Way Up in the Air
In 1999, many eyes focused on the Outer Banks of North Carolina as engineers and contractors attempted to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse nearly half a mile inland to protect it from ocean waves that encroached as the beach eroded. International Chimney Corporation carried out the move, and George Gardner, the company’s chief engineer, oversaw much of it.
“We went through four lawsuits trying to stop us. I was receiving e-mails and phone calls from engineers all over the country saying it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done,” he recalls. “Some very prominent engineering professors contacted me and told me I was all wrong. They just didn’t know what we knew about moving buildings and structures.”
The move came off as planned, and today, the lighthouse stands proudly in its new location, well protected. Gardner’s story is one of an everyday engineer just doing his job who occasionally gets thrust into a high-profile situation. In this case, though, it comes not so much as a matter of fate but because of the nature of the work.
Based in Buffalo, New York, International Chimney (ICC) specializes in the design, construction, repair, and demolition of industrial chimneys and moving large structures. Although this line of work involves basic mechanical and civil engineering principles, it’s a bit unusual because it also involves huge loads and often takes place high above the ground.
In business since 1927, ICC has built stacks over the years from various materials including steel, brick, fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP), concrete, and various technical gunites. Today, they build chimneys mostly for coal-fired power generation plants. “All these flue gases have to be cleaned up. That means they’re operating these things at very low temperatures, which means you get a lot of acidic flue gases going up the chimneys. So you need to have acid-resistant liners in these chimneys -- FRP with special resin coatings on the inside,” Gardner reports. “We spin some of these plastic liners vertically right on site. Some of them are 30 feet in diameter or larger.” Each section stands 30 or 40 feet high, and a crane lifts them into place, with the resulting chimney often standing 400 to 500 feet high. He continues, “We still have a lot of steel stacks going up for process industries. We’re very busy right now.”
According to Gardner, ICC added moving structures to its repertoire “simply because of the historical connection. We had a good reputation for restoring old historic buildings.” They restored Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the 1980s prior to its move. They were invited to bid on moving the lighthouse because of that and the fact they had moved a few other lighthouses, including one on Block Island in Rhode Island. “We have the brick masons and the people to rig those types of structures. So it’s kind of natural for us to put chimney scaffolds on them.” He adds, “Moving large buildings came about mostly from the movers end of it.” They came to ICC to design the lift frames needed to move buildings.
Assessing today’s business environment, Gardner states, “Most of our time is spent on chimney work. That’s the bread and butter of the operation. Chimney jobs have been profitable for us, but the moving jobs are high profile.”
Born and raised in Muncy, Pennsylvania, Gardner graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in civil engineering and became licensed as a professional engineer in 1970. His first job came as a design engineer with Sprout Waldron Company in Muncy designing heavy framing for feed mill construction and silos for bulk material storage. “They were quite busy for four or five years building regional feed mills for Agway. They were abandoning their big mills in Buffalo and going to regional mills all throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and New England,” he recalls.
But as he says, “That whole scenario was winding down, and I could see that once it wound down, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity there.” He interviewed with M.W. Kellogg in Williamsport, who had recently moved its chimney division from New Jersey to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “This was the beginning of a boom in building large industrial concrete chimneys. I got in on the ground floor.”
Then in 1977, Kellogg had been bought out by Pullman, Inc., who made railroad cars, and they decided to move their headquarters from New York City to Houston and their chimney division to Kansas City. “Rather than go to Kansas City, I decided to stay in the East. My father and mother were both in ill health, and I wanted to be near them,” Gardner recalls. “I came to Buffalo with International Chimney in 1977, and my dad died that year, and my mother died the next year. My decision to stay nearby was a good one.”
About that time, the large concrete chimney building business was starting to wind down as well, and the major emphasis shifted to repair jobs on the concrete chimneys and industrial chimneys with steel stacks. And then 15 to 20 years ago, ICC got into the business of renovating historical structures.
Gardner works out of his house in East Amherst, New York in the Buffalo suburbs. International Chimney has about 40 or 50 employees in offices in Buffalo, Chicago, New England, the South, and Ohio. They use field crews made up of union people and have about six engineers. The firm subcontracts much of its engineering work.
In moving a typical structure, “The first thing you do is figure out how much it weighs. Then you go through it and look for all the bad things about it. Is it cracked?” Gardner says in describing the process. “How do the various parts of it go together? Is there any possibility you could set up some shearing planes and things like that if you don’t do it right? You do a structural evaluation of the building. Then the trick is to get it up in the air on your steel frame without letting the structure know it’s being lifted. That’s tricky.”
When a job involves a delicate structure such as an old historic building, ICC calls in Pete Friesen, an independent consultant known as the guru of moving big structures. He is a self-taught expert in hydraulics, the loading of steel, and how structures react to stress.
“We use a method called a unified jacking machine, and that has revolutionized the business,” Gardner states. Friesen came up with that idea and designed it. “You put the steel underneath the building and then you start with individual jacks applying a load until you see a horizontal crack. That’s what we call the cut line, which is usually the tops of the beams. You’ll see a hairline crack going from beam to beam horizontally. We do that all the way around the building until the building is supported entirely on the steel. When you do that, all the steel gets deflected and remains in that deflected shape. Then we switch over the hydraulics to the unified jacking machine, which has all the jacks displace the same amount no matter what the load is on them. So up comes the building with the steel in the deflected shape, and it does not deflect any more because it has already been deflected. It works beautifully. The building really doesn’t know it’s being lifted.”
To move a building once it’s lifted, they typically use two-axle, four-tired moving dollies, about the size of a Volkswagen, usually with a 40- or 50-ton jack in the middle of it. The dollies may be self-propelled with hydraulic motors to pull the building, or they may do it with cables. With heavy structures, they put down track steel as guides and then run steel Hilman rollers on top of that. They hydraulically push or pull it, pushing against the track steel.
As another example of a high-profile move, ICC moved Detroit’s 2700-ton Gem Theatre in 1997. Working with Expert House Movers and Peter Friesen, they picked up the entire theater and attached Century Club building and moved them together to a new site approximately 1,850 feet away, crossing four city blocks, to make way for two new sports stadiums. A crisscrossing grid of steel beams was installed underneath both buildings, and the theater and Century Club were lifted together with unified hydraulics. Following that, 71 dollies were placed underneath the beams.
“It’s not rocket science, but it’s challenging,” Gardner says of his craft. “There’s no book on it. You’re on your own.” This applies to not only large buildings like theaters but chimneys and other tall structures as well. “You can do a lot of things on the ground, but when you’re up in the air like that, you have to rely on cables and specialized rigging. You’re conservative in your approach, but still it’s risk, just by the nature of the business. Every job is different, and every one is a challenge -- not too much repetition in this business.”
So how did Gardner handle the naysayers on the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse project? “We just kind of ignored them. I listened to what they had to say, but they simply didn’t understand what we were doing and what kind of tools we had at our disposal. All their points were valid.”
Partly because so many people said it couldn’t be done, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse project ranks as Gardner’s favorite moving project. “That was some fun. Just the sheer weight and size of it, almost 5000 tons. There were so many various phases of it that were critical. But taking the granite out from underneath the lighthouse was a major, major operation. We literally mined it with hydraulic drills and quarry diamond-coated cables.” The granite was part of the original foundation, and it sat on old pine planks in the sand.
Now 65, Gardner plans to retire soon, probably after this year. His only plan for retirement is to serve as a caregiver for his ill wife. “It’s a see-how-it-goes type thing,” he says. Years ago, at a critical junction in his career, he made a decision based on family, and it allowed a prolific and rewarding career to take its path. Hopefully, this one will pay off just as well, if perhaps for different reasons.