We’re close to wrapping up our Virtual Travel Series celebrating Infrastructure Week. We have been spotlighting the people behind some of the most critical transportation projects across the US all week long. Today, we make it to the San Francisco Bay Area in California to speak with Spencer Mullaney, Project Engineer at Shimmick Construction.
Currently, Spencer is a lead Project Engineer on the BART Transbay Tube Earthquake Retrofit, managing the mechanical scope team. While the Transbay Tube is structurally sound, the project’s goal is to future proof the important infrastructure system for a potentially rare and devastating earthquake. Below, Spencer shares more about his role on the project, how technology is used to close the gap between spread out project teams, and what makes rail projects unique.
Tell us about your role at Shimmick Construction. What’s your day to day like?
I’m currently in my most “normal” day-to-day role at Shimmick after ten years of a lot of special projects type work. For the previous 8-9 years, I probably never had a single normal daily routine. Today, I’m currently a lead Project Engineer covering the mechanical scope of the BART Transbay Tube Earthquake Retrofit. A normal day now typically involves coordinating a handful of outside engineering consultants to provide design drawings/calcs for some of our special purpose-built tools and material delivery systems, compiling that info into submittals, and then getting it sent off to the owner (BART). For what’s already in, we are trying to partner with BART as much as possible to address any submittal comments/questions they have on our technical approaches in an offline format. That way, submittals can be approved with all parties on the first or second iteration and helps avoid a lot of submittal cycles.
My team consists of myself, a superintendent, and two other engineers, and we are set to (finally) begin work next month (after 3.5 years of planning). We have recently added our first general foreman and will be onboarding our crew to starting security clearance process, new-hire training, and construction process practice at our test facility next week. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to dial in our schedule to be efficient with our craft time when they get here since the days available before work on site is very limited. One of our engineers joined the team straight out of school (after interning with us last summer) about 20 days before the shelter-in-place began this spring. I’ve tried to spend a lot of time connecting with her via video conference and Slack so that she doesn’t feel isolated and left out of the loop. This is new territory for all of us, but especially for young engineers who have yet to get any real field experience. We’re making it a priority to keep them engaged and supported so that their early time here can still be productive and enjoyable.
Besides the mechanical scope, I still get tasked with quite a few special projects dealing with business processes and cost controls. We aim to do quarterly in-depth dive cost reviews, so I coordinate the estimates and cost info from the various scopes on the project and develop the reports for that discussion. I also handle the coordination for the project for scheduling support and access to the system with BART, which can be a full-time job by itself depending on the week. It takes less of my time than last year during implementation. Still, I am also part of the company-wide team that worked on transitioning Shimmick to a new accounting and project management software suite, and we still have quite a bit of testing left to do, systems to get online, and bugs to work out, so I support there where I can. Finally, I’m the de-facto tech guy on the project. I manage all our iPad and software account distribution and do what I can to get our processes streamlined using whatever new app I think can help us work more efficiently.
Tell us more about your work on the Transbay Tube retrofit. Why has this been an exciting project to work on?
For the first three years of the project, I played more of a generalist role and helped support processes for each individual scope team (steel, mechanical, electrical, etc.) and deal with the cost report and cost controls. Starting this past spring, just before shelter-in-place, I took over management of the mechanical scope team and worked on that since late January 2020 as my primary focus.
Like most, the job has had a lot of highs and lows and some substantial re-sequencing and re-scoping. The most exciting part has been the degree to which we needed to create tools and systems for ourselves that either did not exist before or existed but had not yet been put in place for use in the way we needed them. Today, I’m working with our superintendent and an outside mechanical engineering to design a lightweight, easily portable hydraulic lifting frame for elevating some of our 800 lbs sticks of 12″ pipe. There are particular space and time constraints, as well as floor loading conditions, and this step of elevating the pipe is the literal crux of the entire operation.
Designing a system to fit all these needs that will let us meet or beat our production goals while also being extremely safe to operate is great. There has been a ton of one-off types of innovation on this project.
Can you share how you use technology on this project?
This particular project is unique in that the site is, relatively speaking, extremely remote to the office. Because our worksite is the BART Transbay Tube connecting West Oakland Station and Embarcadero Station in SF, I could be on-site and yet still be 45 minutes away from my desk by the time I travel down the tube (by foot or on an electric cart), exit the secure facility, and drive back to our yard. Additionally, we work three shifts (Day, Swing, and Night) and have four-yard locations spread out over 60 miles and the tube itself. Because of this, engineers, crews, managers, etc. are all very spread out across both space and time.
Utilizing technology has helped us bridge these gaps immensely.
Early on, we started using PlanGrid for up-to-date plans for the crews, daily reports at all locations and shifts, safety issue tracking in the tube and in our yard, and photo documentation of work progress. Since then, we’re using Dropbox for additional file sharing and cloud document collaboration (big win for getting people on-board with co-editing documents), we’re using Airtable to track delivery of our various steel plates (over 9,000 of them) as well as to document and alert us about safety training needs, and we’re currently exploring options for digital timecards.
We still have a long way to go to get to fully digital. However, what we have implemented so far has kept us up to date on as-builts, helped close out safety issues faster, made our daily reports more detailed and on time every week, and democratized the workload of collecting and sharing data with the whole team.
What makes working on rail projects unique?
Rail projects are specifically unique in that while you theoretically always know where the train should be (on the tracks, unlike a car that could drive anywhere), their schedules are very defined, and the safety considerations are immense. This limits certain work activities to very short, very specific windows and requires the development of unique approaches to doing small chunks of work quickly and efficiently while being confident that you can restore the rails to service at the end of each shift.
Every railroad is different (I’ve worked around Caltrain, BART, MUNI, and UP), but in general, they all have stringent safety procedures that govern work in ways that would not typically apply. Rightly so, given the additional considerations of a train full of people traveling at 60mph through your work area multiple times per day. Scheduling is the most challenging part, as there is no normal 8-hour work-day.
Access can also be challenging. Rail projects can often be on narrow rights-of-way with limited equipment access, which makes gear selection critical. When a tube is 130 feet under the bay, it’s even more limiting.
This is not true of all rail projects, but what has been enjoyable for me is that due to the rail’s relative linear nature, the work you are doing is also typically very linear. It requires you to design a schedule and workflow that maximizes the available time and space. You then get to dial into that process over and over again, since you are likely doing hundreds or thousands of feet of this work. This turns your process into a well-oiled machine. As someone very interested in iterative process efficiency, this type of work often lends itself well to continual improvements where every day you get to do a little better based on what you learned the day before.
What has your experience been like working on infrastructure projects during COVID?
During our shelter-in-place and because my scope of work has not started field work yet, I have only been to the site and the office a handful of times in the last six months. That said, I think initially there was a slowdown as we were one of the first projects in the Bay Area to voluntarily shutdown (a decision I commend our PMs for) when there was a lot of uncertainty about what safety measures should be in place to keep everyone safe. As we’ve established protocols and a program for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, our work pace has largely returned to normal (it helps that a large part of our work already suggested use of N95 or greater respiratory controls).
Due to some major re-scoping of the project, my work has absolutely sped up, which is partially a function of the push to get back on track from the COVID delay and also just a function of the schedule re-sequence. I think our safety protocols have been largely successful while being felt as minimally invasive. Everyone on our team appears to be on-board and very respectful of the seriousness of the situation at hand, which in a scenario like this is crucial as even minimal lack of buy-in could create big problems. We even had our safety team roll out the use of QR code scanning for contact tracing logs so that we could go to a touchless system. I didn’t even have to suggest that as the resident tech evangelist, they came up with that all on their own.
What is one essential thing that you would take with you on a road trip?
Definitely my camera gear.
What’s one place you cannot wait to travel to once things get back to some normalcy?
I’ve been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time laying low in Tahoe over the summer, but I’ll be looking forward to heading back to Europe or checking out South America and visiting friends back east in DC and NYC whenever it is responsible to do so again.