Worksite of the Future
Managers of a New York project grab for all of the advantages that interlinked technology has to offer as they blaze the way for others

By Tom Sawyer
Cold-weather construction in Syracuse put the biodiesel commitment to a tough test.
Cold-weather construction in Syracuse put the biodiesel commitment to a tough test.

One of the more closely watched construction projects in the Northeast is back on stride in Syracuse, N.Y., after a two-month slowdown for design adjustments. But despite the pause, the project's innovation engine never faltered as equipment operators pressed ahead with high mixes of biodiesel through the cold heart of winter and technology planners pushed on with paperless operations and a wireless mesh network for communications on the sprawling jobsite.

"A lot of the things we are doing here are being done elsewhere, but not to the extent that we are doing them," says Brian Watson, Phase I Lead Project Manager for construction management contractor Cianbro, Pittsfield, Maine. "It's the magnitude of this project, with its 10-acre footprint, and the fact that we are trying to do it paperless, we're recycling 96% of our construction debris and waste, using biodiesel in all the equipment, Global Positioning System technology and a wireless mesh—all of that sets it apart."

  • Scott M. Tierney: Managing the Worksite of the Future
  • Biodiesel has played an important role in the construction of the LEED Gold expansion by 850,000 leasable sq ft of the 17-year-old Carousel Mall. The mall is owned by the Pyramid Cos., the largest private developer of shopping malls in the U.S. The expanded mall is to become an anchor for a much larger visionary development scheme called DestinyUSA, which is the brainchild of Pyramid principal Robert J. Congel.

    Congel says he wants the construction to be a model of how developers can use renewable resources and advanced technology, not only to improve construction efficiency, but to reduce the nation's addiction to fossil fuels. He demands that his contractors embrace the goal. "This is a very important project for our country," says Congel. "This whole fossil-energy situation annoys me."

    Global Positioning System survey tools empower a single worker with $50,000 worth of Topcon equipment to handle layout for pile driving in 1,133 locations.
    Global Positioning System survey tools empower a single worker with $50,000 worth of Topcon equipment to handle layout for pile driving in 1,133 locations.

    Construction of the mall expansion began in late March 2007 and, after briefly considering walking up the biodiesel mix gradually, the project jumped to a mandatory 100% biodiesel fuel and ran 70 pieces of equipment on it from May 1 through most of October. The operators and site crew loved the change, as it eliminated diesel's greasy soot, residue and odor.

    There have been no issues, says Scott Tierney, a Cianbro construction manager. The job ran B100 all summer in every engine on the site, including 1970s-era cranes, pile drivers, excavation equipment and generators.

    "I haven't had one bit of a problem," says Ken Cloyd, director of pile driving. After a few filter changes in the beginning, biodiesel runs cleaner and removes all of the soot buildup inside the engine, he says.

    "I think it's great," adds Hugh Moseley, an 11-year truck-driving veteran in charge of Destiny's biofuel logistics. "It smells better and won't give you a headache, and we don't have to go anywhere and kill for it."

    But as colder temperatures arrived last fall, operators began to see the 100% biodiesel needed to be cut with petroleum diesel again to prevent it from gelling. But they were reluctant to back off any more than they had to, says Watson.

    Operators analyzed the equipment's behavior and tried to be creative. They set up a shelter on the site heated with 100% biodiesel for overnight storage of some of the smaller equipment, and they experimented with heaters on one of the cranes. Some of the smaller equipment, like generators for lighting units, had to be switched to B50, and then B20 during the coldest weather. But surprisingly, Watson says they found the larger equipment, like the cranes, were able to stay at B50 even as temperatures plummeted.

    "I think it is the way the fuel lines run and the size of the tank," Watson says. "The fuel lines run along the block, or are covered by the cab of the crane and the 150-gallon tank is going to take a lot longer to get to the temperature where it is going to gel than the 10-gallon tank on small equipment," Watson says. "We are looking forward to getting back to B100, and will be doing it as quickly as possible," he adds.

    "A lot of the things we are doing here are being done elsewhere, but not to the extent that we are doing them."

    — Brian Watson

    Watson also is excited about how well the GPS stakeout has been going on the job. "All of that work—layout, cutoff grades—one person is doing that," he says.

    John Quinn is Cianbro's one-person survey crew. He uses the same Leica base station that was set up for blade control for excavation contractor A.P. Reale, Ticonderoga, N.Y. Quinn uses $50,000 worth of Topcon GPS equipment to control placement of 140-ft to 350-ft H14 x 117 piles in 1,133 locations. "This is the perfect job to do this. There are so many piles, and it is all open—no tall buildings or trees," Quinn says.

    Even the traces of paper in the "Skydeck" project office last November are banished now.

    Cold Turkey

    On the last Friday in January, paper officially was banned from the construction offices, which are located in posh quarters on a fourth-floor deck surrounding the atrium in the center of the existing mall. Exterior windows overlook the jobsite and interior windows overlook shoppers in the mall. The co-located staff, which includes people from Destiny, Cianbro and consultants, call it the Skydeck. Like much of the rest of the job, it has a futuristic feel too.

    Watson says that until that Friday, it still was partially a paper operation. "We were 75% paperless on the Skydeck, but the real problem was the 25% that wasn't paperless was all visible."

    That day, workers turned off printers, fax machines and plotters. "The only thing we were going to keep on were the scanners," says Watson. "We had cans and cans and cans of paper and we shredded it all and gave it to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for animal bedding."

    Realizing then that workers also did not need all of the pens, paper, pencils and paper-hole punches anymore, Cianbro gave them to schools. "And now, all of the geek engineers don't even need pocket protectors anymore," Watson says.

    Cianbro does all of its job documentation on electronic forms and in Constructware, a project document management system now owned by Autodesk. Project superintendents and inspectors take their notes and references to the field on pen-sensitive tablet PCs from Motion Computing.

    Watson admits that the day everyone cold-turkey quit using paper was not easy. Some routine tasks, like the weekly ritual of signing expense reports, were unsupported by the electronic technology. That 15-minute chore suddenly took two hours as Watson tried to find a work-around. But the firm found and installed new software for the purpose, and the task now takes no longer than before. Watson says he also can do it on his Blackberry whenever he has a few minutes to spare, and the process tracks into the electronic document management system.

    "If we had said 'to hell with it' and gone back to the old way, we never would have had the motivation to figure out how to do [things] paperlessly. By turning things off and saying this is what we are go to do, we knew we were go to create some problems, but we were going to figure it out. And that's what we did."

    Electric vaults and pile caps are being poured now, just as site's wireless mesh goes live.
    Electric vaults and pile caps are being poured now, just as site's wireless mesh goes live.


    The next big innovation is scheduled for March 2, when the job's "service-mesh" wireless network goes live. "The service-mesh network basically allows for a better service over multiple hops," says Matthew Holt, of Syracuse-based communications integrator Kishmish. "This will provide coverage as the facility grows and the construction area grows so we can hop out further and further."

    The network is designed around an array of carefully positioned Cisco Aironet model 1522 and 1510 nodes. They are wireless signal relays with coverage of up to 600 ft that support an umbrella of wireless data by passing communications from one to another, out from and back to a hard-wired connection point. It is theoretically possible to hop the data as many as 16 times, although seven is as much as the manufacturer claims. A maximum of four hops is recommended.

    A service-level network is more robust than a conventional mesh network and offers the ability to selectively prioritize some communications, like voice transmissions. Holt says the decision to choose it was made because Destiny intends to use the system after construction for facilities management and operations, as well as expand it to more jobsites in the future.

    "It's basically a planning move," Holt says. "The mesh network, from a concept point of view, is quite exciting. In terms of hardware and things on poles it's not very exciting, but in terms of things you can do its very cool."

    "I don't think [the project] is a test or a pilot: it is the beginning," says Watson. "Things are going well. We are at full stride. ...and we have 320,000 hours without a lost-time injury."

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