While most San Diegans don’t give much thought to the topic of dirt, there’s a group of people who don’t consider the ground beneath them as being , well, beneath them.
For the geologists and engineers at Southern California Soils & Testing, building in San Diego poses a special challenge. A system of geologic faults throughout the city could give rise to earthquakes, causing some soils underneath buildings to loosen and become unstable.
Elsewhere, former industrial sites , due to practices that were legal when they were open 50 years ago , could be contaminated with toxins that could seep into San Diego’s limited groundwater.
Based out of their Mission Valley office on Riverdale Street, Southern California Soils & Testing deals
with such challenges every day. With services including site investigation, underground storage tank removal, geotechnical investigation, fault identification and materials testing, the company is looking to become a one-stop shop for construction consulting.
Founded in 1959, the firm is probably San Diego’s oldest locally owned construction consulting firm. The company’s resume includes many of the area landmarks , the Coronado Bridge, Lindbergh Field, the San Diego Sports Arena, SeaWorld San Diego, and the San Diego Zoo.
The company also did consulting work on Qualcomm Stadium , then-Jack Murphy Stadium , when it was originally built, said Stephen W. Jensen, principal geologist and senior vice president with the firm.
Newest Old Company
But thanks to the changes the company has seen in the past year and a half, Southern California Soils & Testing is also the newest old company on the block.
When Howard Katz, the company’s new president, came on board 18 months ago, the company was still following policies that were out of date, he said.
“The clients we serve expect a certain level of competence. So we brought technology into the company. We got a Web page, we got E-mail , things the company didn’t have before,” he said.
“Accounting was done by hand. We asked for a client list, and they couldn’t generate one,” he said. “There’s been no tabulation anywhere.”
The previous owners had grown a materials lab into a company with what they considered a manageable size , 50 employees and about $2 million to $3 million worth of business a year, all of it from word-of-mouth.
At that size, Southern California Soils & Testing was able to ride out difficult times, but it couldn’t expand when the local economy was flush, Katz said.
Brought In Business Skill
So Katz came in and shook things up. His business background makes the perfect complement to the engineers’ technical expertise, he said.
“One of the things lacking in the engineering business is business skill. So I’m trying to bring normal business skills to an industry that is generally run by people that have technical competence, but not business experience,” Katz said.
Katz added another 25 people to the payroll. The company hopes to do three times as much business this year, said Bonnie J. Russell, director of marketing and business development , a position that didn’t even exist before Katz came aboard.
Katz also added new services, such as environmental testing, materials testing, and even roofing and waterproofing consulting, to the firm’s resume. As consumers become more demanding about their homes, the need for continuous inspection during the building process grows, Jensen said.
“Where we used to pretty much stop once the foundation was in, now we have people in the field inspecting nearly every facet of the construction,” he said. “We have concrete inspectors, we have welding inspectors, we have masonry inspectors. We do structural steel inspection, and fireproofing inspection.”
Inspections are an important part of the company’s business. An on-site laboratory takes samples of concrete collected from construction sites and presses it in an oversized garbage compactor to see how much stress it will take. Similarly, steel rebar is pulled like taffy to determine its breaking point.
This assures the proper materials are used on the construction site, Katz said.
“The industry is straining, since there aren’t enough good people and experience around. Stuff gets built, and it’s important to make sure people don’t cut the corners, (that) the right materials are used, and it’s done according to plans, and the building codes,” he said.
In fact, the company inspectors act as the eyes and ears of the city’s building officials in the field. If an inspector notices something wrong, he has the authority to stop work, or resume work once the discrepancy is corrected.
But inspections also benefit the builders as well, said Barry S. Pulver, senior engineering geologist. With a proper site inspection, builders can have information about potential liabilities before construction even begins.
Pulver cited as an example a site inspection he did on a former chicken ranch. As he was walking across the parcel, he noticed a metal pipe sticking up out of the ground.
“You kind of wonder, ‘Why is this pipe here?'” So I looked at air photos. About where the pipe was, there was always a truck parked next to it,” he said. “So they were either dumping something, or pulling something up out of there.”
Sure enough, there was a gasoline storage tank underground. Knowing this allowed the developers to deal with the potential environmental problem without the hassles of work stoppages and deadlines, Pulver said.
By contrast, Pulver got called to Coronado High School when workers excavating the site for a new stadium found an underground gasoline storage tank there.
“That stopped their construction, and from that point on, everything was in panic mode. Which is not the way you want to address any kind of problem,” he said.
Other challenges include former industrial sites. A World War II-era foundry on that site may have disposed of its chemicals in accordance with regulations that existed back then. Now, 60 years later, someone wanting to build on that site has to deal with contaminated soil.
Constantly Changing Regulations
Or, a developer might want to change the use of a site , for example, putting a house where a gas station used to be. Although the soil was properly remediated, the cleaning isn’t up to the standard required of residential development. Result: Construction can’t proceed.
Add to that the constantly changing environmental regulations, and there’s always a need for geotechnical consulting. That means that Southern California Soils & Testing will always be at the center of a growth industry, Pulver said.
“As the regulations become more stringent, probably the work that has to be done, and the analysis that has to be done, that drives the cost of it up,” he said.