Heavy Lifters

By David Collins

Dec. 30, 2007, The Santa Fe New Mexican  

Construction cranes dominate the county's skyline in a year when the bloom's off the housing boom 

Construction crane show will continue into next year with Rail Runner bridges and courthouse project

 

In Northern New Mexico, 2007 stacked up to be the year of the cranes.

 

They appeared on the horizon early and stayed all year long, playing an unprecedented role in a region known worldwide both for 400 years of low-rise construction and for its even older high-rise pueblo buildings. The cranes' efforts lifted an economy that was sagging precipitously under the weight of a sluggish housing market.

 

Between the lanes of Interstate 25 south of town, cranes dangled pile drivers that hammered steel I-beams deep into the ground. By year's end, some of the pilings were buried in concrete, then in earth, ready to carry the second railroad in 128 years to connect Santa Fe with the transcontinental railway that bypassed the city in 1880. Nearby, a crane erected new dormitory rooms for 154 students at the Institute for American Indian Arts.

 

North of Santa Fe in Pojoaque, cranes pierced deep into the sandy plain along the Rio Tesuque to build a massive foundation, then hauled up the framework of a 390-room hotel, complete with a casino, a retail promenade and a convention center. As 2007 waned, a governor marveled at his pueblo's contribution to area architecture.

 

"We've never seen anything like it in Northern New Mexico. It's a first, just the scale," said Pojoaque Gov. George Rivera.

 

More than 100 feet above Santa Fe's downtown Plaza, a tower-crane operator twirled a 230-foot jib from January through December, delivering loads of steel to the state History Museum project tucked between bustling businesses and historic buildings.

 

Down below, a short distance away, as summer faded to autumn, two mobile cranes set the steel for the city's new convention center while another erected a new railyard building.

 

Cranes have done the heavy lifting for all of the largest buildings in the Santa Fe area, but "you've never seen them on as many sites as you see now," said Robert Lockwood, vice president of Associated General Contractors of New Mexico, an industry trade association.

 

In defiance of a sharp downward slide in home sales both locally and nationwide, large-scale construction boomed in Santa Fe County during 2007. And big construction meant big revenue gains.

 

Pojoaque's resort project poured almost $100 million of its $245 million construction budget into the economy during 2007, Rivera said.

 

Total construction revenue reported to the state Department of Taxation and Revenue in the third quarter of 2007 set a new high for Santa Fe County, topping $300 million for the first time. That followed the steepest second-quarter gain in recent years.

 

Construction revenue represented a greater portion of overall spending than in the previous four years, driving a new record high in total gross-receipts tax collections for state, city, county, school and emergency-agency coffers. At more than $75 million, third-quarter gross-receipts taxes collected throughout the county topped the third quarter of 2006 by nearly 10 percent.

 

While the cranes provide visible evidence of large-scale construction spending, the slowdown in home sales and residential construction throughout the housing market is equally apparent. The latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates indicate a 25 percent drop nationwide in new private-housing building permits in November, compared with the previous year.

 

For Santa Fe County, Census Bureau estimates are more dire, with about half as many permits issued last month as in November 2006, and a 73 percent drop in the number of building permits for new homes since November 2004.

 

Area real-estate agents reported 28 percent fewer homes sold throughout Santa Fe County in the third quarter of 2007 compared with 2006, followed by similar losses in October. The slide let up only slightly in November, with 17 percent fewer homes sold than in November 2006.

Lockwood, whose family's Lockwood Construction has been building homes and businesses in Santa Fe for nearly 60 years, said he built no houses this year. But that doesn't mean it was a slow year for his crews. They built big.

 

He pays a bill for a smaller truck crane on some job somewhere almost every month, Lockwood said, but his company also rented several big cranes this year. It used them to lift materials for a St. Michael's Drive office complex, for remodeling at the Rio Chama Steakhouse on Old Santa Fe Trail and for La Luz de Santa Fe Family Shelter on Cerrillos Road.

 

The recent imbalance between residential and commercial construction also shows in the type of equipment available on the lot at Crane Service Inc. in Albuquerque, which often supplies cranes to Santa Fe builders. Among its fleet of 19 nimble hydraulic truck cranes -- the sort widely used to set beams and trusses for new houses -- several have been available on demand throughout the year.

 

Not so, though, with the company's 18 big cranes. Crane Service president Rick Sigel said demand for big cranes has led to a widespread shortage. The company voice-mail system boasts of three new cranes now available, the largest able to lift 300 tons. Because of worldwide demand for big cranes, he's lucky to get new equipment he orders delivered within a few months, Sigel said.

 

"The crane business, believe it or not, I've never seen it like this, all over the country, and especially in the Southwest," he said.

 

Many of Sigel's cranes are busy servicing wind farms, power plants and oil-and-gas operations. On Friday, one was parked at the new Thornburg office campus under construction along North Ridgetop Road.

 

When he finds a place to set the boom down flat, operator Bill Barlow plans to remove the snowman and the string of holiday lights that were shining in recent weeks over what soon will be a 100,000-square-foot business complex. The lights visible near the intersection of N.M. 599 and U.S. 84/285 illuminate the stark contrast between residential and commercial development in the past year.

 

With $45 million in industrial revenue bonds issued by the city of Santa Fe, Thornburg Companies broke ground in April for its long-planned complex. In August, though, stocks of Thornburg Mortgage Asset, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe company, lost half their value.

 

The mortgage company's focus on very credit-worthy home buyers didn't shield it from the nationwide credit crunch and a sagging residential real-estate market, but Thornburg's commercial project marched forward.

 

Barlow has operated cranes since 1969. He started learning on a construction job at the College of Santa Fe, where he asked an experienced operator to show him how. On Friday, the Edgewood resident was more interested in the strong winds and an upcoming move to a lower area of the job site than the ups and downs of the market.

 

"I've done everything there is to do with a crane," Barlow said.

 

Double-crane lifts, satellite dishes he's done it. Shortly after learning the ropes in the early '70s, he poured thousands of yards of concrete at The Downs at Santa Fe racetrack, south of the city.

 

For 18 years, he worked as a union crane operator. He set steel for the building that houses The New Mexican's presses at 1 New Mexican Plaza, south of Santa Fe.

 

Working for Klinger Constructors of Albuquerque, Barlow does double-duty as a crane operator and iron-crew supervisor. When he's in the crane, he delegates supervision on the ground, and focuses his attention on the machine. The big lifts at the Thornburg campus include a 5-ton beam, 68 feet long, which will carry the weight of a massive glass wall.

 

It's important to pay attention to avoid serious accidents, Barlow said, such as the one that put the crane he had wanted for this job out of service when an operator at Pojoaque made an improper boom movement while crawling the machine to a new location, according to sources familiar with the job.

 

Company-employed operators like Barlow are rare in the crane business these days, at least in the relatively slow market of Northern New Mexico. Most companies lease equipment, and an operator often is part of the deal.

 

Contractors say training and safety requirements make it impractical for most smaller companies to keep qualified operators. The jobs that cranes are required to do also have changed in recent years.

 

"When I was little, I remember my dad had his own backhoe, his own crane -- a crawler-type boom crane," Lockwood said. These days, his company leases equipment. And it doesn't use cranes to pour concrete as it once did; that work has gone to a new generation of concrete pumping trucks.

 

Barlow said he still hauls buckets of concrete with a crane if the pour is too small to warrant calling a pumper, and a crane already is on-site. More often, he hauls steel frame members and decking.

 

In Pojoaque, cranes last spring lowered augers into the ground, digging 50 to 80 feet to form pilings for the massive building now standing at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Concrete was pumped into the holes as augers were lifted out, then cranes lowered cages of reinforcing rod into the wet concrete.

 

As foundations were completed for one area of the building, the cranes moved to the next structure, and iron workers moved in to erect the shell in concert with the crane operators. As many as nine cranes of various sizes were on-site at one time, each working a radius under its boom.

 

The scene resembled mechanical monsters creating an artistry in motion, "kind of like a ballet show." Rivera said.

 

In June, cranes held aloft a massive banner depicting a white buffalo as pueblo members and area dignitaries commemorated completion of the hotel structure.

 

The show is scheduled to continue next year and beyond. In Santa Fe, the crane towering over the Plaza is slated to come down next month, with another crane settling it to the ground in pieces, said project manager Ron Reese. After the crane is gone, workers will use a new freight elevator to lift materials for the New Mexico History Museum addition scheduled for completion in 2009.

 

Cranes early next year are due to set bridge beams for the Rail Runner Express atop pilings and supports still under construction last week inside I-25. Then an overpass will be built at La Cienega, where cranes will be called on to set reinforced concrete beams across the new railroad and four lanes of highway traffic.

 

After voters approved a $25 million bond issue in 2006, Santa Fe County budgeted a $55 million courthouse project, which likely will soon have cranes erecting a 103,000-square-foot building at Sandoval Street and Montezuma Avenue. Current designs place the top of that building at 52 feet, with mechanical protrusions topping out at about 61 feet.

 

Captions:

1. The crane at the New Mexico History Museum construction site will come down next month, with another crane setting it to the ground in pieces.

2. Crane operator Bill Barlowwith Klinger Constructors of Albuquerque lifts some equipment off one of the top floors Friday at the new Thornburg Companies office campus under construction along North Ridgetop Road. The 100,000-square-foot complex broke ground in April.

3. Crane operator Bill Barlow, working at the Thornburg Companies office complex site, has been operating cranes since 1969. Barlow, with Klinger Constructors of Albuquerque, does double-duty as crane operator and iron-crew supervisor.

4. A crane at the Buffalo Thunder Resort construction site in Pojoaque crumbled this summer after an operator made an improper movement while crawling the machine to a new location, according to reports. The resort project poured almost $100 million of its $245 million construction budget into the economy during 2007.