Professional Development and Networking in a Virtual World: My Experience with ASDSO Dam Safety 2020

Like most of the professional world, the onset of a pandemic induced work stoppage and quarantine presented opportunity where it was once otherwise lost – time for some serious professional development hours and continuing education.  Personally, the accumulated dust on the piano keys, table saw, and Dutch oven was a welcomed indicator that there was now time for all the hobbies and unread books that fell to the wayside before traveling was put on hold.  Professionally, it meant having dedicated time to explore new organizations and attend webinars, conferences and symposia with the click of a button.  With travel time and expenses eliminated, the virtual world attempts to compensate for where it fails in the lack of face-to-face contact, affording me a rise in information exchange and learning.

 The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) was one of the organizations I explored, on the recommendation of a co-worker.  My introduction started with a crash course in dam assessment and inspections over three days of immersive ASDSO taught sessions, scheduled to take place just a few blocks from where I live in Nashville, TN.  Like the rest of 2020 scheduled events, the course was ultimately switched to a virtual format.  The course dove head first into more technical aspects than I anticipated and pressed my memory of fluid mechanics and hydrology from college.  I started with a basic working knowledge of dams, but nothing too extensive, and finished feeling confident about making initial dam assessments and inspections. Material covered everything from risk assessment and hazard creep to inspection procedures, down to the Weir and flow rate equations for sizing up spillways and measuring seepage. Case studies were a central feature to illustrate the development of today’s emergency action plans and legal precedents, which still vary by state.  I was surprised to hear that recreation is the most common purpose of dams in the U.S. (as opposed to flood control, water supply, irrigation, hydropower, etc.), considering the controversy surrounding them.

“Drinking from a firehouse” was the term used to describe the course by the instructors, which was a reference to the amount of material covered and speed at which it was taught, especially for those without an engineering or dam-specific technical background.  The scheduled onsite dam inspection that typically occurs during the last day of the in-person course was missed but the instructors did a great job of compensating for it virtually. 

I was also able to attend the recent annual ASDSO Dam Safety Conference and serve as a representative at our company-sponsored booth.  This would be the first virtual conference I’ve attended following the March closures. 

Networking is one of the many aspects of in-person events that the virtual space fails to replicate.  I may stand corrected when virtual reality becomes as mainstream as the iPhone and FaceTime, but until then it just won’t be the same.  The conference was setup in such a way that encouraged and incentivized striking up dialog with other attendees, visiting booths, and attending sessions, which helped narrow the gap between our world and the Matrix.  Like the course, the general and concurrent sessions were filled with technical demonstrations, modeling, and case studies from various respective dam safety professionals.  Despite the virtual format I was still able to reconnect with colleagues and even make new connections from the safety of my home, thanks to the chat features. 

The conference, along with the course, provided a great introduction to the world of dam safety, albeit virtually.  With travel and work schedules almost back to normal it stands as evidence of a silver-lined shut down. 

Vertical Access Adds Three!

Tuli Kuckes has joined the firm as a SPRAT Certified Level 1 Rope Access Technician and Preservation Technician. He is a graduate of Skidmore College and the National Outdoor Leadership School, served as a High Ropes Course instructor, and has his Wilderness First Responder certification.

Matthew Kreidler has joined the firm as our new TPAS and CAD Manager.  He received his Masters in Architecture from the University at Buffalo and comes to the firm from Boston Valley Terra Cotta.

Judith Fagin, PMP, has joined the firm as Business Development Manager. Judy has spent the majority of her career in project development and implementation and has worked in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. She has a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Tulane University, a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Miami, and did graduate work in Historic Preservation at Columbia University. She recently received her Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

See our full team here!

My Covid-19 Story

On March 11, 2020 I was in South Bend, Indiana with co-worker Patrick Capruso and colleagues Casey Williams and Mary Donlon of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger. Just as novel coronavirus was starting to dominate the news headlines around that time, a lot of our dinner talk during the two days on site centered on the topic. What would it be like traveling home later that week? Would our offices be open next week? What precautions would we need to take in the coming weeks and months?

Then on Friday, March 20, New York’s Governor Cuomo announced he was putting the state “on pause” and that all non-essential workers must stay home as of the following Monday, March 23. Certainly, compared to the heroic work performed by medical professionals and first responders, we did not consider our work essential, and we asked all staff to work remotely as of March 23.

Most of our ten-person company already works from their homes across several states, so we were fairly well equipped to continue doing so. The few people in our main office in Ithaca were now asked to make that relatively simple transition as well. The larger impact was that the stay-at-home order meant that all of the field work that we had scheduled for the rest of March and beyond was now postponed.

Over the rest of March and through April and May our company took the same steps that many of our colleagues and other small businesses followed. We made cash flow projections assuming a plunge in billings. We applied for, and thankfully received, a Paycheck Protection Program loan through our local bank, Tompkins Trust Company. We developed an in-house COVID-19 Plan for office, travel and site work. We watched webinar after webinar on how to handle the financial, professional and personal impacts of COVID 19. We acquired disposable gloves, face shields and masks, alcohol wipes and other supplies to keep staff safe once we were ready to return to the office and field work. And we checked daily, sometimes hourly, updates about New York Forward, the phased re-opening plan of New York State.

Arrival in Montana.

By the end of April, some states had started planning their re-openings, including Montana, which has had one of the lowest rates of infection and deaths in the United States throughout the pandemic. One of our projects that had been scheduled for months prior to the beginning of the pandemic was an assessment of the Montana State Capitol, working with Comma-Q Architecture of Bozeman, Hennebery Eddy Architects of Portland, OR and DCI Engineers, also from Bozeman. Our one of week of field work was originally scheduled to begin April 13 before it was postponed due to COVID-19. With Montana re-opening and with New York starting to establish its plan for re-opening, known as “New York Forward,” we agreed with the project team on a June 1 start date for our field work in Helena. For the next couple weeks as we continued to track the health situations in Montana and New York, we became more comfortable with the June 1 start date.

Typically, I get my temperature taken once a year, in the doctor’s office for my annual physical. But in May I purchased a noncontact thermometer and started taking my temperature daily, as well as checking my oxygen levels and pulse with a fingertip oximeter. We had as a company decided that we would take daily temperature checks while on site, and previous records of our temperature would be useful for establishing our own personal baselines. As expected, my temperature did not fluctuate much from 97.9 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of several weeks. The morning of Sunday, May 31, I started my journey to Helena, MT in Syracuse, NY. After my third flight that day, as I left the secure area of the airport in Helena, a group of Montana National Guard members greeted me, and all other deplaning passengers with a few screening questions and a temperature check. My temperature was normal. The morning of June 1, I took my temperature again and it was now above 99 degrees, a significant increase from my consistent readings of 97.9. I took my temperature an hour later and it was over 100 degrees. I immediately looked up COVID-19 testing centers in Helena, MT. Later that morning after confirming with one that I should and could get tested, I was in the line of cars at the closest testing center.

My view from quarantine.

I spent the next three days in my hotel room waiting. At the testing site I was told I would get the results in 24 to 48 hours. After about 24 hours I called the hospital where I was tested, but the results were not in yet. After 48 hours I called again, and the results were still not in. Finally, at 5 pm on Thursday, the hospital called to tell me the good news, my test came back negative. What a relief to know that I had not put those who I had come into contact with over the past two weeks at risk. What a relief to know that I would be able to join my co-workers on site the next day at the Montana State Capitol to help them finish the project.

During my three days in isolation, I thought a lot about the measures I had taken since mid-March to protect myself and those around me and I thought a lot about the precautions I had not taken. There is always more that I could have done, and more that I will do because this is not the end of the COVID-19 story.

Marshall Sellers, AIA, Joins Vertical Access

Marshall Sellers, a registered architect in New York, has joined Vertical Access as branch manager of our New York City office.  Marshall earned his Master of Architecture from the University of Louisiana and brings 13 years experience working in architecture offices in New York and Louisiana on historic structures and building envelopes.   A SPRAT Level I certified rope access technician, Marshall is fluent in Revit, BlueBeam, Newfoma, Fieldlens, AutoCAD and other software.

To learn about the rest of our team, go here.

FAA Proposes Remote ID Rule for Drones

Patrick Capruso piloting a UAS as part of a conditions assessment of The Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, NC

In late December, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a proposed rule for the remote identification of drones, a step considered by the agency to be critical in achieving the full integration of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) into the national air space.

The proposed rule would require almost all UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds to be able to broadcast their identity and location directly from the aircraft and/or transmit that information via internet link from takeoff to landing to an FAA-approved third party service provider, allowing law enforcement agencies and the public access to real-time information about where drones are flying. Manufacturers would have up to two years to make sure their products meet the performance requirements, and operators would have up to three years from the rule’s effective date to comply. It’s estimated that most unmanned aircraft currently available to consumers could be made compliant via software updates.

According to the FAA, remote identification is a step towards enabling the safe authorization of flights over people and moving vehicles as well as flights beyond visual line of sight, both of which are necessary for full-scale implementation of drone deliveries, emergency response support, and infrastructure inspection.

The public comment period for the proposed rule is open through March 2, 2020.

Kent, Berta, and Virginia Lorenta Co-Wrote A Children’s Book on Guastavino

Kent Diebolt and Berta de Miguel have written a children’s book, “Immigrant Architect”.  This book is an extension of the authors’ shared passion for the life and work of Rafael Guastavino Moreno and his son, Rafael Guastavino Expósito.

Illustrated and authored by Virginia Lorente and penned in the voice of the younger Guastavino, this book is geared toward children aged 7-10 and is “a firm foundation for building interest in architecture and a solid STEM resource”, according to the Kirkus synopsis and review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/berta-de-miguel/immigrant-architect/

Slated for release April 7, 2020, pre-orders can be made now through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Vertical Access Purchases A New Fiber Optic Borescope

In an effort to offer clients the best possible services in challenging access situations, Vertical Access has purchased a new diagnostic borescope to replace our older video enabled borescope system that we bought 25 years ago. Vertical Access uses these devices to afford minimally invasive observations to seeing behind cladding materials as well as any other hidden spaces we are asked to investigate. This upgrade features on-board, all-in-one light source, video screen, and recording capabilities.

Modern day borescopes, which are more industrial versions of the endoscopes first created in the early 1800s[i], generally refer to any device that provides a view of what is going on within an inanimate structure through a small opening.

Borescopes originally referred to small diameter scopes with different angles of view for different applications, but it is generally assumed in modern applications that a camera and a light source are connected or included in the setup. The scopes are traditionally long rigid lenses (rigid borescopes) or flexible fiber optic varieties (flexible borescopes or fiberscopes). Some of the newer styles available simply have a video camera on the tip of a flexible cable. This particular variety is sometimes referred to as a videoscope because the camera sensor is permanently integrated into the system, but they are still covered under the general definition of a borescope.

Vertical Access’s newest tool is the Fluke DS703 FC Diagnostic Scope. This videoscope replaces our current setup, which was composed of an Olympus ILV-2 light source with Hawkeye lens scopes. This will complement a 200’ fiber optic scope called the SeeSnake® that Vertical Access still uses for applications such as drain investigations.

The old borescope: note the blue extension cord required for light source and video camera. The canvas bag tethered to the technician contains the light source box and other parts of the borescope set-up.

The Fluke DS703 FC Diagnostic Scope incorporates a 7-inch touch display screen with a 0 and 90 degree lens system on the end of a 4 foot flexible cable. It provides all of the capabilities of the old borescope system at a fraction of the size complete with wifi connectivity and 6GB of internal storage.

Vertical Access’s Fluke DS703FC High Resolution Diagnostic Videoscope.

The connectivity that is made possible by adding a mobile phone will have important implications for immediate feedback in the field. A technician on the ground will be able to connect and download what the technician on rope is seeing before the test location has been left, should there be questions about what else the client wants to see.

With the addition of an HDMI cable, Vertical Access will also be able to provide live video through the diagnostic scope. Most importantly, this new scope no longer requires an extension cord to power the light source. Coming in at 2 pounds, this fully integrated system will be a huge asset in the fieldwork to come.

A Vertical Access technician uses a diagnostic videoscope in a separated seam on the Illinois State Capitol building. Holes were also drilled through the sheet metal cladding in other areas to provide for further assessment. These same holes were very easy to patch later on to maintain the integrity of the façade post assessment. At the Illinois State Capitol, Atkinson-Noland & Associates loaned VA their videoscope during the investigation.

[i] https://www.olympus-global.com/technology/museum/endo/?page=technology_museum

Helping to Write the Book on UAS Best Practices

Published in November 2019 by CRC Press, Applications of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Best Practices and Case Studies presents case studies for UAS-enabled applications across a range of disciplines. Drones have made established technologies like photogrammetry, aerial imaging, and mapping affordable and accessible. Now, early adopters are sharing their expertise, allowing researchers, governments, and businesses to fully understand what is possible and to envision new UAS applications.

Kristen Olson wrote about Vertical Access’s work at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument in her contribution to chapter 9, “Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) and Structure from Motion for Identifying, Documenting, and Monitoring Cultural and Natural Resources”. VA used multiple means of access to gather information about the exterior and interior of the monument, including UAS to document existing conditions at inaccessible interior spaces. Kristen co-presented on this case study at the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology Digital Documentation Summit in New Orleans in 2017 along with Douglas Gonzalez of Leslie E. Robertson Associates.

Click here to read more about our work at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and click here to purchase the book in hardcover or ebook formats.

A Visit from St. Nicholas?

‘Twas the month before Christmas, Thanksgiving weekend 
On a campus deserted, but lo! There ascends
We know not yet which – sleigh, climber, or drone
To place upon high a garment on loan
From a jolly old elf: a hat red and white;
A mischievous prank under cover of night…

Exactly 22 years and 58 days after one of the most famous pranks in the history of the Ivy League, another mysterious object appeared atop Cornell University’s McGraw Tower on Sunday, December 1. This time, instead of a hollow gourd, it was a Santa hat. No one has come forward to claim responsibility for the caper, and the perpetrators’ means of access is unknown. 

A swirl of questions surrounded the pumpkin, after it was discovered on the morning of October 8, 1997. Speculators wondered whether it was real and pondered how anyone had managed to impale it at the top of a steeply-sloping metal roof. Student scientists competed to obtain a sample of the object to confirm that it was, indeed, a pumpkin. And finally, after enduring five months of winter conditions, the shriveled fruit was removed with a crane. To this day, the pranksters have not revealed their identities (Vertical Access was not involved). 

Unlike the pumpkin, the hat has disappeared just as quietly as it appeared. Did a certain toymaker reclaim his cap? Did the wind blow it down? Why didn’t they call VA? We may never know.

While Vertical Access had nothing to do with the placement of the hat – “my alibi is rock-solid,” says Founding Partner Kent Diebolt [Cornell ‘82] – we stand at the ready to put our expertise to work in accessing, documenting, or removing the next object to appear atop McGraw Tower.

Can You Guess the Building? Series No. 15

Test your knowledge of historic and iconic buildings in the U.S. (and beyond!) in this series of “guess the building” blog posts.

This National Historic Landmark was once the tallest building in the world, and was the tallest in its city for over 90 years. A taller building was built nearby in 1986, allegedly bringing a curse against the city’s professional sports teams. 

Where is it?

Answer: Philadelphia City Hall. This 548-foot-tall masonry building was designed in the Second Empire style by John McArthur Jr. and Thomas U. Walter and was the tallest building in the world from 1894 to 1908. The 37-foot-tall statue of William Penn, sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder, is still the tallest statue atop a building in the world.

Don’t miss another architectural challenge: subscribe to our blog by signing up with your email address in the sidebar. Click here to see all of the posts in this series.

Photos by Vertical Access.