24 Feb The Dirty Secret That’s Making Major Construction More Expensive
An estimated 220,000 dump trucks full of dirt traveled on DC-area roads from construction sites last year, according to the Heavy Construction Contractors Association. As urban areas become more dense with dozens of projects underway at once, it has become increasingly difficult to find places to dump all that dirt. We dug into the process and identified the three types of places all that dirt ends up going and the problems it can encounter along the way.
1. Other Construction Sites
The cheapest and most efficient way to dispose of the dirt is to find other construction sites that need dirt for filling. This can only be done if the dirt is quality enough to be reused, and if subcontractors can find a taker.
It can be taken to highways or used for infrastructure projects. Much of the dirt from The Boro, a 10-acre Tysons site, where it took two subcontractors six months to remove 550,000 cubic yards of dirt, has gone to highway projects in Northern Virginia, on Route 569 and Route 7, and some to Silver Line station sites.
This is by far the most cost-efficient way for the dirt to be removed. Subcontractors can be paid modest amounts by the sites for bringing the dirt, or they can choose to dump it for free and avoid costlier options. Because the rate subcontractors get paid is set months before the dirt gets hauled away, they assume the risk of not finding any takers and being forced to pay to dump it.
“It’s really a tricky situation,” Strittmatter Cos. vice president John Strittmatter said. “A lot of the risk we take on our end is trying not to take it to a landfill. That’s our last resort. We have dirt salesmen on the road trying to find places. It’s a commodity; some days you win, some days you lose. People make it sound easy but we spend a lot of money and time trying to make sure this dirt can go to the right places.”
This dynamic leads to a market developing between the construction sites unloading dirt and the ones that need it, one that fluctuates often and can be challenging to predict. Strittmatter, one of the DC area’s biggest excavation subcontractors, has dirt coordinators who spend their days dealing with other developers and contractors trying to find someone to take the sediment.
There are also independent brokers devoted to closing deals to get dirt from one place to another. Successfully finding a location to transfer dirt is easier for projects in the suburbs, where there is higher-quality soil. Strittmatter said about half of all the dirt his firm removes ends up at other sites, but that percentage gets smaller for projects in Downtown DC.
In the best-case scenario, subcontractors can take it to one of their own sites and avoid making a transaction at all. Strittmatter said much of the dirt it has taken out of the District has gone to the Lakeview project it is working on in Brandywine, Md. But often the amount of dirt needing to be dumped far outpaces the demand for new dirt, forcing contractors to pursue costlier options.