Just Part of a Day’s Work for
Universal Engineering Sciences
By Todd Persons
When the Beach Boys sing about “Good Vibrations,” they remind us of shimmering sun, cool ocean water and the joys of a lazy summer. Then there’s the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” where in growing metropolises like Orlando, you are regularly bombarded by the rhythmic “thump, clang, thump, clang” of a pile driver doing what its name implies, compacting soil and pounding columns into the earth to support roads, bridges and new high-rises.
These are all sounds of progress, but still … If those incessant sounds and sometimes even faint physical aftershocks are annoying at best, and are feeding your migraine at worst, they could also be a serious headache for developers and builders, creating potentially damaging vibrations.
For R. Kenneth “Ken” Derick, M.S., P.E., who is senior vice president for Orlando-based Universal Engineering Sciences LLC (UES), those sounds and vibrations may not be music to his ears either. But they represent a strong segment of business for the 56-year-old geotechnical engineering consulting firm where Derick has worked for more than a quarter of a century.
Derick is a friendly, outgoing man who likes to joke that he is in the “shaky soil business.” But he is serious when he describes the importance of the science of controlling the impact to the earth made by the body blows delivered by drilling and compacting machines. Unless carefully harnessed, the “thump, clang, thump” can radiate through the trembling earth doing unwanted damage to neighbors surrounding the project’s epicenter.
It is why vibration monitoring is expected to represent an increasing part of business for fast-growing UES, which started in Central Florida and today has 1,600 employees working from 30 offices nationwide.
“Building inside a city’s core requires both care and precision,” Derick said. “If our client is constructing a building between two existing structures, UES’s job is to monitor construction vibrations that are created to make sure they are within specific guidelines and don’t have a negative impact on the neighbors.”
The science of vibration monitoring and soil testing has become more technically exacting in recent years, Derick said — not only in order to avoid causing collateral damage to adjacent structures within the crowded core of a burgeoning metropolis, but also to protect the developer or builder from potential legal problems.
Derick gave a Central Florida example. “We were monitoring the construction site for a client when the adjacent company claimed the vibrations from our client’s project had damaged its computer system, skewing national data being produced by its mainframes. We were able to show that we were well within the safe vibration limits permitted.”
Sensitive testing equipment with names like Vibroflot, Helitech and Fluke may sound foreign to most but are tools of the trade for a professional in the vibration monitoring business whose job it is to virtually anticipate, before it actually happens, that there might be some damaging shaking going on. “We almost have to know where cracks may appear before they appear,” Derick explained.
Derick knows a lot about building in tight places. UES has been involved in a number of prominent projects in downtown Orlando, including 55 West residential tower, the Amway Center arena, and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, among others. The company also worked on shoring up the football stadium at the University of Central Florida, commonly known as the “Bounce House.” The stadium still rumbles a bit when thousands of fans jump in unison, but it is not going anywhere. More good vibrations.
On a personal level, Derick spreads positive vibes in the community, devoting some of his personal time to working with prison inmates in ministry-based counseling programs. His private life is filled with golf, fishing, traveling and just being “a family” with his wife, Grace, five adult children and “a very old beagle.”
The master engineer, whose career has spanned 45 years, added an important factoid about building on soil in a downtown environment: “There are many layers of compacted soil in a city center, perhaps centuries of structures that are built and replaced over and over again. The subsurfaces of those sites have unique histories revealing structures that were prepared correctly and built right and some that were not. That is why everyone needs to be careful how structures are built, from below the ground on up.”