For this Colorado contractor, stringless concrete paving was just the opening act.
The phrase, “having it all” often implies the need to acquire wealth, power, and status. Not so, for Lance Latimer who, instead, saw it as a goal for the breadth of expertise he envisioned for his company, Alpine Civil Contractors.
His vision started with a stringless slipform paving system but has since grown to include GNSS technology on almost every type of heavy equipment the company operates in all facets of the site development process.
That push to GPS — and the reputation it‘s helped Alpine earn for fast, accurate work — has led to the company becoming one of the area’s most sought-after contractors and achieving A-List status with major home developers. And while recognizing the technology for the game-changer it is might not allow them to “have it all” right now, it certainly has them well on the way there.
"We believe in the technology and our customers are beneficiaries of that belief."
Pushed Into Action
The brainchild of Lance Latimer and Matt Varholdt — both of whom come from entrepreneurial backgrounds — Alpine Civil Contractors (ACC), positions itself as a general contractor with a specialty in slipform paving. Though it was established less than five years ago, Latimer and Varholdt alone bring nearly 60 years’ cumulative experience to the table. According to Latimer, the decision to form Alpine was driven by entities that would become his future clients.
“It because a situation in which these companies either weren’t getting the service they needed or were dealing with major workmanship issues,” he said. “At the same time, I had a handful of guys that I had known in different capacities who were continually asking when I was going to start a new company. Matt and I saw that, if we were to start a company, we had a crew and would immediately have the work, so it made sense to move forward.”
Choosing to go with their strong suit, ACC first made inroads as a slipform paving company. However, based on the success in that area — using a stringless paving solution — quickly expanded into other areas, including mass excavation, grading and utility work, and employed Topcon GNSS-based machine control solutions there as well. The result, said Latimer, was an across-the-board improvement in the deliverable to the client.
Expanding the Advantage
A good part Alpine’s client list involves some of the largest homesite developers in the region, companies which have millions of dollars tied up in developments, but can’t issue a building permit until roads, ponds, and any special features are in place. These are the people to whom Alpine has made its services invaluable.
“We’ve sped that process up considerably, using Topcon GPS technology on our excavators, dozers and motor graders — we even have machine control on one of our loaders which we use for fine-tuning grade with the roadbuilding crew,” he said. “Our operator loves it because he know where grade is no matter where he’s at on the site. That makes it easy for him to work alongside a blade building sub-base for road prep. So, yes, we believe in the technology and our customers are beneficiaries of that belief.”
Recently, on one of those development projects, Green Valley Ranch (GVR), a John Deere 210 excavator was at work creating a retention pond — without a grade stake in sight. According to Seth Aberle ACC’s machine control specialist, excavators with GPS have all but eliminated the need for survey stakes in this type of work.
“This machine is running off a digital model and he will get this to within .1 of a foot,” he said. “Working off his screen, he will do the inlet, the forebays, the e-walls, everything. Early on, a number of our customers were skeptical of our reliance on GPS. But, after coming behind us with their own surveyors and seeing how accurate our work is, they’ve become believers in what we can do.”
"We had lightning in a bottle and wanted to be the first in the area to utilize it."
Savings in Stringless
That reduction in survey costs is realized in a big way in the stringless paving operation as well. Latimer said an important part of his pitch to new clients is to point out how much they save by not having to pay survey to pound hubs and stakes in advance of the stringline crew.
“On larger developments, that savings can be tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “I tell them they can save that money or put it into contingency or whatever. It’s a nice plus.”
Latimer said he had known about stringless paving technology — the ability to use a GNSS-controlled system versus the standard process in which the paver follows a manually-erected string line — existed, but not well enough to understand its real value. After doing some research, however, and seeing the strengths and shortcomings of products on the market, he began serious discussions with GOMACO and Topcon Positioning Systems.
“I was impressed with what they had accomplished to make a solution far superior to what anyone else on the market had,” he said. “Both Matt and I immediately saw Millimeter GPS as a game-changer. We knew the capital investment was pretty substantial right out of the gate, but also recognized that the payoff in efficiency would be huge.”
Armed with what he saw as a revolutionary capability, Latimer knew ACC could quickly be a force to be reckoned with. “We had lightning in a bottle and wanted to be the first in the area to utilize it,” he said. “That was our motivation to pull the trigger on going stringless and we are seeing repeatedly that we were right in doing so.”
Latimer’s optimism is grounded in fact. ACC’s performance on major projects turned heads and garnered praise based on their ability to beat projected deadlines and provide a previously unseen level of quality. The fact that the Topcon machine control solutions are fully compatible with their existing OEM-specific systems was also key in bringing that advantage about.
At times, major housing development work, like the kind in which ACC has come to specialize, can be largely a waiting game. As mentioned above, homes can’t be built until roads are in; roads can’t be paved until curb and gutter is in, curb can’t happen until grading is complete, and so on. Latimer is certain it was their ability to streamline the workflow that struck a chord with developers.
“Once they saw the results of us owning the entire project, they didn’t want anything except a full turnkey general contracting bid from us,” he said. “They know we will get it done quicker, have a better handle on QC, there will be no delays, etc. Out at GVR, we’ve shaved nearly two months off the schedule. Obviously, they are thrilled; not only does it get sales moving, it also improves their standing with the corporate side of the business. And most of that time-savings can be tied directly to the technology because we no longer have to wait. Once we build the models — which we do in-house — we are ready to go with overall control of the project.”
For an example of how much better can a GNSS solution be, Aberle points to a project which involved paving 10,000 linear feet of 5-foot wide sidewalk. He estimates that using a traditional approach, the job with everything factored in — setup, moving the stringline and stakes, and teardown — probably would have taken close to two weeks.
“Using the Topcon Millimeter GPS system, we were able to get it all poured in three days,” he said. “That much of a reduction in time is huge because it opens up the developer’s window for getting permits and so on. We got on board with GPS early and it’s allowed us to really capitalize on it.”
And capitalize they have. In less than five years, ACC has gone from a startup business with 14 people to a company of more than 120 today, serving some of the biggest names in Denver-area home development. Latimer said they are poised for additional growth but will not grow simply for growth’s sake.
“Going forward, in spite of all that’s going on, we are very fortunate to have a tremendous backlog of work moving into 2021 and actually well into 2022,” he said. “If we have to add more people and it makes sense to do so, we will. But we will not force the issue; we will never sign a contract and then try to figure out how to get the guys to fulfill that contract. And it’s most important to remember that a huge part of our success is the result of the guys in the field, our people, our subcontractors, and so on. So, we have the technology, we have the people, we have the work and we have a solid reputation for providing quality. I’d say we’ve been blessed.”