Tall order: Construction firms call in cranes, ’copters


This crane, a Potain-brand unit leased from Grand Rapids-based Ericksons, rises above a Pioneer Construction project at 20 E. Fulton. Photo by Pat Evans

Many construction executives are 4-year-olds at heart when it comes to some of the biggest tools of the trade.

Pioneer Construction Vice President of Strategic Business Operations Chris Beckering still gets excited when his firm sets up a tower crane like the one at 20 E. Fulton St., and Jim Conner, Triangle Associates vice president of business development, recently spent an hour and a half watching a helicopter lift equipment to the top of a Chicago skyscraper.

Along with the crane at 20 E. Fulton, Beckering said another tower crane could be in use this fall at an unnamed Pioneer project. The 20 E. Fulton site also is using a placing boom, which helps pump concrete up to heights normal concrete hoses can’t reach.

Triangle used a large regular crane at The Rowe, 201 Michigan St. Because of competition for use of the crane by different construction specialties — plumbing, electrical, etc. — Triangle also set up a construction elevator on the exterior of the building — it was memorably pink in recognition of the fight against breast cancer.

Cranes and other large construction equipment are becoming more regular sights in Grand Rapids, but for now most area construction firms are leasing, not buying.

“It’s too expensive to own some of these things unless you do enough with it to justify it,” Conner said. “Our needs are once, twice a year, which doesn’t make sense to be able to afford a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment — hence how a crane company is born.”

Orion Construction leased a tower crane during the construction of Arena Place.

“Storage, cost, frequency of use and hiring a certified operator on staff are the main reasons we outsource these types of things,” Orion spokesperson Jason Wheeler said, adding its current Venue Tower project found ways to reach the heights it needed with a conventional crane.

Conner said to some contractors and other subcontractors, cranes and specialized heavy equipment are just like hammers for other construction workers.

Beckering said Pioneer, as a firm that erects steel and concrete, maintains what is likely the largest construction firm fleet of cranes in West Michigan. Its cranes are those the firm can use regularly for general contracting.

“We strive to maintain the safest, most well-maintained fleet in our market,” Beckering said. “When we land a project, we identify restrictions (and) capacities and determine the most affordable and safest way to satisfy the lifting needs.”

For jobs where a tower crane is necessary, Pioneer must rent, as the crane must be sized specifically for a job’s height and weight capacities, Beckering said. The crane at 20 E. Fulton is a “brand new” Potain-brand unit leased from Grand Rapids-based Ericksons, a firm specializing in lifting, transporting and rigging.

Cranes are generally leased on a project term basis, Conner said, and operators are often contracted from the rental companies, as they need special certifications.

Beckering said Pioneer has its own certified operators, but specific insurance policies are needed on top of the company’s own fleet policies when using a crane.

For some projects, however, cranes just don’t cut it.

Last month, drivers near Woodland Mall might have seen a helicopter with a large piece of HVAC equipment dangling by cable to be placed on the roof of the mall, a project coordinated with Howell-based CHI Aviation.

“Most people don’t use helicopters, as a rule, unless there are no other ways to do a job,” CHI Aviation Project Manager Dave Amador said. “We’re often the equipment of last resort. We can get to places nothing else can.”

The most time-consuming part about using a helicopter is planning and Federal Aviation Administration approval, which Amador said can take weeks even if the job ultimately takes only an hour.

Amador said there are limitations for helicopters’ air space and weight, and they can’t hold items in place as long as a crane. Helicopters also rarely if ever work in residential areas, Amador said.

In his career, however, Amador said his projects have included carrying animals, motors, food, water, steel structures and large antennae. CHI Aviation has projects coast to coast and on each continent.

He said CHI Aviation has had no incidents since the company was founded in 1980, and the helicopter industry hasn’t had a fatality since 1991.

“It’s a very niche industry, but it’s really exciting sometimes,” he said. “It’s also a lot of regulations.”

The company doesn’t come to West Michigan often but does fairly regular work at Muskegon’s wastewater treatment center and occasionally projects with the malls and some industrial plants.

The helicopter and crew that completed the Woodland project traveled from Detroit that day and was on its way to Indiana next. Later that week, it was booked in Massachusetts, New York City and Philadelphia.

CHI’s 22 helicopters are typically restricted to carrying approximately 25,000 pounds.

The weight limitations are why Triangle will set up a large, 350-ton-capacity crane at Woodland Mall soon to reach into the building and place six to 10 steel beams, Conner said.

Conner said figuring out what kind of equipment might be needed is a big question when evaluating a job, and companies do their best to make use of the equipment they or subcontractors own.

Still, Conner said he’s enamored with the scale of equipment not often seen in Grand Rapids, which is why he sat and watched the helicopter work in Chicago.

“I get excited when I go to a bigger city and see the cranes in the skylines,” he said. “It’s still really neat when we get to use different, niche equipment.”

Measure for measure

Here’s how the tower crane in use at 20 E. Fulton St. stacks up:

Crane total height: 195 feet

Crane operating height: 165 feet

Statue of Liberty height: 151 feet (not including pedestal)

Crane horizontal reach: 213 feet

Wingspan of a Boeing 747: 225 feet

Lifting capacity at crane tip: 13,288 pounds

Weight of tyrannosaurus rex: 14,000 pounds (estimated)

Sources: Pioneer Construction, bluebulbprojects.com, howtallisthestatueofliberty.org

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