Thrust suddenly into business ownership with the passing of their father, a family pulls together to shape Eagle Builders into an ultramodern, ultra-efficient plant.
Story and Photos by Ron Hyink
Life comes at you fast, cautions a popular TV commercial, urging us to “be ready” for the unexpected. But nothing could have prepared the young Haan siblings for the suddenness and intensity of losing their father and inheriting his precast concrete company. Heaped on top of dealing with their loss, they had the business to contend with – it was still a thriving operation and had to be managed. Attempts to sell it were unsuccessful, and leasing it out was not an attractive option, so they decided to risk everything and run it themselves. Six years later, Eagle Builders Inc., Blackfalds, Alberta, is enjoying life in a new, modern, efficient, technologically advanced and environmentally friendly plant.
Perplexities of youth
Dan Haan, the father, started Eagle Builders in 2000 and passed away in late 2003. When his two sons and three daughters found themselves as instant owners of the precast insulated wall panel plant, things were looking rather grim at first. “The first year was the biggest learning curve and dealing with everything that had happened,” said Dennis Haan, the eldest of the remaining siblings who took over the business. His brother, Craig Haan, is also part owner as is Kevin Kooiker, who married the youngest daughter, Becky. Two other sisters and their families have moved on to other vocations.
“When I stepped in, I was 22,” said Dennis, who now serves as president and sales manager. “It was actually funny, because when I was working out there on the job site, I always told my dad, ‘You put me in the office, and I’m going to quit.’ I wasn’t the real office guy, but I’ve learned to grow into it. I got a lot of experience dealing on the business side of the company and being able to run it.”
Their youth proved to be both a curse and a blessing. Being so young was a problem, as customers, perhaps perceiving a lack of experience and ability to run a business, began to shy away. “A lot of people had backed out from precast that was on order,” said Craig, vice president and field manager. “We weren’t sure where we were going to go then. So we tried to sell the business in November of ’03 – and we weren’t able to sell it.” One company, he explained, offered to buy the company if some of the Haans would stay on as employees and run the company for five years under an employment contract. “So we said if we’re going to run it for them, we have nothing to lose – we might as well run it for ourselves.” But in January 2004, things suddenly changed for the better. “The phone just started ringing, and we couldn’t keep up quoting,” said Craig. “And we just boomed – it just went like overnight.”
Their youth that had worked against them before suddenly started to work for them. With sheer determination and a strong ethic for hard work, the family began to pull the company back to prosperity. “The hard, physical work and the way in which our parents taught us to work on the farm as kids has really reflected on our abilities to do whatever it takes to make this company go, and we continue to want to grow,” said Craig.
And grow they did – until their old shop ran out of space. “We had outgrown our shop by spring of ’06,” said Craig. Designs to build a new plant were already on the table with plans to travel to Europe for some fresh ideas about how to increase production through labor, giving little thought to purchasing advanced machinery. “By this time, we had all our drawings done, everything was engineered and ready to go.”
Or so they thought.
A fresh perspective
The trip overseas proved to be an authentic eye-opener. “We went there with our whole new shop drawn up, and after we came back, we ripped it all up,” said Kevin, plant manager “They are so far ahead of us. So we started over, and now we have a state-of-the-art plant that’s one of the tops in North America technologywise. But it’s our own – we designed this whole shop ourselves, five guys. So many different ideas helped create one thing that is very efficient and very good.”
They all agreed that the new plant would have to be capable of efficient production years into the future. “When we started looking at this new plant, we said we have a lot of years ahead of us – either we’re going to do it right or we’re not going to do it,” said Dennis. “If it falls on its face, we’ve got years ahead of us, we can start over or do something different.”
Plans for the new plant were being developed right up to the last minute. “From the time we started digging dirt until the first day of production was seven months,” said Craig. “You just go, you just get it done. We’re aggressive people, we like to work hard, and we like to get the best out there.”
Looking back, they know that they have accomplished something on a grand scale. “None of us even thought six years ago that we’d be where we’re at today,” said Dennis. “We are tenfold from where we were. It took a lot of sweat equity, I call it.”
The result is more than just a modern and efficient plant. Whether viewing the building from the outside or touring inside the plant and offices, it has a flavor of professionalism and confidence that customers seem to notice. “We’ve never hanged anything as to how we deal with the customers, how we install the product, how we finish the product, how we sell the product – we never changed that. But there’s a lot to be said about appearance,” said Craig. “That is one way in which we’ve attracted a lot of higher-end clients.”
“The biggest thing – you put out a good product, you have a happy customer and no call-backs. I guess that’s what makes you successful,” said Dennis. “When you’re selling a superior product, the customer expects a superior product.”
Dennis, Craig and Kevin still have their youth, but they have a lifetime of experience under their belts already. It’s amazing what bold and determined people can do when thrown into a difficult situation. But leaning upon each other has been the common determinant. “The family thing – that’s what’s really pulled us through the whole situation,” said Dennis. “If it weren’t for the family, we couldn’t get through it – not only physically but mentally, and having people who pick you up and keep you going.”
Take a glimpse of the Eagle Builders facility:
The prefab shop is the staging area for materials that will go into the wall panel forms. At the far end is a second floor that holds the bulk Styrofoam used for wall panel insulation. “We were running out of room when we were making the shop, so we figured we’d throw that on the second level so we’re not wasting room,” said Kevin. “So we’re using what’s there. And then we’ll crane down a crate full of Styrofoam.”
At ground level, a carpentry area provides plenty of space to put together the wooden forms before taking them out to the casting beds. “We preassemble everything as much as we can.”
Once the wall panels are removed from the casting beds and taken to the curing area, the forms are taken back to the prefab shop. “When they come off the decks, a guy will clean them, and then we’ll reuse our forms,” said Kevin. “We reuse our wood as much as we can until it’s not possible anymore.” Even then they can be cut up and used as braces for the forms.
At the other end of the prefab shop is the mesh and rebar area for all the reinforcing steel. As with the wooden forms, the reinforcement is prefabricated and ready to be used in the casting beds. “We use a custom rebar machine,” said Kevin, indicating a long, complex machine with finished material emanating from one end after being automatically welded together. “It makes the finished product at a rate of 20 feet a minute. We used to take this to a welding shop, and it would take 20 minutes to make 20 feet. It’s really efficient.”
Although winter storms may be blasting away outside with subfreezing temperatures and gale-force winds, inside the plant it’s just right for the production workers. Running beneath their feet is a series of pipes carrying water circulated by a water heating system. “We run floor heat in the shop because it’s 30-feet-plus tall,” said Kevin, pointing to the high shop ceiling. “You don’t need to heat the whole building, you need to heat where the guys are working – the bottom 10 feet of the building. You can just feel the heat in here. And when you go up on that mezzanine, you can tell it’s cooler up there.”
The floor is, indeed, warmer to the touch than what you’d expect from a concrete slab. “And to let you know, the floor heat’s off. It’s zero degrees (32 F) outside, and it’s 18 degrees (64 F) in here,” added Kevin. “So floor heat is perfect – concrete holds its heat well.”
In addition to the floor heating system to keep the shop warm, dozens of wall panels standing on edge inside the building in the shipping and curing section provide additional heat.
“It’s always warm in here. We have it set at 15 degrees (59 F) just to keep the chill off in the winter,” said Kevin. “The guys don’t like it too hot in here anyway.”
The same boiler system that heats the shop’s concrete floor also heats the aggregates inside their individual bins. An elaborate series of pipes extends up into the bins and are spaced 2 feet apart vertically and horizontally to come in contact with the aggregates. The pipes radiate heat to keep the aggregates relatively dry. All eight aggregate bins – four for sand and four for gravel – are located inside the building and fed by an automated conveyor system.
The bins may be used in stages, depending on moisture content. “Let’s say we were using Bin 1,” said Kevin. “Bin 2 will be getting to room temperature, Bin 3 will have the heat on, and Bin 4 will get filled up.” The heating system brings the aggregate to the desired temperature, even if it was delivered with snow and ice mixed in.
“It’s incredible how consistent it is,” added Kevin. “Our sand is between 2 ½ and 3 percent (moisture content) always, and our rock is between one-half and 1 percent. It’s always the same. It’s great for consistent mixes.”
Depending on the weather and how much moisture an aggregate contains upon delivery, a bin’s contents will be ready for use within a couple of days. When delivered, the truck will drop its load into an underground pit, which is covered at ground level with a large steel lid that can be removed with a forklift.
From there, the truck driver simply pushes a button – rock or sand – and the automated conveyor system takes care of the rest. “It’s a series of five conveyors,” said Craig. One conveyor moves the aggregate from the outside storage pit to the inside, and another one takes over to feed the three conveyors above the bins. “The conveyors on top of the bins will travel to the lowest bin, and the belt will start moving the sorter. So as soon as the belt starts on the outside of the building, the truckers know they can dump the load.”
“We put low, high and overload sensors in the bins – the emergency shutoff sensor would be the top one,” said Craig. “Everything is 600-volt, three-phase power here, so we try to run as much 600-volt as we can to keep our electrical costs down.”
“This is our own design,” added Kevin. “We just got a local welding shop to make it. All the conveyors they made, all the bins they made.” The welders went through something like two pallets of welding rods on the project.
In order to use interior space more efficiently, the bins were installed close together – plus they are square rather than round, providing more storage capacity. “We have enough capacity to do 20 days of pouring,” said Kevin. “So we can get through those really cold spells in the winter, because they don’t usually last longer than two weeks. We’re glad we did this.”
To accommodate the large bins, this part of the building is 50 feet tall. “They had to dig this out 13 feet deep, and then the footing pads and the piles underneath are just incredible. So it’s 60 feet from the basement to the roof,” said Kevin. “It’s quite an intricate little system here. It’s all automatic, it’s hands-free, it runs by itself.”
Underneath the aggregate bins run two conveyor systems – one beneath the sand bins, one under the gravel bins – that carry the aggregate to the batch plant conveyor. A bucket carries it up a track and dumps it in the mixer. And it’s all automatic.
“As soon as that conveyor fires on, the hydraulics open the gate and the aggregate starts falling on the belt,” said Craig. “Once it gets to the high-level sensor, it shuts the gates.” The belts run for another 30 seconds to clear off any remaining aggregates so that the motors will not have to carry a full load next time they start up.
“This whole batch plant runs off these two buttons,” said Kevin, indicating a control panel inside a small room adjacent to the batch plant. “There is another remote button to call in a new batch and to bring the cart inside. This cart is automatic – push the green button, and it’ll go in until the batch is ready.”
When a fresh batch is ready, the cart automatically rolls under the mixer. “It senses which bucket is there, and it dumps in and travels all the way back out automatically,” continued Kevin. “Then a worker will take the crane, take off the full bucket, pour it into the casting machine, then push the green button so the empty one will go back in, fill up and kick out – you’ve got a fresh bucket of concrete there while you are bringing the empty one back to the cart.” The process continues back and forth until the job is done.
When they designed the plant, they planned for future expansion so that a clone of the shop can be built right next to the current one.
“The possibilities are endless for future products,” said Kevin. “With that in mind, we can do double tees, hollow core, we can put another couple of beds in there – whatever we want.” The tracks for the cart leading from the batch plant into the shop has a twin set of tracks crossing over and leading toward the future expansion. Once an expansion of the shop is built, the tracks can be continued into the new side.
The admixtures are stored in tanks set in a concrete containment area in case of any spillage.
Deck Cleaner with Dust Collection
Running along the same tracks as the concrete casting machine, the deck cleaner automatically prepares the casting beds for the next set of wall panel forms. The machine slowly advances as it sweeps the casting bed clean. “It’s got two big horizontal brushes there underneath to clean the bed,” said Kevin. The side rails get a different treatment. “On the back side it’s got two vertical brushes, which will clean the side forms.”
Sweeping typically sends dust flying through the air, often creating a hazard for the workers. But none of it escapes this machine. “It’s all a big vacuum with 12 filters in there,” said Kevin.
After a couple of passes with the sweepers, the bed is ready to be treated with form release – the machine takes care of that too. A final pass puts out a fine mist of form release through 14 spray nozzles, and the casting beds are ready for the next batch.
There is no wasted concrete. Leftover concrete after the pouring cycle can be unloaded into security bollard forms or into forms for large concrete blocks called Lego blocks. “You see them everywhere, really. People use them as retaining walls and farmers use them for silage pits,” said Kevin.
Then there is the wash water recycling. “Our washout pit is 4-feet deep and about 10-feet wide and it’s the width of the shop,” said Kevin. “The casting machine, buckets and all tools, get washed out over this grate. When it gets full, they’ll drive it over, wash it all out and the buckets too. All the concrete gets washed out, any of the tools and stuff like that. When it gets full, we’ll remove these grates, bring a payloader in and scoop out the concrete.” The concrete in the washout pit does not harden – it just flakes off. This gets carried outside, where it waits to be picked up by a recycler.
As the washout pit fills, the particles settle to the bottom, and the water spills over into another pit, or cistern. “Then we’ll treat it there,” said Kevin. When that cistern fills, the water spills into another cistern. “This will be our holding tank for the recycled water.” The goal is to add 10 percent to 15 percent recycled water.
The casting beds are a marvel of engineering and unique to Eagle Builders. They are the culmination of ideas picked up from Europe, then fabricated in North America to Eagle Builders’ specifications. “The amount that it’s sped up the production, it’s just phenomenal,” said Craig.
Half the entire length of the beds – 80-foot sections – can be raised and lowered in a matter of seconds to accommodate the thickness of the panels that are to be poured. In addition, the side rails that serve as end forms can be tilted back away from the beds to allow for easy removal of the wall panels and for cleaning the beds. An added bonus is that both beds can be used as prestressing tables.
“We do 5 ½, 8, 8 ½, 9, 9 ½ and 10 (inches) for how thick you want the wall,” said Kevin. “We do various thicknesses of wall and floor panels,” said Kevin, adding that the casting beds can be adjusted to any size in seconds. “This is huge for us.”
In the old shop, there was a lag in production whenever the thickness of the wall panel needed to be adjusted. “Every time we would change over our tables, we’d lose one day of production,” said Craig. “One side rail of the table was always fastened down with tack welds. Then we had welds every 2 feet on center. And then we had one form side that was removable that we would reset every morning and clamp down with a set of vise grips.” The welded side rail had to be removed and the welds on the beds grinded down before tacking on a different size of side rail. “So it took us about an hour and a half to set just one edge form to ensure that the panels would be straight. We tried to be consistent with the jobs we had, trying to get more jobs of the same thickness together. But that was very difficult.”
Underneath the tables is a series of vibrators that can be remotely controlled by the operator. “He can shut each individual one off if he wants to,” said Kevin. “The guy can adjust the frequency and the zone from here.” A display attached to the shop wall indicates the vibrators’ frequency.”
Along each side of the casting beds are a set of tracks on which specialized, self-powered machinery runs in a gantry crane-like manner. The concrete casting machine moves along the tracks as concrete is distributed onto the casting bed through a series of gates along the bottom of the machine. Freshly mixed concrete goes into the hopper at the top, and an internal auger moves it through the gates.
The operator remotely controls the speed and direction of the machine as well as the gates. “The machine has 18 gates,” said Kevin. “The operator will open and close the gates depending on if there is a narrow panel or an opening.”
When necessary, a vibrating screed can be used to smooth out the surface of the concrete. “It’s got a vibrating screed, and then a screed on the back,” said Kevin. So on the front end of the machine, concrete is dispensed into the forms, and on the back end the concrete is perfectly smooth if the screeds are used. A pair of stinger vibrators hangs on the back so that workers can manually vibrate the concrete without dragging equipment across the floor to the beds.
“These decks will get poured today and then stripped at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Kevin. “We typically are pouring two tables every day.”
Vacuum Lifting Machine/Panel Cart
Once the concrete has cured enough to break loose from the forms, it needs to be lifted off the casting beds and sent to the curing area. That is always a concern, as the casting beds can be easily damaged and are expensive to replace. Rather than using conventional means of lifting – hooks, chains and spreader bars – why not have a vacuum machine do the work?
“We would lift everything with a spreader bar with the 10-ton crane and tip them up, so every time we’d lift our panels we’d be scratching our tables,” said Craig of the old plant. “Here we wanted tables that would last us 25 to 30 years, which is what we’ll get. That’s why we bought the vacuum lifting bar, because we lift all our panels flat off the table and nothing scratches the deck surface.”
The vacuum machine suspends from the overhead crane. The operator sets the lifting mechanism onto the hardened concrete of the wall panel, and the machine locks on securely with vacuum. “It can lift 88,000 pounds this way, and then it will turn it 90 degrees, and it can lift 44,000 pounds because of the shear on it,” said Kevin. “Just by vacuum.”
Two vacuum cylinders are at work, so in case one fails, the machine will not drop the panel. “And it has an hour and a half backup, so if your power goes out and you’re suspended in the air at the time, you’ve still got time to figure something out,” said Kevin. “But we have a backup generator, so it’s not really a worry for us.”
After flipping the panels 90 degrees on edge, the overhead crane carries them to a special platform and sets them down. When so many panels are stacked, a self-powered trolley rolls underneath and lifts the platform with built-in hydraulic lifts. The panel cart then carries the stack of wall panels down to the curing area.
Finally, the finished wall panels are stacked in the curing area, which is also the shipping area – and all of it is indoors. The panels are stored in a 6-foot-deep pit, so with a 12-foot-wide panel, half is below floor level and half is above to allow the overhead crane to get in and out. “We made them in a pit, because if we put them on a level floor we’d have to raise our building 6 feet higher,” said Kevin, adding that everything is stored on edge. “So we dropped them in a pit 6 feet.”
To keep the panels from leaning against each other during the curing process, a simple but ingenious system of hinged bars attached to a rod running along the ends of the panels keeps them separated. “We can adjust the fingers to the thickness of the panel,” said Kevin. On the outer edge, slots are spaced every 2 feet so that the rods can be moved back and forth to accommodate any length of wall panel.
“Everything’s inside. If we had an outside plant, a lot of times we’d have to tarp it and heat it, especially in the winter,” said Kevin. “Here in our new plant, it’s a constant temperature.”
In the new plant, the heat from the curing concrete can stay indoors to help heat the plant. “In that end of the shop, we put in three 250,000 BTU heaters mounted on the ceiling that we thought we would need to heat this end of the shop,” said Craig. But the heat from the curing concrete makes them nearly obsolete. “At -40 (-40 F, outside), those heaters didn’t need to run. So we were only running our floor heat system.” Even when a delivery truck backs into the shipping area, the building heats up again quickly once the bay door is closed.
“Yeah, the thought process behind this plant was intense,” said Craig.
From one end of the plant to the other, nearly everywhere you look you can find a feature that either saves on electricity, reduces waste, preserves air quality or protects employee health.
• Windows built into the plant’s exterior walls allow sunlight into the shop, resulting in less need for lighting.
• The floor heating system and the indoor curing described earlier heats the shop efficiently, even during cold winter months, rather than using electricity for heating. Using water heaters and circulating the water underneath the floors and in the aggregate bins is far more efficient, as the upper part of the building does not need to be heated.
• Lumber used for formwork is used as many times as possible. When it can no longer be used for formwork, it is cut up and used for bracing the formwork.
• There is virtually no dust in the shop. This can be attributed to the automatic deck cleaning machine with its vacuums and filters, which keep dust from entering into the shop’s atmosphere. In addition, employees keep the shop clean, neat and orderly.
• Not only do employees enjoy a dust-free environment, they work indoors away from the wind, cold, snow, sleet, rain and blaring sun, minimizing their exposure to the elements. Also, thanks primarily to the vacuum machine and automatic deck-cleaning machine, there is less strain on the part of the employees. And since there is no need for forced-air heating, the air does not get too dry.
• Then there is the water recycling system. Although it’s still being developed, plans are to reduce the need for well water by 10 percent to 15 percent.
- Batch Plant – Elk River Machine Co.
- Casting Beds – Helser
- Vacuum Lifter – Aerolift
- Truss and Rebar Machines – Hawkeye
- Casting Machine – ICT Technologies
- Bed Cleaning Machine – ICT Technologies
- Overhead Crane – P+H Cranes
- Panel Cart – ICT Technologies
- Aggregate Bins were produced by a local welding shop.
Eagle Builders earned the Quality Award of Excellence as NPCA’s highest scoring certified prestressing plant for 2009.