Sustainability Surgery Needed to Overcome Hurdles

Chaden Halfhill

Chaden Halfhill on the first floor during construction.

Even when your construction crew involves surgeons of the earth, you have to remain ready to deviate from plans to overcome unexpected hurdles. Here is how we overcame one recent hurdle that required an orchestration between our crews and Des Moines City Works Department.

A great man said this to me recently as he leaned out of the cab of his backhoe, “I am a surgeon, just with different tools.”

Ron Gomis invites such a precise comparison because he can shave dirt from an existing foundation with a bucket the size of a wheel barrow better than most guys clean their face with a sharp razor. He’s rather talented with large machinery, supported by an upbeat and dedicated team that moves dirt while he digs.

Excavation of street for sewer lines

Excavation of street asphalt and brick layer to connect the new plumbing system to the city sewer.

However, the flow of teamwork can come to a complete standstill when plans unexpectedly change. Of course, construction can certainly deviate from the straight line of theory and Gantt charts, and the last few days have certainly proved this truism.

How We Overcame a Hurdle

The other day, work was progressing as expected. The crew cut away several layers of asphalt, concrete and brick pavers before digging a diagonal trench from the storefront of the Green & Main Pilot Project building towards the center of 19th Street, exposing an initial 15 feet of a 6” sewer line that we needed to lower and relocate. What began as routine resulted in a delightful discovery of steel trolley tracks (read this post outlining details and photos of the trolley track find) that were buried amongst the paving layers. We also located where the cast iron sewer pipe transitioned to the original clay tile four feet to the east of our foundation.

Just short of the municipal sewer we discovered a sinkhole below the surface of the street directly underneath the bus route; the hole was the size of a Smart Car. This discovery initiated several days of meetings with various municipal departments, conversations to determine how to move forward without the ability to establish fall height for our system and tie our drain into the city’s sewer service.

The city sewer had a crack that spanned nearly twenty-five feet long, almost the entire length of our building, with the sinkhole impeding drainage from the top of the hill two blocks north. Using enhanced diagnostics, officials determined the sewer would need to be replaced from Cottage Grove to Center Street, two city blocks. Defining a schedule for such work remained uncertain at best.

In order to continue progress on Green & Main, Jason Anderson, Lead Artisan for Silent Rivers, orchestrated a solution with Des Moines City Works Department that allowed us to relocate the building’s drain to provide the required fall needed to accommodate additional headroom and necessary changes to the plumbing system. This relocation allowed us to position the main drain line access twenty feet south, establishing the new connection well below the foundation and stubbing the drain line into the right-of-way for future integration during the upcoming sewer overhaul.

Whew! After numerous meetings, excellent problem solving and public-private collaboration, we were again marching. Earth surgeon Ron Gomis returned to fill his incision and patch the roadway so that buses could return to 19th Street.

Hurdles are Part of the Process

I cannot help but reflect on the many hurdles we have overcome simply to begin construction, as this project has been anything but linear. From educating the financial community about green building and LEED to restoring abandoned zoning rights, the development of this 5,075 square foot project has required patience, tenacity and a sense of humor, if not a willingness to adapt.

The hurdles began as early as the building’s acquisition. The transaction started as a standard real estate purchase agreement where the buyer met all counter-offer requirements. It quickly regressed into months of positioning on behalf of the sellers and their agents to leverage a higher sale price. The result: a Sheriff’s Sale Deed that when combined with legal fees accrued during the whole debacle cost the same as the original purchase price. Just short of 6 months of wasted time, we finally began the process in earnest.

And now here we are in full-scale construction. The process of overcoming hurdles progresses, and we continue to sharpen our skills as surgeons of sustainability!



– Chaden Halfhill is an entrepreneur and visionary of the Green & Main Initiative. He does not like it when hurdles are above his knees as it is harder to jump over them and the running start is longer.




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