When thinking of a small construction company, one typically conjures up the image of an upstart, one- or two-person operation struggling to achieve a steady queue of jobs and working hard to build a positive reputation. With a used, but reliable full-size pickup and a trailer in tow, these fledgling business owners might not have much for new equipment or the latest technology, but many aspire to one day establish a much larger organization with several crews in the field at any given time.
This is not the case with Barko Construction, Inc. An admittedly small utility contractor based in the quiet bedroom community of Jamestown, N.C., Barko Construction runs only one crew — and wants to keep it that way.
Owned and operated by brothers John and Kit Barker, president and vice president respectively, Barko Construction is small by design. Focusing on sewer and water installation, the company is geared to fill a niche by handling jobs that many larger contractors won't consider. It's different from the approach most contractors take, but the jobs left on the table by other companies have kept Barko in the black.
"For many years, I was involved with a much larger company and I personally managed four to five crews," said Kit Barker. "I guess you could say I've scaled back now. We're trying to carve out a little niche, not doing anything really big and not wanting to do anything really big. It may be a lot more hands-on and not as lucrative, but it's much less stressful as well."
Further reducing the stress and expense of business, Barko minimizes travel concerns by concentrating on work within the confines of its home county of Guilford, which includes the Greensboro metropolitan area. Not only is there plenty of growth to keep work potential high, but Barko has quickly built a good reputation based solely on word of mouth.
"I've been in the construction business for 34 years now," said Barker. "This experience has allowed me to build relationships with several of the engineers and developers in the area. Knowing the type of jobs we specialize in and the quality work we do, projects seem to find us."
"For example, an engineer recently contacted me about doing a 1,000-foot sewer extension for a small subdivision," said Barker. "Most larger contractors wouldn't show any interest in a job this small, but this is the type of work we want. Knowing this, the engineer called me up to see if I was interested and then hooked us up with the developer."
So, the cliché of a small contractor striving for bigger jobs and multiple crews doesn't fit Barko. What about the thought of a small contractor having an equipment fleet that consists of a hodgepodge of used and outdated machines? Again, this is not the case with Barko. In fact, the company recently became one of the first in the United States to implement a groundbreaking compaction equipment technology into its operation.
Earlier this construction season, Barko began looking for a new trench compaction solution. The company had rented a trench compactor for the previous season, but decided it was time to add a new, permanent solution to the equipment fleet. That's when Barker contacted Tommy Jobe, a sales representative for the local Briggs Equipment dealer.
"I've been working with Tommy for about 15 years now, and he's always done a good job helping me find the right equipment for my needs," said Barker. "He had me try some different trench compactors, and I liked a few features from one to the other, but wasn't sure which would be the best fit. That's when he had a couple guys from Bomag come down to talk to me about their trench roller.
"It was through the course of this conversation that I found out about these polygonal drums that Bomag is offering with its trench rollers," said Barker. "They offered to send me the polygonal drums to try out and I was definitely interested. Anything that claims to be a better mousetrap, it only makes sense to give it a try. Especially when so much is riding on our equipment."
Just as the name infers, the polygonal drums are angular with several flat sides. Quite different than the standard padfoot drums usually found on trench compactors, the idea behind polygonal drums is to combine the compaction performance of a flat-surface plate compactor with the higher gradeability of a drum-style compactor — making the roller ideal for a wider variety of soil types.
In theory, the flat surfaces of the polygonal drums will slap the ground as they travel, providing a larger area of contact similar to that found on plate-style compactors. At the same time, a high amount of pounds per linear inch (pli) is loaded on to the crowns of the drums, offering the effort of a padfoot-style drum compactor. Additionally, because the drums are mostly flat, no scraper bars are necessary to keep them clean of dirt and debris. This frees up engine horsepower typically required to drive the scraper bars through the buildup between the padfoot teeth and allows for extra power to be diverted to travel and vibration circuits.
When Barker first received the new trench roller with the polygonal drums installed, it definitely wasn't love at first sight. "I'll admit, they look kind of different," said Barker. "I was pretty skeptical as to how they would work, especially with the wide range of materials in this area."
Roughly located in the middle of North Carolina, Barko is regularly dealing with several different types of soils, making compaction an ever-changing challenge. "We've got a little bit of everything here," said Barker. "We've got granular material, rock, clay, sand — and this isn't always from job to job, but many times all of these materials are found on the same job. In fact, right now I'm working on a site where I can see granular material and clay, and I'm currently in the middle of trying to dig in some rock."
Barker was most skeptical about how the polygonal drums would work in clay. "We've got the really red clay here," said Barker. "When it gets a little wet, it gets really slick. I just couldn't see how anything except a standard padfoot drum would be able to work."
Though Barker was concerned that this roller would effectively become a 3,000-pound anchor once it encountered wet clay, the Bomag representatives insisted that the polygonal drums would be able to handle it. Once getting the roller into a trench, Barker was no longer skeptical.
"The first job we put this roller on had a fair amount of clay in the trench and the roller worked well," said Barker. "It pulled equal to or better than the standard padfoot drums and we achieved good compaction. Then we tried it out on granular material and it far outperformed the padfoot drums. That's all I needed to see — and decided to go with the roller and these new drums."
Barko was the first U.S. company to purchase a Bomag trench roller with the 40-inch-wide, segmented polygonal drums. Upon taking delivery, the roller was immediately put to work. Given that Barko is mostly working on utility installation jobs, a trench roller is integral to nearly every job, compacting lifts of material as trenches are being backfilled. After a couple applications, Barker recognized additional aspects of the polygonal drums that made them valuable to his operation.
"With the Bomag trench rollers, whether you get them with polygonal drums or standard padfoot drums, the drums themselves are made to be adjustable," said Barker. "For instance, the drums we have are 40 inches wide, but if we need to work in a more narrow trench, we can remove sections from the drums to give the roller a 33-inch working width. We like the wide 40-inch drums — which are typically only seen in Europe — because they allow us to save time by not having to make as many passes to achieve compaction. But, in situations where we're dealing with a narrower trench, we can simply remove the extra sections to accommodate.
"Additionally, there is definitely a difference in power when using polygonal drums," said Barker. "The design of the drums helps prevent the buildup of material — even in sticky clay conditions. Therefore, there is no need for scraper bars to clean the drums, which rob the machine of horsepower. The extra power that's available results in a better ability to climb up steep inclines and over mounds of dirt in the trench."
More power not only helps the roller work more efficiently, but also reduces preparation time and effort for Barko's construction crew. "With a standard padfoot roller, we typically have to take the time to smooth out the material when we're backfilling so the roller can travel through it," said Barker. "With the polygonal drums, the extra power allows the compactor to travel in much rougher terrain, meaning we don't have to take a lot of time to prep the trench for compaction."
Though Barko Construction is much smaller in size and scope when compared with many contracting companies, Barker doesn't see it as unusual that the company is taking a different path to achieve proper compaction. "We may be small, but the bottom line for every construction company is the same — get the job done better and faster. Because these drums allow people to do that, I can definitely see them catching on."