Problem-solving Below the Surface
Alpine Development, Inc. is an underground achiever
It was the kind of job Alpine Development, Inc. (ADI) considers its specialty: complex and uncommon. The complex part was replacing a live sewer main 18 feet deep. “The manifold challenge,” in the words of Mark VanderWel, ADI Co-Founder and Senior Project Manager, was to bypass old underground pumps and piping, all unseen, all hard to locate.
As for “uncommon,” the defunct sewer was dead center in Seattle’s famed Woodland Park Zoo, 3 feet from the foundation of its tropical rainforest building, known for heavy foot traffic. While ADI dug deep, thousands of visitors would pass by on their way to the jaguar exhibit.
That’s not all. A chief draw of the rainforest expo is visitors’ up-close access to animals in their habitat. Humans and jaguars are separated only by towering barriers of glass panels. Three days before ADI was to break ground, one of the panels shattered into dust and shards.
“Standard compaction machines were out,” Mark says, but the project rolled on. From 40 years in every kind of municipal and commercial project, every variety of dirt and landscape, for every plan, ADI has “just in case” on standby. The job at the zoo required two significant changes: first, a new backfill option, and second, that rare contradiction in terms, a large machine that didn’t vibrate. Both were good to go, and neither would cost more. The standard replacement product is a controlled density fill (CDF), Mark explains, a lean mix of sand and cement poured into the trenches. But that option in this case would explode the budget by a quarter of a million dollars. So, ADI secured an alternative aggregate backfill for the trenches, and to compact it, a machine with a nonvibrating wheel. In the two-day dig, as thousands of visitors milled past, glass walls stayed up, surrounding buildings remained unshaken…and the zoo’s budget never felt a thing.
All in a day’s work for ADI. In a world short on historic utility records, Mark’s team specializes in locating unmapped gas lines, underground power lines and sewer mains—without damaging them.
‘A Fuller Toolbox’
Though ADI was founded to also develop land (hence the name), the firm quickly narrowed to its strength as a resource for site prep: a digger of deep sewer connections and service lines to buildings; of water mains and fire-line extensions, and stormwater installations for water treatment and retention systems. To the city engineers and general contractors that ADI serves, the firm is a source of bids so thorough, so grounded in practical experience, that any problem not averted in the “takeoff” phase, Mark says, is handled “as it happens, with minimum expense, outside expertise or delay.
“We never show up on a job site hoping a project goes well,” he says. “We make it go well.”
By the first preconstruction conference, Mark’s yellow notepad is filled with solutions to problems uncovered in the takeoff. Post-contract, he’s still studying plans. By the time a machine hits the ground, he’s met with the architect and engineers to smooth any issues or conflicts in the drawings and specs.
As a result, Mark says, ADI earthwork estimates meet their plans at a level of detail hard to match. Not surprisingly, ADI also was the first in the area to digitize earthwork. Forty years into the work, it knows the landscape. “Give me a set of drawings and a location, and though we doublecheck, we’ll know the soils and access for trucking and pit locations,” Mark says. “We’ll know the pitfalls. We’ll know the ins and outs of that municipality or water or sewage district.”
To underscore his point, he describes current work at the Kettle Cuisine shipping and receiving plant in Everett, Washington. “This week we’re putting a storm line across five dock bays,” he says. “The parking lot has a dip, and three nights ago, about 11 o’clock, I realized that at one point the pipe would come out of the ground. I was up ‘til 1 o’clock redrawing plans to email to the engineer and general contractor that night. In the morning, they approved the redesign. No days lost; no money lost to downtime once the problem surfaced."
“A fuller toolbox,” Mark calls it; a team so seasoned at what to look for that problem-solving is its sweet spot. “We never backpedal and hope someone else comes up with a solution,” he says. “To this day, we haven’t found a problem we can’t fix.”
The Family that Digs Together
Mark’s father was an excavator, a perfectionist and, like Mark, known for creative problem-solving. “Everything he did had airtight corners,” Mark says. warmly. “He taught me not just to solve difficult problems, but to do it with a high level of quality and finish.”
Mark’s own “pushing dirt” began “back in the Carter administration,” in the 1979 recession. His father fell ill and Mark, then 17 years old, took over the business. In the next 10 years, he would close his father’s company, broaden his construction know-how, and, with his wife, Cheri, form ADI. As Mark went deep, Cheri went wide. “If it’s not in the field, she’s doing it,” he says, proudly. “I’m the technical eyes on a contract; she negotiates the final numbers. All bids or change orders must pass her. She handles all bookkeeping, accounting and taxes.”
He goes on. “We’re a WBE (Women Business Enterprise). Cheri is President. She purchases all machinery, secures all financing and continuously explores for better insurance plans for our team. In an economic storm, she is the steady hand on the tiller.”
Like Mark in his father’s world, the VanderWel kids grew up inhaling the family pride in work that most people never see. “We built that. We fixed that,” he would say driving past projects. “We redid that road with materials they didn’t know they could use; saved ‘em a lot of money. See that school? We rerouted the sewer main on the library so they could expand later.”
Mark and Cheri’s son, Cole, is in dental school now. When he’s home during breaks, “he’s on a machine,” Mark says. Their daughter, Heidi, finishing law school at UCLA, cut her teeth on digging and laying pipe. In college, she spoke to her friends proudly of ADI’s work to build essential infrastructure. After graduation, she’ll have a substantial role in determining where the company goes next.
“We’re always talking plans together,” Mark says of the family. “How cool is it that your kids are home from Boston College and Yale and in a ditch?”
Breaking Ground in Saving Money
Problem-solving in construction is not unique to ADI, “but when general contractors and municipalities see us find solutions that save them money, they do a doubletake,” Mark says. A lot of contractors use change orders to make money where ADI works to eliminate change orders. “I’d rather the money they spend add value to the finished project,” he says.
ADI was one of the first excavation and infrastructure specialists in the area to buy its own hydro excavating truck to more effectively find and dig without damage to utilities. Now hydro excavating is an industry standard. As for labor, “We do a lot and stay lean because we all multitask,” Mark says. “My truck drivers can operate machinery and lay pipe. My operators get off the machines to help. Someone gets tired and another person spells him. There’s no hierarchy. We all work, and we all work hard.”
He pauses. “Clients refer to capability by the size of contract a crew can take on,” he says. “Right now we have two projects at $1.5 million. With a crew of six, we match the output of a crew of 12.”
And always he returns to the value of the years of solving complex problems. “Every bolt is tightened,” he says. “Every piece of pipe is precisely placed. Every fitting is correctly installed. Everything happens the way it should because a guy with 40 years on the job is making sure.”
At the end of the day, the proficiency also brings more projects. “We want to be so competent that general contractors always choose ADI for the next job,” Mark says. The ringing endorsement is in the next call.