Always Looking Ahead

Advanced Construction Techniques Limited (ACT)

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Founded in 1992, Advanced Construction Techniques Ltd. (ACT) is a full service, specialty geotechnical contracting company that has consistently brought innovation to its field. Now in its 25th year, and with a U.S. company formed in 2008 (Advanced Construction Techniques Inc.), ACT efficiently and comprehensively provides a complete range of geotechnical services to all areas of North America.
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Doug Heenan, P.Eng., the President and CEO, has been in the industry for close to forty years and is responsible for leading ACT in its evolution. Construction in Focus discussed ACT’s origins with Heenan. “I’m a civil engineer and originated from Western Canada,” he explains. “I worked as a consultant for a period of time and then I started a company called Geotec Contracting Ltd. The focus of that company evolved because I was introduced to some European technologies through the consulting firm I was with. I got interested in the process of grouting within the civil engineering industry.”

At that time, Europe was leading the way in terms of technology, materials, equipment and design in relation to geotechnical contracting, and Heenan’s experience working with European firms gave him the opportunity to examine this technology when it was first coming to North America in the 1980s. With Geotec focussed on geotechnical seepage remediation, Heenan moved his company from Western Canada to Toronto in 1989 – a boom in projects from Ontario Hydro at that time provided a bigger and more lucrative market for a geotechnical contracting firm and Heenan was keen to seek the greater opportunities for his company that Ontario provided.

ACT had a similar scope to that of Geotec Contracting, and the two companies competed over the next few years within the local Canadian market; the two eventually merged in the late 1990s. The motivation behind the merger was to facilitate the new ACT’s move into the U.S. market. At that time there were a lot of opportunities available in the U.S. infrastructure market relative to seepage mitigation and grouting.

Throughout its tenure, and many successfully completed projects, ACT has developed a key relationship in working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The Corps of Engineers is a U.S. federal agency under the Department of Defense, whose stated mission is to “deliver vital public and military engineering services; partnering in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy and reduce risks from disasters,” according to the USACE official website. As the primary American agency responsible for ensuring the safety and security of most of the major locks and dams throughout the United States, the Corps of Engineers is an important client for ACT.

“The Corps of Engineers basically control the navigation, the waterways, the infrastructure, water supply, reservoirs, and flood control for the entire country. It’s a big agency to work for, and in both Canada and the United States, the infrastructure [for dams] is aging, so their mandate is to maintain their aging infrastructure and part of that are the large earthen dams. The earthen dams are obviously holding back large bodies of water and failure becomes a risk issue for life and property,” said Heenan.

ACT has consistently focussed on developing grouting techniques that would suit application to the aging earthen dams throughout the United States, carving a niche for the company within the greater deep foundations industry.

“The evolution of the industry, and ACT itself, has been to develop and technologically improve the process of grouting seepage cut-offs for large earthen dams. We do other things, but if there was one story to be told, that would be the story that we would bring forward and it is a common theme for all our projects. These are large exploratory and grouting projects, spanning one to three years in duration, and they are generally focussed on seepage mitigation of these dam structures,” observes Heenan.

ACT’s particular focus on earthen dams has led to the development of new and innovative technologies to back their work, driving their ability to bid competitively on these projects.

“What ACT brings to [a project] is that we have developed, over this twenty five year period, a number of innovations. In this industry, contractors often drive technology because they are the innovators. Consultants will design, owners will want to repair their facilities, but innovation in the geotechnical market is driven by contractors. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been innovators and have done that through computer monitoring, which is a big thing; we’ve also done this by developing innovative equipment, which has been designed and built by ACT,” said Heenan.

Heenan notes that many of ACT’s innovations are intended to increase safety, efficiency and to cope with environmental considerations – whether it be extremes of cold or hot weather or unusual terrain. “We’ve been fortunate to develop an entire team of safe and effective equipment, personnel, technology, and quality control, and rolled it into one process. Probably the most significant part of that is our development of IntelliGrout®.”

IntelliGrout® was developed and patented by ACT in cooperation with another infrastructure engineering firm, Gannet Fleming, Inc. It represents a “comprehensive integration of real-time data collection, display, analyses and computer control of grouting operations.” (IntelliGrout® website) IntelliGrout® was developed during the course of work on the Penn Forest Dam Replacement Project in 1998. Further advances on this system were made through work done on the Patoka Lake Dam in Indiana, allowing for the development of a beta version of the system, which was then used for the first time at the Hunting Run Dam project in 2000. IntelliGrout® is a system comprising both hardware and software that allows project managers to “collect, visualize, and understand vast amounts of complex data in real time.” This innovation allows owners and contractors to make key decisions about their infrastructure project that are optimized for the particular environmental and geological conditions.

“Computer monitoring in a lot of construction has advanced over the past twenty years but particularly in the geotechnical engineering environment, there have been quantum leaps in development. We were one of the first to come up with an all-inclusive, real-time data monitoring system that could control and monitor our processes. In the grouting world in North America, we’ve certainly driven advancement in terms of that technology, as opposed to maintaining the status quo,” said Heenan.

ACT’s advancements have done much to set industry standards in areas such as data management and real-time computer monitoring. Heenan explains, “The more ACT’s methods and technologies become incorporated into specifications, our competitors are forced to keep up – and while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, ACT has no intention of standing still and will always try to lead the way in terms of safer and better methods and technology.”

Over the years, ACT has developed significant cooperative relationships with manufacturers in order to develop modified or entirely new equipment and technology. One such development was with Wassara at the USACE’s McCook Reservoir project. ACT’s work with Wassara’s down-the-hole hammer in conjunction with ACT’s own rock drilling equipment provided a safer way of executing rock drilling in dam foundations. ACT has also revolutionized equipment for geotechnical projects, developing critical tools like an instrumented packer, in order to provide careful control of injection pressures to protect against hydraulic fracturing of dam embankments and rock fracture zones. ACT’s instrumented packer, known within the industry as IntelliPacker, allows for the measurement of actual, effective grouting pressure in real time. Sensors in IntelliPacker send data information to the IntelliGrout® system, precluding the need for complex engineering calculations to derive this information from pressure measurements taken at the top of the grout hole, as was previously done.

ACT’s technological innovations and demonstrated experience in the field have given them a key competitive edge. They are a company who is known to consistently up the ante in terms of their ability to provide the best and most advanced solutions to projects, and this approach has led them to be successful in winning bids.

“Back in the nineties, it was common for the Corps of Engineers to be awarding projects on the basis of the lowest bid – they would provide a specification to contractors and whoever could deliver the best price would get the work. There was a shift around the same time that ACT began to develop these technologies, in 2000 to the current day, when [the Corps] shifted to a ‘best value’ procurement, which was ideal for ACT because it allowed contractors to submit proposals to the government indicating what their strengths were and how they would do the job and with what equipment. The jobs would be awarded not necessarily to the lowest bidder but rather the bidder that the government felt provided the best value. A lot of ACT’s major projects were successful [under this type of procurement],” said Peter Bowman, ACT’s Vice President.

ACT’s business model has been one that focuses primarily on the safe, successful, and cost effective execution of a few large projects at a time. Key projects for ACT usually focus on infrastructure dams. One of the first major projects that ACT completed, and one that was to influence much of their work in the years following, was the project they did on the Penn Forest Dam Replacement.

“It was a new dam structure that had a grout curtain and the consultant at that time was Gannet Fleming, a multidisciplinary consulting firm from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They were the consultants for the owner of the dam. This project represented a milestone because it was the first instance where real-time computer monitoring was undertaken on a dam grouting project in the United States,” said Heenan.

The collaboration between Gannet Fleming and ACT was an unusual one between contractor and consultant, but it was a relationship that yielded significant benefits for both parties and eventually resulted in the development of the advanced version of IntelliGrout® that is employed by ACT today. Likewise, four or five future projects, awarded to ACT by the Corps of Engineers, stemmed from the effective work that ACT did on the Penn Forest Dam and was bolstered by the relationship that they had developed with Gannet Fleming.

“On many of our USACE projects, ACT would subcontract Gannett Fleming to perform our IntelliGrout® monitoring and analysis. So for the first time in the grouting industry the client was hiring the contractor and a consultant to provide a common service. With that came a lot of benefits to the Corps and other clients. It was a model that was a little different than what our competitors were using. It accelerated the development of IntelliGrout®, which has now evolved into IntelliSystem,” said Heenan.

Much of ACT’s work for the Corps of Engineers is focussed on high-risk, high-priority remediation projects on major dams, primarily in central Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In these states, the primarily limestone geology makes it a challenge to maintain the integrity of large earthen dams, which is why many of ACT’s projects have been located in the United States.

Many of the large U.S. dams are founded on karstic limestone foundations and therefore have been susceptible to erosion and unacceptable levels of water seepage. “In Canada, we’ve got the Canadian Shield, which is very hard granitic rock and less susceptible to erosion and major seepage issues. That’s why so many of our opportunities have presented themselves in the U.S. as opposed to Canada,” said Heenan.

ACT has worked on some significant projects in Canada, however. In particular, their work on the Diavik Diamond Mine, located in the Northwest Territories, approximately 230 kilometres north of Yellowknife, presented a unique challenge. Because the mine is situated in the Arctic Circle, the area is subject to severe winter weather conditions, with temperatures dipping to as low as – 50°C. ACT was hired to install a single row grout curtain to a depth of 150 feet within granite foundation rock. The grout curtain was intended to prevent water seepage through the foundation of a dike which was put in place in order to allow for open pit mining. The primary challenge for ACT was to complete the grouting project while coping with the severe temperatures of the area.

“We developed a lot of severe winter protection, we developed equipment and processes that could perform and function in extreme environments. Our lifeblood is water – water for our drilling equipment, water for our grout plants, and we are injecting cement grout, so we have a grout line – everything that can freeze, so working in those extreme temperatures was difficult. It was a milestone in that it helped us to develop equipment that we are still utilizing,” said Heenan.

ACT invests a lot into their ability to innovate and this is one of the key components that sets them apart in the industry. “Without experienced and dedicated personnel, innovation would be ineffective and ACT is fortunate to have a wealth of long term employees within our management, procurement, technical and field support.” ACT has significant internal “bench strength,” with a formidable Research and Development wing, fabricators, and designers who work on their innovative technologies to solve problems for specific projects – innovations which later come to represent an industry standard, something that will continue to fuel ACT’s success into the future.

25 years on, “One of our advantages is our ability to innovate, design, and build [specialty] equipment that gets utilized in the field,” said Heenan. “Our focus will remain on grouting, and developing technological advances within that.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 11, 2019, 9:55 PM EST