Approaching from the highway north on I-285 in Smyrna, Ga., West Village Phase II appears to be coming to life before your eyes. Drivers can’t help but be distracted as the new multifamily complex bustles with activity, with men dangling from rafters, scaling scaffolding, and trickling out from every opening in the building’s exposed façade.
Located on a much sought-after spot overlooking the brooding skyline of downtown Atlanta, the site sits on the outskirts of a major city that’s seen rental demand skyrocket in the wake of the housing crisis.
As the door swings open to Summit Contracting Group’s air-conditioned business trailer this Tuesday morning in June, company president Marc Padgett appears, flanked by his men-in-charge. Thomas Born, project superintendent, and Zachary Graham, project manager, greet me with firm handshakes, and business quickly resumes preparing for the weekly owners meeting later that day.
Keeping the Flow Going
Before long, Padgett rounds up some hard hats and leads the way to the most finished section of the project, which is scheduled for completion around the end of the summer.
“You can really see the evolution of this project,” says Padgett. “But the flow has to remain consistent or else everyone gets stacked up.” Padgett is referring to Summit’s staggered construction technique: The 188-unit building is at different stages of completion from one end to the other, separated into three zones by concrete fire walls.
Inside Zone 1—the section nearest to completion—workers crouch, measuring for countertops and walking around on stilts while finishing up interior work on the 12-foot ceilings. Meanwhile, the sound of nails pounding into the wooden beams of the interior-wall skeleton reverberates from down in Zone 3.
Here in the first zone, the subs are waiting for on-site inspectors to arrive and finish their walk-through. Once they grant the inspection approval sticker to Born, a Sheetrock team can move in and seal up the exposed HVAC and plumbing systems. Luckily, Born has both of the stickers in hand before lunchtime.
Moving on Down the Line
Toward the middle of the building lies Zone 2, where teams of workers snake a long hose through the dark hallway out to the unfinished balcony. Thick liquid concrete oozes out to form the floor. Like the other subs, the concrete workers move down the line from Zone 1 to Zone 3. Each time they do, the next team of contractors comes in right behind them to keep a fluid workflow.
In fact, Born says the different teams of carpenters and subcontractors often get competitive with their work speed and efficiency, even becoming upset when the team ahead of them holds up the construction schedule. When delays do occur, Padgett and Born don’t let things stay jammed up too long for the 140 to 200 workers on site at any given time.
“Think of it as the same mentality as an assembly line. Just a little more chaotic,” Padgett says. “It’s controlled chaos, though. You’ve got lots of different personalities in one place at one time.”
Going Through the Roof
Padgett and Born next make their way down long, dark corridors into Zone 2, checking on workers and discussing an upcoming meeting. They reach a homemade ladder that leads nearly 20 feet up through the rafters, past workers dangling from support harnesses, onto the roof. From this vantage point, the Atlanta skyline rises out of the treetops across the highway.
Born motions to large sheets of waterproofing material that cover all the exposed wood and keep the jobsite protected from nasty weather like the thunderstorms that swept through the city the night before. “We’re always in a race to get the building together as quickly as possible to beat the weather,” Born says. “We race to get the waterproofing wrap on the wood and the roof on to keep us in the dry.”
Men are scaling the scaffolding on the outside of the building as they work to get all the exterior work done in what Padgett describes as building from the outside in. The arms of several cranes slowly lift supplies through large openings in the walls, spaces that windows and balconies will soon inhabit. Below the crane arms, men are doing brickwork around the first-floor perimeter, and cleanup crews are filling Dumpsters with all the scrap and debris from the frenzied site. On an average day, the subcontractors fill three or four Dumpsters to the brim.
Meeting Your New Neighbors
Directly across a narrow street from the building sit rows of leased-up apartments atop an abundance of retail shops and restaurants. They seem close enough to touch. Cranes, bulldozers, and other heavy lifters navigate the closed road with precision as they move to different sections of the structure. The road can only remain closed for a few hours each morning to minimize the disruption to the current residents. So the morning is a race to get all the supplies in.
The workers say the pure logistics of maneuvering all the equipment requires the equivalent of an air traffic controller. That’s why Summit employs someone full time just to oversee traffic flow and lumber transportation on the road each day.
One of the largest obstacles, Born says, is moving all these loud machines back and forth while minimizing the nuisance to the residents and businesses that already call the community home. Especially since, on some days, concrete work can begin as early as 5:00 a.m. and subs can continue working well into the evening hours.
Racing to the Finish Line
Time to return to the business trailer for the weekly owners meeting. Born, Graham, senior project architect Dwight Bailey of Phillips Partnership architectural firm, and development manager Ray Crocker from developer Branch Properties sit down to resolve several budget and scheduling issues. The men unravel long scrolls of building plans and pore over what has been changed and what needs to be done.
Once all items are addressed, Born heads back to the construction site. “You have to see how things are going for yourself. You can’t just sit in the trailer all day,” he says.
Before heading out to make his rounds, Born looks past a fleet of extended crane arms to the American flag atop the unfinished roof at the very end of Zone 3. “That’s our goal, right there,” Born says, pointing over his shoulder at the flag, which is identical to the one emblazoned on his hard hat. “That’s the end of the line, and that’s when we’re done.”
If Summit can keep up its breakneck pace, the last team of contractors will roll out of Zone 3 and Branch Properties could have the community on the market even sooner than expected. To an outsider, the buzzing hive of activity seems chaotic and overwhelming, but to Summit, it’s just another day at the office.