate school children about the career possibilities in construction. Called School to Work, the program offers young students as early as kindergarten a chance to see what construction is all about. The program is approved in some parts of New York through the Board of Cooperative Educational Service (BOCES) within the New York State Education Department.

"Some of the introduction is starting with kids in the lower grades even in kindergarten with coloring books of construction equipment and survey equipment, that type of stuff, to try to get them attracted to other opportunities," said Crandell. "And then when they get into BOCES they can pick mechanics courses, welding courses, plumbing, how to read blueprints, that type of thing, and then they would hook up with a business to do an internship."

The students graduate from high school with a little experience they can use to look for a job with a contractor. Or they can join ABC and enter an apprenticeship program.

"When they're done they are a journey tradesman."

Cranbrook currently has a laborer and an equipment operator working with the company through School to Work.

Cranbrook and ABC are working to get School to Work approved for BOCES throughout New York state.

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