Building Principles: How Can "Free" Be Anything but Good?

by Rick Stryker
What are the permit and design issues you should consider for constructing a new cabin, health center, or climbing wall at your camp? And beyond construction matters, what are the most innovative site development, maintenance, and facility management objectives to achieve? “Building Principles,” a new regular column, will appear in every issue to keep you informed of the elements that directly relate to best business practices in facility management.

We've all heard the expression about getting something for nothing. More often than not, you end up with something that's worth what you paid. Like anything else, however, unforeseen circumstances can cost the organization much more in the end than may have been saved. Let's illustrate this condition with a hypothetical example . . . Suppose that the program staff has lobbied for high ropes course elements and a climbing tower for several seasons. After much consideration, the project gets approval. The catch is that the budget is not sufficient to cover all the construction costs. Being the resourceful individual that defines a great career camp person, the program director begins to solicit help and donations from every source imaginable. The most attractive offer comes from a local power company that offers to supply and install utility poles for the supports. (Sound familiar, yet?) The first element will be a zip line.

After the poles are installed by the power company, the ropes course installer comes, places the hardware, and completes the construction of all the elements. The “project ”is certified complete by the installer. The staff is trained, camp opens, and the new zip line is the biggest hit in years. Then the unthinkable happens. A support has toppled over, and a camper or staff member has been injured.

Identifying Liability

Who “owns” the liability? Obviously, nobody involved is going to rush to the front of this line! The ropes company will reasonably assert that it had no part in placing the poles. The power company will contend that the poles and labor to install them were a donation. The poles had been placed with the customary and reasonable care associated with the installation of power poles. They had no other directions upon which to base their installation. The prevailing question will be, “Who certified the adequacy of the foundation and structural components of this high-risk attraction?”

Utility-pole versus structure installation
On the surface, this looks very simple, and the applications appear to be obvious. The fact is, though, that the design considerations associated with the installation of utility poles are vastly different from those associated with the installation of a structure. Wooden power poles are installed with the intended use of supporting wires that are mounted either directly to the pole itself or to a crosspiece. It may also be assumed that a transformer (or some other heavy, stationary piece of equipment) will be mounted on the pole at some time in the future. All of these weights (“loads”) are still vertical (“dead”) and are ultimately held in the air by the interaction between the pole and the soil beneath and around the pole.

Zip-line supports
In the case of a support for a zip line, the loads are highly variable and are comprised of a combination of live and dead loads that are not always acting directly towards the ground. The drawings in Figure 1 are known as “free body diagrams, ”and attempt to simplify the systems into sketches that show where and how the forces act on the poles.

Some of the considerations that should be part of the zip-line design include:

  • The physical properties of the pole (there are no universal standards for utility pole length, diameter, or strength),
  • The physical properties of the soil in which it is embedded (soils vary considerably over surprisingly short distances),
  • The live and dead loads that are expected to act on the pole and its foundation,
  • The dynamic (active) behavior of the entire system when it is being used as it was intended, and
  • The dynamic behavior of the entire system when it is being used as it was not intended.

This last point is one that may be easily overlooked. The potential effects of immediate and long-term misuse or misbehavior of participants should always be a consideration of the designer.

Conducting a Risk Analysis

To illustrate how these factors come into play, consider extreme examples. For instance, it is easy to imagine that if the pole is set in a swamp, the ability of the soil to resist the toppling of the pole is much lower than if the pole is set at the same depth in a well-drained, tightly compacted clay soil. A complete design, then, should be a series of linked, cyclic questions and answers. What if we were to set the pole 30' deep? Is that enough? Perhaps. Is it too much? Perhaps. The answers to these questions depend on repeated and cyclic revisiting of those points listed earlier.

As another example, consider the design requirements of modular playground equipment. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Underwriters Laboratories test for pinch points and places for limbs and heads to be caught, among other things. We expect nothing less. And yet, in the zip line example, an “attractive nuisance” has been installed with little more than crossed fingers and a desire to make camp more challenging, attractive, inviting, and exciting.

All of this is not to say that every project requires the time and expense of an engineer or architect. Many improvements can be made very successfully by placing other contractual requirements on the firm doing the work. Paving projects are a great example. The astute owner can prepare a scope of work, set warranty requirements, and carefully select a contractor in such a way that the road surface lasts for many, many years. In this case though, the largest exposure for a substandard job is the cost and value of the work itself. Can we say the same about every project where we undertake improvements?

Safeguarding Camp Facilities

The camp community is especially aware of the potential for harm to their clientele. This is evidenced by the seminar topics at the national and regional conferences, as well as the ongoing Web discussions about the need for access to “instant” background checks of potential camp employees. The camp insurance folks have worked diligently to help camp operations identify and minimize exposure to risks and liability. But what about the liability and risk exposure associated with the physical facilities, which support the programs?

Engineers and architects are closely regulated by state governments and the insurance industry for a reason. These professions are bound, in varying degrees, to the open-ended requirement to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public. By allowing structures, buildings, roadways, and water and sewage systems to be installed or modified by unlicensed individuals, camp owners are exposing themselves to ever-increasing risk. In this day and age of litigation over coffee that's too hot, everyone is increasingly focused on liability reduction. The facilities that serve our clients should receive no less consideration.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with Camp Facilities Consulting providing study, design, permitting, and construction consultation services to the camp and conference center community. Camp personnel may contact him at 570-296-2765 or by e-mail at rstryker@ptd.net.

Originally published in the 2001 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

 

Tags: