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November 10, 2010

Bringing down Balmer Hall — one bite at a time

Among all the construction on campus, there’s a little destruction too. Workers from R.W. Rhine Inc. have been reducing Balmer Hall to rubble in order to make way for a new building that will primarily house classrooms for the Foster School of Business.

So, how do you take a building down? When it’s in a location like Balmer’s, the answer is, “very carefully.”

“If this building were standing alone it would be a piece of cake,” said Joel Simmonds, president of Rhine. “There isn’t anything about this that is difficult other than the proximity to the other buildings.”

But Mackenzie is right next door, and so is the new PACCAR Hall, and so is the Bank of America Executive Education Center. Not to mention the fact that the building is right on Stevens Way, where thousands of students pass by every day.

Needless to say, there haven’t been any implosions or swinging wrecking balls. As a matter of fact, Simmonds said that wrecking balls are a bit passe these days because, while powerful, they aren’t exactly precise. And precision is particularly important when you’ve got a building surrounded by other buildings.

What the company actually has been doing is using hydraulic excavators to take bites out of the building, taking it down a little at a time. The excavator, Simmonds explains, is a tracked machine, like a tank. It has a cab for the operator and a boom that is adjustable for various heights. Most excavators have a bucket-like attachment that is ideal for digging, but the demolition guys more often use an attachment that looks something like a crab claw and is designed to crunch concrete.

“Demolition 101 is that buildings are typically wrecked in a top to bottom and inward fashion,” Simmonds said. “You start on an upper floor, systematically crunching into the building and pulling some of the debris out. You break some of that upper floor and slide that off, then start on the next floor down and slide that off, so you create this little stair step pattern into the building.”

By sliding, Simmonds means that the operator closes the crab claw and pulls the debris off the structure.

Debris is, in fact, a particular problem in the Balmer project. Typically, Simmonds said, demolition crews like to expose the basement of a building and then dump debris into it while demolishing the building. However, in the case of Balmer, some shoring work is planned for the basement after the demolition, so the building could only be taken down to the first floor. That means that due to the space limitations, the debris has to be hauled away by trucks before the lower structure is removed.

Picture, if you will, a parade of trucks coming out of the Balmer area onto Stevens Way. Not a pretty sight. That’s why the majority of the hauling has been taking place very early in the morning, before those swarms of students start walking by.

Safety is, of course, a top priority on any demolition job. In the case of Balmer, some of the concrete cladding (vertical columns) on the outside couldn’t be removed before the major demo work was done, so holes were knocked in them and cable was laced through them to attach them to the building and keep them from falling outward and hitting an adjacent building. Scaffolding was also installed on some portions of PACCAR Hall to protect it.

Although the bulk of the building is coming down quickly, Simmonds said the whole job will take three to four weeks.

When it’s done, it will be time to start construction on the business school’s $46 million phase two project, a building that will house — in addition to classrooms — the dean’s office, degree program offices, an innovation studio and a two-story executive meeting/dining facility to accommodate special lectures and events.

It’s always fun to watch a new building go up, but there’s something thrilling about watching one come down.

“When I started working here the owner told me, ‘You know, I’ve got operators that work for me and I give them big machines, I let them knock stuff down and they even get paid to do it,’” Simmonds said. “It’s just kind of exciting to see, it’s something people like to watch.”