Editor’s Note: The “Chairman’s Choice” story features projects selected by Ron Sparks, general manager of Columbia Precast Products and newly elected NPCA Chairman of the Board.
By Matt Werner
Ron Sparks learned long ago there are always problems in the construction industry. From production to installation to the job site to weather delays, something always seems to throw a wrench into even the best laid plans. How you respond to these challenges makes the difference, and that is where he feels Columbia Precast Products sets itself apart.
Sparks, the general manager at Columbia, prides himself and his company on responding to customer needs and generating solutions to keep projects on track.
“Whether it’s your problem, their problem or somebody else’s problem, customers want to know how you’re going to fix it and help them,” he said. “The ability of the people who work at Columbia to say, ‘Here’s the issue – how can we resolve it?’ and have them figure that out is really gratifying for me.
“That’s the thing I’m most proud of with this company. We have a lot of really good people.”
The ability to fix a problem was on full display for a culvert project on Oregon State Highway 35, near the Mount Hood Skibowl in Government Camp.
Columbia manufactured split box culverts to span two different creek crossings as part of a project to mitigate flooding in the heavily traveled area. One culvert measured 19-feet-by-10-feet-by-120-feet, and the other spanned 19-feet-by-10-feet-by-56-feet. In total, Columbia manufactured 40 pieces of culvert and 16 wingwalls, with each piece weighing more than 18,000 pounds. But a delay with the crane company caused an issue as pieces started arriving at the job site.
“Now, we have trucks parked at the summit of Mount Hood and the crane broke down,” Sparks explained.
With a major thoroughfare shut down and the installation window closing quickly, the team at Columbia immediately responded and started working on solutions to keep the project on track. Columbia’s team was able to work with their trucking company to get the project up and running again.
“The group of people in our office on both the sales side and the logistics side took ownership of the situation and did what needed to be done to keep the contractor and trucking company happy,” Sparks said. “That really showed me that the people who work for Columbia take ownership and pride in what we do.”
Sound Transit project
Sparks has also seen his crew take on projects he knew they could handle – even if they weren’t sure they could. Meeting a challenge and watching his team beat it is one of Sparks’ favorite things to see.
Quality control and engineering is something Columbia prides itself on, but a project for the Sound Transit put the team to the test.
A new tunnel for the transit’s rail line was being built underneath the University of Washington campus in Seattle. The biggest caveat to the project was university officials not wanting vibrations to affect their physics lab equipment and research.
To counteract this, the tunnel features a vibration-dampening system that reduces the vibration down to 5 hertz, a technology first developed in London for its subway system. For the project, Columbia manufactured 1,600 floating slabs weighing 12,000 pounds each. Tolerances were just 1/16 of an inch all the way around, taking QC to a new level.
“Our guys totally knocked it out of the park,” Sparks said. “We built all these policies and procedures, QC checks and double checks. We went so far as to hire a third-party QC company to come in and help us to do even more quality control.”
Sparks said some of the things they did were elementary – like having a process set for turning on the scale for the crane. Some of the pieces had inserts cast into the panels, and Columbia placed bolts through the forms to help hold the inserts in place.
“We painted the bolts a bright orange and had racking welded onto the forms with individual holes for each bolt,” he explained. “It was as simple as having a check sheet that said, ‘Are all 16 bolts removed?’ and having to look and make sure. In most cases, things like that aren’t as critical, but in this case it was.”
Once a Columbia employee completed a check of the form, an orange magnet was attached to it, signaling it was ready for pouring. Then the third-party company would come by and perform its check. Once both sides signed off, the piece could be poured.
“Out of the 1,600 pieces, we had 40 of them that were out of tolerance,” Sparks said. “It was very comprehensive.”
The project had its ups and downs, but Sparks knew his crew could handle it.
“My history and past with tunnel jobs made me feel confident that we could do it,” he said. “We had some employees who were gun-shy of it at first, but once we got going, everyone felt comfortable with it.”
The job opened the door for Columbia to do more work with prestressing.
“Doing a job like that opens everybody’s eyes to knowing that we can do that type of highly technical, highly scrutinized work,” Sparks said. “Our confidence level since that one, I can see it, our guys are not really fazed by anything in terms of something new.”
Coordination is key
A few years ago, Columbia took a call from a customer it had worked with previously. This customer was working a job at Intel’s campus in Hillsboro, Ore. The tech giant had a retention pond it wanted to fill so it could recapture some usable land and expand for an employee lunch and break room area. This job required a solution that would move the retained water to an underground system.
The team at Columbia mentioned to the customer that the company is a licensee of retain-it, a stormwater management system featuring cube-shaped modules that can be stacked and easily installed. In total, Columbia produced 700 units that were each 8-feet-by-8-feet for the project. Once the units were set and backfilled, the newly created space was ready for Intel’s use.
“The pond was in the shape of a triangle, so it was not just one big, long rectangle,” Sparks said. “That shape didn’t cause much problem for us because we were doing it with 8-by-8 cubes.”
Columbia started double-pouring and working weekends through the spring to get the products manufactured. Columbia shipped out 12 truck loads per day for 10 straight days so the contractor could immediately install the pieces and be finish the work within a week-and-a-half.
Constant communication was a key part of the project. Sparks said the sales team even went so far as to take the CAD drawings to the site and mark every piece to ensure each was installed in the right order.
“Coordination went really well because of our folks internally both on the sales side and the trucking side,” Sparks said. “Everyone was in constant communication with each other.”
Adding to the complexity, the product was delivered during the summer, which is Columbia’s busiest time of the year.
“It came off without a hitch, and it was phenomenal to watch,” Sparks said. “Looking back at that project, the people involved just took ownership of it and weren’t going to let it fail. That was what made it successful.”
Through projects such as this, Sparks sees the potential of his employees and how this helps the company grow.
“We’ve got a lot of really good people,” he said. “I believe we have the customer’s best interests in mind, and we solve problems for them. It’s not just about a project for us, but solving those issues, and that’s pretty gratifying.”
Matt Werner is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s communication manager.