I Always Get Slaughtered in the Dirt, Part I, Bad CAD
My good friend, Manny Bucks, and I were chewing the fat over a latte the other day. “I tell you, Tim,” he carped, “I always get slaughtered in the dirt.”
Manny is a developer-contractor, that peculiar breed of builder who’s always being slaughtered in one manner or another — usually at the hands of a special interest group, idiotic bureaucracy or interest rate spike. But in the dirt? I bit: “Oh? Do tell.”
“Seems like every one of my projects goes haywire at the dirt work stage. And dirt is so expensive! It costs money to dig it, move it, compact it, fill with it, test it, grow landscaping in it — heck, you’d think dirt was actually worth something — an asset. That is until you’ve got too much and need to get rid of it. Then it’s a liability. What really irritates me, though, is when I have to pay for dirt twice. Or three times. That’s when I get slaughtered.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Dirt can be finicky. It can be too dry, too wet, too sandy, too clayey, full of organic material, rocky, hard, soft, you name it. And if your crew doesn’t work it right, it can be unstable and not compact well.”
“That is exactly what’s killing me on the Longview project. We’re building a road that winds around a hill. The inside lane is cut into the hillside and the outside lane is a fill. The first problem we ran into was that the engineer’s design did not balance cuts and fills. If we would have actually built the road where he originally designed it, we’d have needed a few thousand extra tons of fill dirt. The road could have gone anywhere on that hill — it’s in the middle of nowhere and we own all the surrounding land. Can you think of a reason why the engineer didn’t move the road over a few feet so the cuts and fills would have at least been close to balancing?”
“Oh yes, I can think of a reason — having been there and done that myself. Probably your engineer bid the road design assuming he’d just lay it out where it looked good on paper and be done with it. But, of course, good road design should examine dirt quantities too. Many smalltime engineers don’t have the software to automatically do this, and they’re too lazy to do it longhand, so they just make their best guess. What engineers don’t understand is that an unbalanced road design can cost far more in dirt moving than their entire design fee in the first place.”
“Exactly,” Manny moaned. “It’s just like situating a new house on a sloping lot. Placing the finished floor just a foot too high or too low can result in either a lot of extra dirt to haul away or the need to import tons. Either way, it costs.”
“Right,” I agreed. “You’re usually dollars ahead paying for a topo survey up front and then having your architect check dirt quantities as they design. Not only does this minimize dirt work, it also helps ensure driveways and lawns aren’t too steep and that the site drains properly. You’ve never had a drainage problem on one of your projects have you, Manny? ”
“Yeah, right — you’re killing me, Tim. Not to mention, I’ve had to build miles of expensive retaining walls that my design team somehow overlooked. But back to my road dilemma. The engineer I used, Curtiss Cumquot, is not smalltime. I’ve been to his office and seen his computers and software. He’s got the technology and the manpower to do it right.”
“That may well be,” I said. “However, I know Curtiss personally. He does have the latest high-zoot computers and software, true enough, but what he doesn’t have is the experienced personnel to run them. His office is an employee revolving door. Employees there come and go faster than customers at McDonalds. To learn, really learn CAD takes an enormous effort. Software companies would have you believe otherwise, of course, but having done it myself, I can tell you that to make those products really sing, to really work for you not against you, is a major undertaking. It is why, in fact, I still do most of my own engineering drawings by hand.”
“But I know the guy drawing my project,” Manny countered. “He was no greenhorn — had to be in his 40s and Curtiss assured me he’s been doing CAD for years.”
“Probably true. But for which firm? What Curtiss didn’t tell you is that every engineering or architecture office sets up their computers and CAD systems differently. They have different brands of software, different templates, different fonts, linetypes, title blocks, printers, plotters, layering schemes and on and on. So an employee may be a crackerjack for ABC Engineering, but when he moves to XYZ, he’ll face a learning curve all over again. As the client, you can only hope that the person working on your project — the person whose fingers are actually on the keyboard and mouse — has been at that same work station for several years.”
“Ah-ha — I got you on that one. This CAD guy has been with Curtiss for several years. He’s the same one that did Harbor Bay for me, and it turned out fine.”
“Well, just to make sure your rose-colored-glasses don’t completely brainwash you, keep in mind there are two types of CAD operators: ones that think while they draw and ones that just draw. The thinking kind are worth their weight in gold. The ‘I-only-push-buttons-for-a-living-don’t-ask-me-to-think’ variety are far more common, and unfortunately are what Curtiss has working for him. They can be successful, but only if the boss spends LOTS of time reviewing and correcting their work. However, time is the one commodity that Curtiss Cumquot doesn’t have. He’s so busy bringing in new jobs, trying to get paid and training new employees, there’s no time left to manage and maintain the people actually doing his day-to-day workload. Did you ever wonder why Curtiss is always running ragged, is late for meetings and has those big dark divots under his eyes? He should read “Cracks, Sags and Dimwits” — several chapters are all about him.
“You’ll appreciate this story,” I continued. “I know a successful developer who uses Low Budget Slimehead Engineering, Inc. for all his subdivisions. But he does so under one condition: that employee Ace Cadman is the only person allowed to touch his projects. Yep, this developer walks into the office, strides right on past the two owners’ desks and makes a bee-line for Ace’s cubicle. They do their business, then my friend leaves. It’s been this way for five years. Works like a charm.”
“Okay, so I should have used a different engineer; or maybe a different CAD guy in my engineer’s office. But that still doesn’t explain why I had to build and rebuild the road’s fill section three times — and still I can’t get good compaction. I’ve moved that dirt around so much, it’s probably all worn out!”
To be continued next week.
Tim Garrison of ConstructionCalc.com, is a professional engineer, author, and software producer for the building industry. Check out his new book, Cracks, Sags, and Dimwits, available at www.lulu.com.
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