Recently I made a trip out to the local landfill to throw out an old entertainment center. As I drove up the hill to the landfill entrance, a strong sense of nostalgia/deja vu came over me,as it always does in this instance. Seeing the heavy equipment crawl over the myriad serpentine paths of the landscape reminded me of my previous life as a geologist.
Prior to the housing collapse of the mid-2000’s, I worked for a geotechnical consulting firm. Our primary goals were site investigations prior to any construction (groundwater elevation, faulting, soil composition, that sort of thing), and quality control during construction.Once the equipment started moving, my main task was as an observer and advocate for the client, ensuring the construction crews followed our recommendations as closely as feasibly possible. Being the perpetual fly on the wall, I was able to truly appreciate the delicate ballet that is heavy equipment.
Whenever I had previously tried to envision how construction works, I assumed that crews would start at one edge of the worksite and work their way methodically across until they reached the other side, finishing the job. This isn’t even close to what happens in reality. A successful construction crew does two things: keeps every piece of equipment moving at all times, and has no net change in soil volume on a jobsite. A potential job site is originally hilly terrain to some degree in most cases. A crew will use the dirt from the higher areas to fill in the lower areas, creating a flat, usable work surface for buildings. Because of this, dozers, loaders, scrapers and the like are constantly moving from one side of the work site to another; removing dirt and then depositing it elsewhere. Roads traversing the site that you have been using for weeks will randomly disappear one day, leading to you driving around lost, or worse stuck somewhere having to be fished out by a dozer.
Turning a piece of land into a location worthy of a building may take weeks, months, or even years in some cases. For 90% of the project, it appears the equipment is pushing dirt around in seemingly random sequences with complete disregard for the finished product. Then one day, the random piles of soil coalesce into a marvelous testament to our ability to bend the earth to our will, and the plans you had thought left for dead are now realized in three dimensions. It is a truly marvelous thing to behold.
Driving onto the landfill proper, my pickup felt almost eager, hungry for the chance to once again utilize the BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires that haven’t seen any real use in 5 years. Being able to step out of my truck wearing my bright orange shirt (so as not to get squished by a dozer) onto a living, breathing job site felt wonderful: the dozers pushing dirt, the excavators digging holes, the compactors compacting; the smell of dirt reaffirming that you are in fact outside and not constrained to an office building. But all too briefly, it was over. My entertainment center was soon to be buried along with other refuse, the landfill was in my rearview mirror, and my all-terrain tires were once again on asphalt.