Working the Graveyard Shift Literally

It sounded like an interesting job. After all, how many chances do you get to go inside a fully operational coroners office? What would it be like? Will I see real dead people? And, for a coroners office, this one is actually somewhat famous since many of its clients are celebrities. It even has its own gift store called Skeletons in the Closet thats kind of creepy. Thus begins my late night tale of scanning the L.A. County Coroners office during the graveyard shift.

Our project was being performed for the general contractor who was constructing a major, and much needed, renovation of the coroners main processing facility. Our scope focused on documentation of the existing structural, mechanical, plumbing, electrical and fire protection systems in the ceiling space above the primary corridor that served the autopsy rooms. The corridor system was rectangular in shape. The purpose of the documentation was to generate an accurate 3D model of these existing building systems for coordination purposes during construction. A 3D model of the new work had been generated, but no one knew for sure how the existing above ceiling building systems in this main corridor were configured. The new main utility lines serving the remodel area were supposed to route through this ceiling space. Some of the existing utilities were to remain and some were going to be demolished. It was decided to utilize HDS (High Definition Survey) 3D Laser Scanning, and deliver an as-built BIM utilizing Autodesks Revit so clash free routes for the new utilities could be determined.

I was instructed to check in at the construction trailer when I arrived on site. The first order of business was to get a security badge and go through safety training. After a fairly painless half hour of viewing a slide presentation on general construction jobsite safety, signing the appropriate waivers, etc. it was time to grab my gear and head inside. It was at this point I realized this wasnt going to be an average construction site project.

The contractor started asking some non-typical questions. Have you ever seen dead people before? Well, yes I said. Id seen a couple of relatives over the course of my life. He asked if I was squeamish around blood. I told him Id done a lot of work in hospitals so I thought Id be fine. Ok he said. By the way, you are going to have to leave your phone here. Phones are not allowed inside the building. They dont allow any unauthorized photography. I thought, This is kind of silly. I cant take my phone in, but they have no problem allowing me to bring in an imaging instrument capable of capturing everything in 3D.

He went on to mention that the entire construction crew was to enter and leave the building at the same time. It was about 6pm. No one will be allowed to leave until 10pm when everyone must go on a mandatory break and then once back, no one can leave until 3am. O.K. I thought. Id better grab my bottled coffee drink if Im going to be stuck in there for a while. He said, Theres no food or drink allowed inside. And even if it were, you wouldnt want to bring it in. Hmmm, just what am I going to see inside this place? I thought. I said, Okay and grabbed my gear.

As we walked up the driveway to the delivery bays I noticed a strange odor in the air unlike anything Id ever experienced. Smell that? he said. The odor was drifting through the open garage doors from the inside of the building to where we were standing at a small security guard shack just outside the service entry. I nodded yes. He handed me a painters mask and told me to put it on, along with a white, full body, painters jump suit, some blue booties to cover my boots, a pair of latex gloves, and of course, my hard hat and safety glasses. The smell is much worse inside, he said. We scanned our badges then entered the building.

Walking through the delivery garage as we headed for the entry door to the building I thought, hes right, the smell is much worse in here. Some folks have asked me if it smelled like formaldehyde. Not really. I remember thinking this must be what people are talking about when they say you could smell death in the air.

Our first steps through the entry door brought the reality of this setting to life, strangely enough. I walked by the first of many real dead people lying on a gurney being weighed and measured. Whoa, this is going to be an interesting evening, I thought.

Heading into my area of interest, the primary corridor, I saw that the contractor had already removed the ceiling. I thought, This is really going to help speed things up and give me better data capture. My first step was to assess the scene. I walked the entire corridor system to get a lay of the land – nothing unexpected. This is good news. Ok, I told the contractor. Im going to start by sketching my scan plan and setting my targets. All the targeting could be done with paper targets and since the structure above was fairly low and the utilities were all exposed, it looked as though I wouldnt have to worry about raising the scan head up into the plenum. Everything could be captured from the standard tripod height.

I decided to target the entire scene first so I could just rip through quickly with the scanner. After my targets were set, I went to set up the scanner. Tonight I was using a Leica HDS6000. Rolling tripod base, check; tripod, check; tribrac tribrac?…. Ohhh nooo! Wheres the tribrac?! Rats! I forgot the tribrac. It was at this point I started to notice the sweat pouring down my face probably more from the monkey suit I was wearing than anything, but the stress of the moment didnt help. Now what? I thought. Im stuck inside the building, I cant leave, all my targets are set and I have no way to attach my scanner to the tripod. Its nearly 9pm, Im an hour away from my office, and I cant even phone a friend to bring one to me because I have no phone. Meanwhile, the contractor walks by and asks how its going. Just fine I said. Im almost ready to scan. He says great and continues on his way. The fact that dead people, or clients as they call them, were constantly being rolled by didnt seem to matter much anymore.

Im a big believer in the concept of Theres always a way to solve a problem. Maybe I can set the scanner on the top plate of the tripod. That could be pretty risky with nothing to lock it down, I thought. It has a dual axis compensator and Im on a level floor slab. I should be fine without the ability to level it, but how can I keep the scanner from falling off? Maybe I can use my blue painters tape that I used to tape up my targets. Then an idea came to me. I wonder if I put the roll of tape flat on the top plate of the tripod, would the three pegs at the bottom of the scan head fit inside the cardboard center of the tape roll? YES! Not only did they fit, but it was a snug fit. This kind of luck never happens. So I taped the tape roll to the tripod and set the scan head into the tape roll. It actually worked. O.K. not a best practice, but a handy fall back in a pinch. Let the scanning operations begin.

About half way through scanning the corridor I looked up as a coroner employee entered the corridor through a door. She was dressed in the standard coroner issue uniform. I remember thinking, she doesnt have much protection. It wasnt much more than a standard set of street clothes. She stopped and stared at me, then looked up to the exposed plenum, then back down at me. A look of uncertainty gripped her face as she wondered. Then she spoke as we both stood there staring at each other. Am I O.K.? she asked. At first I thought that was a strange question. I replied, Pardon me? She repeated, as she gazed about the space and at my protective gear, Am I O.K. being here? Funny, I thought. I had been wondering the same thing about myself the entire evening. I said, Yes, and we both went about our business.

Twenty-one scans and a few hours later all the scanning was complete. Timing worked well – when the rest of the construction crew was leaving I was finished, so I wasnt trapped inside. Thus concluded another long night on a project that brought new meaning to the phrase working the graveyard shift.

About the Author

John Russo

John Russo, AIA ... John M. Russo, AIA, is an experienced architect and entrepreneur. He founded Architectural Resource Consultants (ARC), a firm that has provided outsourced architectural services to the architectural, engineering, construction and facilities management (AEC+FM) communities since 1997. Under his leadership, ARC has grown into a preferred outsourcing partner and is widely used by many of the industry's leading organizations. With more than 26 years of professional experience, including tenure with Taylor and Ware Malcomb Architects, Mr. Russo has developed his passion for as-built documentation of buildings into a thriving award winning business. At ARC, Mr. Russo successfully led his team in a nationwide competition for a 5 year, $30 million IDIQ contract with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) for Nationwide Laser Scanning Services. Mr. Russo is an active member of the Orange County Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), serves the AIA Orange County Chapter in the development and maintenance of the organization's website, and is one of the founding members of the Orange County IT/CAD Manager's Technology Roundtable. He also is a member of the BuildingSMART Alliance. Mr. Russo holds a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from California State University, Fullerton and an Associate of Arts degree in Architecture from Orange Coast College. He is a Registered Architect in the State of California.
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