Keeping Costs Down in High Places – – the Steeplejack Option

 SHOP REPAIRS. This reproduction steeple was shipped 200 miles for installation.

SHOP REPAIRS. This reproduction steeple was shipped 200 miles for installation.

Forbidding, archaic, daunting in scale, the high places of the built environment, like any extreme habitat, have produced their own community of niche restoration specialists, the steeplejacks.  These artisans have made this world truly their own by developing minimalist rigging solutions which save costs but which tend to limit participation by building professionals and other trades. Whatever the project objective, it will be more surely attained by understanding how this lofty environment shapes and limits the effectiveness of the steeplejack’s method.

To assure a successful project, the owner’s representatives must be sure that the conditions that the steeplejacks find when they put their hand to the work are in fact those that they were hired to address.  This is a difficult task with any restoration environment, let alone one so remote.  The steeples, towers, lighthouses and smokestacks reaching up out of the built environment are subject to an accumulation of conditions which cause their needs to be misunderstood and maintenance to be perennially deferred:

  1. INACCESSIBILITY.  Out of site is out of mind and often out of the maintenance budget.  Inspections become less frequent and the structures that support inspections, the access ladders, catwalks and hatchways, become neglected, unsafe and choked with bird droppings until these areas become dangerous and forbidden.  
  2. OBSOLETE FUNCTION.  They have low funding priority because the bells, clocks, weathervanes and signal lamps of a previous era are no longer needed to mark our place in the world.  Without a committed constituency, funds for their maintenance are no longer available.  
  3. ARCHAIC TECHNOLOGIES. The building systems that form these structures were once common and well understood, but no longer.  The skillsets and materials necessary to repair and maintain weathervanes, stone carvings, bell systems, ironwork and millwork are harder to come by.  
  4. SCALE. The necessarily large scale of these vertical structures is a design measure calculated to get them to “read” effectively at a distance.  A weathervane appearing to be three feet long may measure out at seven feet and weigh 350 pounds.  A wood molding which seems to be a manageable 4 or 5 inches may prove to be 8 or 10 inches in width.  These seemingly marginal dimensional increases lead to surprising cost increases that can thoroughly disrupt budget calculations.  
  5. COMPLEXITY.  From the designer’s standpoint, a function of vertical architecture is to summarize and elaborate on the forms established by the main structure.  This produces a level of decorative detail that makes operations typically more labor intensive and production efficiencies rare.  
  6. EXPOSURE. Unrelieved exposure to the elements without the protection that surrounding obstructions may offer to the balance of the main structure requires these vertical structures to furnish more service with less maintenance. Exposed elements and materials with equivalent counterparts in the lower structure will generally be found to be in much worse condition.

Taken together, these six conditions form a perfect storm well suited to overwhelm budgets and to infect the most well meaning of plans with wishful thinking.  The building’s stewards must have a realistic conditions survey, project specification and budget and must understand that the problem didn’t happen yesterday and won’t be fixed tomorrow.  

BUILT TO SCALE. The mass of a 200’ tall steeple is made apparent by the introduction of the human form.

BUILT TO SCALE. The mass of a 200’ tall steeple is made apparent by the introduction of the human form.

The steeplejacks’ value proposition is that money that can be saved by conducting operations from a minimal scaffolding bearing on the structure itself rather than being built up or free standing.  In settings which are inaccessible to a crane or which can’t support or won’t allow built up scaffolding, this rigging method may be the only method of access available.  In addition, it doesn’t present the encumbrance or the liability that built up scaffolding does, offering no access to vandals, intruders and the curious.  Nor will it damage planted areas, paved areas and underground utilities like a crane can.  The steeplejacks employ various suspended scaffolds, fixed scaffolds and, most distinctively, the bosun’s chair.  The chair is a rope sling with a plywood seat suspended from a 3 part rope falls which offers the operator access along the length of the falls and a considerable measure of lateral mobility.  This platform is ideal for performing light operations that don’t require the artisan to have his feet set beneath him such as painting, pointing or shingling.  These rigging methods can be made OSHA compliant by the installation of approved fall protection as a separate, fully redundant system.

FLYING SCAFFOLDS. (Amherst, MA) The steeplejacks are kept supplied with cut and formed material from the ground, via an ordinary galvanized garbage can on a capstan hoist.

FLYING SCAFFOLDS. (Amherst, MA) The steeplejacks are kept supplied with cut and formed material from the ground, via an ordinary galvanized garbage can on a capstan hoist.

Flying scaffolds can save money and furnish work areas for significant projects, as work on a 160’ Amherst, Massachusetts church spire showed.  Here, 9 tons (22 squares) of green and purple Vermont roofing slate were installed over a new plywood deck.  The work was accomplished from a series of fixed scaffolds reinstalled upward as the work was completed at each level.  These scaffolds were 5’ wide, stable and capable of supporting slate, tools and personnel.  Adapted from industrial chimney scaffolds, they are not attached through the wall but are rather attached to a wire rope compression band cinched around the spire.  In this case, the compression band cleared the new brittle slate shingles by riding on newly installed hip boards, 2 by 4 inches tall, which provided the nailage for new copper hip flashings.  Whether in a chair or on the scaffold, the steeplejacks “in the air” were tended from a work area on the ground from which they were supplied plywood, felt, slate and copper, cut and formed to order.  

Conditions and specifications for the Amherst spire project were easily established once the existing roofing slate and decking were examined closely.  Complete replacement is a rather straightforward specification to make and to manage.  Actually, the steeplejacks had originally assured the owners that the slate was repairable but once the building was rigged, they discovered the slate to be of a different variety and quality than they had originally assumed from a distance.  Wishful thinking can affect even the steeplejacks.  By staying focused on developing a reliable specification, however, the building’s stewards finally established a durable solution for the building conditions.

JUST ONE PIECE. (Waterbury, CT) A preassembled gothic sandstone pier is installed in about an hour.

JUST ONE PIECE. (Waterbury, CT) A preassembled gothic sandstone pier is installed in about an hour.

Another strategy, that of off site fabrication of completely assembled building components, has the advantages of minimizing on site activity and of allowing the building’s stewards to inspect the work closely on the ground before it is set into place.  There are also production and scheduling advantages in that the work is produced in a shop environment, under ideal conditions.  After a tornado touched down and swept away three 5 ton, 20 foot tall, sandstone finial piers perched 120’ above the sidewalk in Waterbury, Connecticut, it was clear that they were gone and had to be replaced.  The owner was concerned about scaffolding costs since the site had to be accessed once to prepare the pier bases and produce drawings for the fabricators from the remaining pier and then a second time 8 months later for the installation.  That would require leaving scaffolding to stand for 8 months on a busy urban corner or to incur charges for delivering, erecting and dismantling it twice.  The steeplejacks proposed to execute all these operations from bosun’s chairs if the stonework were to be delivered preassembled in as large a component as a big crane could pick.  This was accepted.  All the work was set in a single day during which, as it happened, a gale blew with 50 mile gusts.  The steeplejacks had to tie themselves to the structure and each other to keep from blowing away, but the work itself set relatively steady due to its great weight and the stability of the crane.  

CROW’S NEST. (Provincetown, MA) Accessible from the interior, this scaffold furnished a stable inspection platform for the owner’s representative.

CROW’S NEST. (Provincetown, MA) Accessible from the interior, this scaffold furnished a stable inspection platform for the owner’s representative.

More typically, restoration projects are not so straightforward, calling for unit restoration and replacement, “as necessary”, or a similar such unavoidable specification.  In such cases, how can the building’s stewards verify that the conditions are accurately established and that the work is executed as specified?  A flashing and millwork restoration project at an 1850’s Greek Revival wood frame “wedding cake” steeple in Provincetown, Massachusetts shows one way.  At the beginning of the project, the steeplejacks rigged the structure with bosun’s chairs and documented conditions at every level, keyed to four full elevations.  Specifications for the work were developed on the basis of this document.  Since the wedding cake form tends to concentrate the watercatches at the bottom of each stage, the many polygonal roof ledges and damaged millwork which required replacement were clustered here.  Flying scaffolds were built for the work just below these levels where they also functioned as stable inspection platforms.  The owner’s representative was furnished with OSHA fall protection and a dedicated escort during his monthly inspections of the completed work.  When he had a question about work in an area remote from the scaffold, he took a short trip in the chair.  There is often only one way to confirm that work has been completed as specified and that is to inspect it closely enough so that it can be touched.  The steeplejack’s option is so well suited to this environment that it is worthwhile to develop the inspection procedures necessary to adequately support them in furnishing reliable, durable work.

BO’S’N’S CHAIR. Steeplejack displays the old school mentality: no OSHA fall protection. Don’t try this.

BO’S’N’S CHAIR. Steeplejack displays the old school mentality: no OSHA fall protection. Don’t try this.

List of Steeplejacks and Riggers.

By John M. Corbett

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