Welcome To Crane City!

August 25, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — There is perhaps no better representation of the spectacular growth now occurring in downtown Grand Rapids than the skyline’s unusually high number of tower cranes. Costly to acquire and intricately complicated to use, there are currently five tower cranes in Grand Rapids, with at least two more to rise in the coming year.

Often working in conjunction with smaller truck- or crawler-mounted boom cranes, tower cranes are a common fixture on major construction sites. They generally rise hundreds of feet in the air, and can reach just as far. They are used to lift steel, concrete and other building materials, and large tools such as acetylene torches and generators. On the Pearl Street site of the new JW Marriott Hotel, a tower crane is being used to pump concrete through the central core of the building.

 In most cases, a tower crane is used to construct buildings in excess of 100 feet high. Other scenarios may use tower cranes because of a cramped construction space or in respect to neighboring uses. The Monroe Center site of the new Grand Rapids Art Museum is a strong example of a building that, in an ideal situation, would not have required a tower crane.

“You only want to use tower cranes if: A) you don’t have the space on the site for a conventional crane, or B) you’re too tall,” said Bruce Burgess, vice president of Wolverine Construction Management, which currently has a tower crane onsite at the Icon On Bond condominium building and will deploy others this year at the River House condominium project and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. He also managed the two tower cranes used in the renovation of Plaza Towers.

“They’re expensive, they’re not flexible and don’t have the lifting capacity of some other options. They’re not your first choice. I always try not to use them, but sometimes they’re the only feasible option.”

In other regions in North America and abroad, there is a shortage of tower cranes. In Chicago, for instance, a medium-sized, 22-ton-capacity tower crane that cost $12,500 a month in 2003 now rents for about $22,000. Crain’s Chicago Business noted that some contractors are leasing a crane two to three months before they need one and eating the cost, just so they don’t get caught without one when construction begins.

In Seattle, which is experiencing its largest growth boom since the dot-com era, there are nearly 60 tower cranes on the skyline. Lead times on crane rentals have grown from two months to six.

Of course, Grand Rapids is a drop in the bucket compared to the high-rise construction activity in Miami and Las Vegas, or in overseas markets like Dubai and Shanghai. There has been little impact from the crane shortage locally, and rising rental costs have been easily absorbed.

Even without additional complications, however, tower construction remains a costly and challenging enterprise. Getting one in the air can cost upward of $60,000 for site preparation, foundation and power supply.

“If you’re going to erect a big traditional tower crane, it’s going to be there for a year or so to make it financially viable, just to pay for erecting it,” said Glenn Granger, whose Granger Construction Co. is the subcontractor operating the tower crane at the 24-story JW Marriott site.

“You need to think the job all the way through.”

As Wolverine’s Burgess noted, “Once you pick a location for a tower crane, you’ve made a decision you have to live with for the entire project.”

For starters, although the towers literally build themselves, doing so is comparable to raising a small-scale project in itself. Depending on the use, the crane may require a foundation that will make it impossible to relocate — concrete poured sometimes 4-feet thick in an area that is up to 250 square feet.

A poorly positioned crane could grind construction to a halt if at some point it is unable to reach certain parts of the structure — or worse, it is standing in the path of construction. On many occasions, the use of a tower crane will influence the design of a building.

At River House, the residential expansion of Bridgewater Place slated to be Grand Rapids’ tallest building, Wolverine will be erecting a more than 450-foot crane. A crane of that height is not able to stand on its own, and must be tied into the building.

“You have to coordinate your schedule around that,” Burgess said. “You’re going to have beams sticking into the building in certain locations.”

This brings up what is always the worst-case scenario in tower crane construction: Once the building is finished, the crane must be taken out of commission.

“You hear horror stories about people who have actually gotten stuck and had to figure out how to get them out of there,” Granger said. “It just sounds like nonsense, but you have to work very closely with the structural engineer.”

A likely scenario includes projects similar to the JW Marriott, in which the building is being raised around the crane.

In other markets, there is also a shortage of crane operators. That is not a factor in Grand Rapids, where most of the major contractors have at least a handful of individuals comfortable with their use.

Other tower cranes can currently be seen in Grand Rapids at the Michigan Street Development project on Michigan Street hill, where contractor The Christman Co. has a pair in use.    

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