The Explosive Story Behind the Downfall of Useless Buildings : Construction: Two brothers say they use the gentle art of persuasion in demolishing buildings.


"Structures, like people, have a life expectancy. They get tired. They get old. You might call what we do 'building euthanasia,' if you want to be positive about it." --Mark Loizeaux

Doug Loizeaux got dressed at a quarter to 5 and headed for work in his BMW convertible. On the way, he stopped at a 7-Eleven for a cup of coffee.

Within a few hours, he would be supervising the blowing up of a nine-story building only 100 feet from a hospital emergency room in East Baltimore.

Doug was joined at the demolition site, at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, by his older brother, Mark. The Loizeauxs own Controlled Demolition Inc., a company that does roughly 80% of the world's structural explosives demolitions.

The job, described as fairly routine, was a 54-year-old nurses' residence and dormitory, a brick Art Deco building that had worn out its usefulness. It was wired with 92 pounds of linear-shaped charges custom made in Texas.

Parents, wives, children, friends and employees were among the several hundred spectators who had assembled to watch a six-second performance. It was the sort of event for which an instant replay would come in handy, because too much happens too fast.

A building that implodes--all of CDI's demolitions are structured to make buildings fall in, rather than explode out--gracefully sinks in upon itself in choreographed construction suicide. It is a death that is neat, tidy and frighteningly quick.

The explosives carried sharp, loud firecracker sounds, but the 10,000 tons of building coming apart seemed surprisingly quiet, almost a grumble.

After the building sank into itself, dust began to rise and billow like a storm. For a minute or so, the site was invisible as the dust blew south. It blew over the crowd assembled on the hospital grounds with lawn chairs and blankets as if they were at a rock concert.

People cheered with the passion usually reserved for home runs and knockout punches.

Mark Loizeaux, president of Controlled Demolition, understands that kind of reaction.

"There was a client who started going to see our projects," Mark Loizeaux said. "I asked him, 'Why do you do this?' He said, 'Because it will never happen again. I will never see that building come down again. It's the same reason I went to L.B.J.'s funeral. It's because it will never happen again.'

"People love to see things come down," he said. "It's real, it's emotional, it's passion. It's adrenaline. The sound is nice. It's either a very sharp report, like a rifle, or a boom like a shotgun. The sound of the sirens before the building comes down is eerie. And it gets very, very quiet when you're in the last 30 seconds of countdown."

When the Loizeaux brothers discuss strategies for taking down a building, they talk as if the building is their partner in its own destruction. In fact, they seem well versed in the gentle art of persuasion.

"We're helping the building fall. It wants to fall. Anything vertical to the horizon wants to fall. We're just helping it," Doug Loizeaux told a film crew from National Geographic, which made a 1987 documentary about the brothers.

"If we can empathize with the structure, if we can get to know it, then that building is as good as down. Every ounce of energy of the building's kinetic energy, every nail, each brick, is at our disposal."

When the dust had settled, the old nurses' home, an East Baltimore landmark since 1935, was a pile of rubble about two stories high. The building had dropped so neatly that the two maple trees in front of the entrance were left standing on a giant mound of dirt.

And as observers were marveling over the fact that the building had actually disappeared, CDI crews were already hosing down the dusty streets in the nearby community.

It was another success for the Loizeauxs, a family whose work introduced the physics term "implosion" to the demolition industry in the early 1960s.

The job required the sort of elaborate preparations one might associate with a royal wedding. The hospital covered the windows of the nearby emergency room with sheet rock and plywood. The air-conditioning system was temporarily stopped to guard against the dust.

Cars on streets of the nearby community were removed. Residents of 12 row houses next to the site were temporarily evacuated. Traffic in front of the hospital was stopped for five minutes.

There were the usual last-minute checks. The night before the blast, the Loizeauxs sprinkled flour across all entrances of the doomed building so that they could see the footprints of any unsuspecting homeless people who might have spent the night. (There were none.)

Crews double-checked the explosives, specially chosen to cut through the building's structural-steel supports. (Explosives for this job cost $15,000. If the supports had been concrete, the charges would have cost $500.) The asbestos in the building was removed and disposed of. Then, CDI crews weakened the building by knocking out non-load bearing supports. They also added steel cables to help control the fall because the building was not tied together as securely as they had hoped.

Next, crews prepared to place the explosives.

For an implosion, explosives are triggered sequentially to allow gravity to do most of the work of taking the building down. The charges are detonated over half-second intervals, which exert a lateral pull. The higher you place a charge on a column, the faster the building moves.

"We take the static structure and make it dynamic," Mark Loizeaux said. "It is controlled progressive collapse. We cajole buildings to come down."

"If you're standing up and I want you to fall to the left, I knock this leg and you fall over. If I don't want you to fall your whole height, I knock this leg out, and as you start to fall, I cripple this leg and you fall down to your knees," said Doug Loizeaux. "What we do is the same principle."

Demolition is a craft that passes from generation to generation and from friend to friend. There are plenty of courses in how to build buildings and none in how to take them down.

"Years ago, demolition was not viewed as a profession," Doug Loizeaux said. "It was something that was done by the outcasts of the construction industry." The old approach, he said, was to "get some really strong guys with a sledge hammer and go knock the hell out of the building--and we don't care where it falls!"

Jack Loizeaux, the founder of CDI, got started in the 1940s when he used explosives to blast tree stumps for his local tree service. After doing blasting work on the side for construction contractors, he officially moved into structural demolition in 1960.

With the aid of courses in engineering and geology--and by trial and error--Loizeaux taught himself how to make buildings "implode." He also taught his sons: Mark, now 41, and Doug, 38.

And the brothers have taught their craft to many of their most-trusted employees. Mark Loizeaux says he is inclined not to recruit ex-servicemen who have handled explosives because, "They like it too much. We'd be more interested in training someone whose first reaction was, 'Oh my God, you do what?' "

CDI and other family enterprises gross about $10 million a year. The company is opening an office in Hong Kong.

The Loizeauxs have used explosives to demolish 6,000 structures--including bridges, smokestacks and underwater installations. That's more than any other company in the world. They also contributed time, expertise and resources to helping demolish dangerous structures after the Mexican earthquake in 1985.

Mark Loizeaux figures CDI has a .988 lifetime batting average, mainly because his father missed with the first building he tried to take down, an apartment house in Washington, D.C., where the State Department stands. On the first blast, the building went from eight stories to seven; the demolition required two more attempts.

After this job, there was one call about a broken pane of glass in a row-house window.

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