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On a couple of our projects recently, we needed retaining walls built in “cut earth sections” as opposed to “fill earth sections”. In these projects we needed top down construction and a method that afforded easy accessibility and we were dealing with earth that would only be “cut” and not “filled.”

The alternative? What you see on some interstates today, a “Soil Nail” system.  It is economical compared to other top down systems and more flexible in construction technique.

Soil Nailing” has been around since the early ’70s, first developed in France, and has grown to be a standard for stabilization where ground conditions are right for the application, the water table is manageable and where tight access may pose a challenge to other systems.

Installing soil nails is a multiple-step process involving rebar or hollow threaded bars, head plates, a flexible reinforced mesh followed by shotcrete.

We recently used a soil nail system on a new project for United States Steel and in a project of ours located in Gastonia, North Carolina.  Cost-effective, offered a smaller right-of-way and had less of an environmental impact in an area where this is of concern.

Is a Soil Nail Wall a good fit for your development? Take the following into consideration:

  • Soil nail walls can be built to follow unique-shaped walls.
  • Equipment used is portable and can fit in tight spaces.
  • Is usually more cost-effective than other methods meeting similar demands.
  • Has less impact environmentally than other methods.
  • Soil Nail walls cannot be used where groundwater is a problem.
  • Soil on the jobsites must be able to stand unsupported while the Soil Nail Wall is being installed.
  • Sites with soil that has low shear strength or lack cohesion cannot use a Soil Nail Wall.
  •  If a site has poor drainage or is prone to freeze-thaw cycles, Soil Nail walls may not be an effective alternative.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) is an organization that can have a substantial impact on construction projects, yet quite a few folks are not familiar with it. ASTM was founded in 1898 for the development and delivery of voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide variety of materials, systems and services.

ASTM’s construction standards are generally recognized as the benchmark by which materials are tested. They cover basics such as wood, stone, concrete, geotechnical engineering and much more. In many projects, these standards can be the deciding factor in whether the job proceeds, so it’s important to get to know them.

Unfortunately, people do not respect the ASTM standards until it’s too late. Even though the building owner may not ultimately be responsible for low results on strength tests, he or she will be affected if a job is delayed significantly because of it.

We prefer “Design-Build” projects as we can utilize these ASTM standards and are prepared before we reach problems during a project. We work with architects directly on behalf of our client and this helps to alleviate any problems before they arise thanks to our knowledge of ASTM standards and past experiences.

Therefore, it is wise to be respectful of ASTM. These technical committees meet twice a year, so keep track of any changes in standards. It might not seem like the most interesting material to monitor, but it could be the most important.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Few people endure slumps and a downturn in performance as often as professional athletes. Even the greatest sports stars suffer through stretches where seemingly nothing goes right. During his heyday, Michael Jordan had a commercial in which he stated, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.” Then, after a short pause, he said, “And that is why I succeed.”

The point being that we all will go through tough times. To me, The key is how we handle the difficulties, and what we do to maintain a positive attitude and emerge stronger and better.

We have been in an economic slump for the past three years. This downturn has been longer than anything I have ever experienced, and it is not over. But things are improving. Most people expect that 2011 will be better than 2010, and 2012 will be even better than that.

Still, the psychological effects of a bad economy are similar to an athletic slump. Eventually it is difficult to keep your spirits up and you become convinced that the good times will never return. That is precisely when it is vital to visualize success.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal stated that golfing legend Jack Nicklaus used to step back and “consciously regain a positive frame of mind” whenever things were going wrong. Former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz broke out of a lengthy slump by watching a two-minute video of a series of perfect pitches he had made.

Here are a few things I do to try to encourage those around our office to keep their spirits up:

  • We have company lunches from time-to-time. Some of the ladies in our office take advantage of our kitchen and cook some wonderful and tasty full-course meal for everyone.
  • We go on company outings occasionally. Recently, many members of our staff attended a local football game and we invited not only staff, but their family as well.
  • We ensure that all employees have knowledge of our projects and company functions. While not mandatory, their level of involvement is determined by their own interests and time. This increases their own interests and helps create a sense of not only teamwork, but also ownership of the projects.

I am interested to hear how you keep employee moral up in your office or other suggestions you may have on this topic ?


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

You can’t take anything for granted; even the ground under your feet. That’s why it is important to have Geotechnical testing done before construction begins on a project. But nothing is perfect, and even the best Geotech firms can’t always determine exactly what it is going on beneath the surface.

A Sinking Feeling

On one of our job sites, the crew arrived one morning to discover that the building slab had sunk about 5 feet, taking a nearby forklift down with it. It turns out there was a sinkhole below this area in the slab on grade. Plenty of pre-construction Geotechnical testing done, but none of the reports indicated the presence of this deep sinkhole.

On another project the geotech report indicated the water table had risen 20 feet in a six-month span. The engineer said this was because the region was coming out of a severe drought and that had significantly dropped the water table prior to the recent rains, but I was skeptical. After grading we discovered that there was surface material on the slope that had been acting as a dam. Once the material was removed, the water table dropped, no problems after all.

Infill Building Sites

We are increasingly working on infill sites inside metropolitan areas, which have been passed over for one reason or the other, often because of the challenge of that particular site. With these challenges, it’s easy for geotech testing to often overlook a potential problem until work actually begins. Geotech is important in those situations, but it’s not a perfect science.

Geotechnical testing is important, but it’s not a perfect science. If the reports are too good to be true, then it probably is. Practicality and common sense still have to factor into the equation, we have found.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

As our work takes me throughout the southeast, I continue to see optimistic signs that commercial markets are on the upswing.

Increases for everyone

Retail occupancy is improving, apartment rental rates are starting to increase and we are feeling more buzz around our office. More phone calls for opportunities.  While these steps might be small, they are in the right direction.

REIS, Inc. a commercial property research firm reported that the vacancy rates at malls in the top U.S. markets have declined to 8.8 percent in the 3rd QTR; the first drop in vacancies in nearly 4 years.  Additionally, a 2.3 % gain in holiday sales has been forecasted for this year, another sign that consumer confidence and spending are beginning to increase.  Rental property is also seeing a slight increase after declines over the past 3 years.


A few days ago I was talking with the head of a multi-family REIT and he believes the market has touched bottom and the situation is gradually improving. He said he feels “…very, very bullish” about the prospects for the apartment industry over the next three years. We are trending in the right direction. While we are hoping for more positive trends and faster.

Internally we think 2011 will be a good year for many including us.

Your thoughts?


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

While I think our economy continues to heal from what we are seeing the next 12 to 18 months will see more failures of the weak in commercial real estate and the construction industry.  2012 will be a tough year on the sureties and surety credit will even be harder to obtain over the next couple of years.

Many years ago when we were getting started, it was another tough time for surety credit and I will never forget those times.   The surety industry talks about the three “C’s” to obtain bonding capacity:  Capital. Capacity. Character. To me it was more like Capital. Capital and more Capital were the three “C’s”.

I believe there should be an “E” added in for Experience. If I were a surety, I would take less capital if there was a healthy dose of “experience” mixed in, but this is hard to list on a financial balance sheet. To me no substitute for the experience of hard knocks.

Beyond the Three C’s

I asked our surety manager, Ms. Sandi Benford of Berkley Surety Group, what she looks for in a good credit risk (beyond the three C’s and other underwriting). Here is what she had to say:

  • A contractor that is able and willing to communicate the good and the not so good. No Surprises.
  • A company that is able to forecast with accuracy. Being honest with oneself.  If there is a problem on the horizon have at least some semblance of an action plan.
  • If the company is experiencing ongoing losses, does upper management act with personal responsibility equability considering others in the company?

Thoughts and Comments?


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Last week, I took a course called Practical Construction Law presented by Smith, Hancock and Currie. Great course for contractors, designers and owners alike. I recommend.  They teach it several it times a year. Believe what made the course unique was the passion of delivery.  These guys really bring it to life, and to me, this is important as the law is fairly dry.

Years ago, I attended a similar course taught by the founder of Smith, Hancock and Currie, Overton Currie. Overton was passionate and interesting.  A terrific story-teller and a great orator (sprinkled with a dash of preaching), as well as a sound lawyer who always made the time to talk to everyone, no matter their age or position.  Overton, a native of Hattiesburg, MS, first graduated Valedictorian from Mississippi State University.  He later received  his Bachelors of Divinity from Emory University, then on to Yale University to acquire a dual master’s degree (one in law and one in divinity), before finally settling into Atlanta to start the firm.   Overton was also dyslexic. Wow. Talk about rising to success. Overton was the glue for me.

Tom Kelleher, a senior attorney with the firm, continues the tradition of passion about the law and sharing sound knowledge in an interesting and insightful manner. Along with the support from Eric Nelson, John Mastin, and Joe Staack, fine lawyers and also making subject matter come to life. (Except for the topic of wind mitigation, which I’m not sure anyone is capable of doing.) 

Great practical information shared, but the best takeaway for me was something that Tom said in his closing remarks: “After all the paperwork that you prepare, sign and read, the best advice is to deal with trustworthy people.

Sure, there will be bumps along the way, but my suggestion?  Start with Best in Class and Trustworthy.


Image from: emersonjs8, Flickr

In this economy, there are advantages to being moderate in size. Our company is not one of the 50 largest construction companies in the country. We do not have the same resources that our larger competitors maintain. But we are nimble.

Being “right sized” in any field can be a real plus. It’s easier for us to connect personally with our customer relationships. It enables us to be more value-oriented. When challenges arise, we have the flexibility to quickly make changes. This is the way we operate.

Last evening I was talking with a strategic partner Bill Parrish, who runs WP2DC in Los Angeles County, about this economy and how to prosper. Our thoughts:

  • Dominate your niche. Focus on what you can do and then do it better than anybody else.
  • Make yourself noticed. Stand out to be different. Find those things that make your company a leader.
  • Satisfy employees. Smaller companies do not have to be as rigid as larger corporations. That makes it easier to attract creative types who thrive when given greater flexibility.
  • Be innovative. Being moderate in size means you have to try harder. That is a good thing.
  • Move quickly. Large corporations, much like large ships, often change course slowly. Moderate size organizations can react rapidly to a shift in the marketplace.

The size of our company gives us certain strengths. It is up to us to build off those strengths, and use our size to our advantage. Being larger is not always the same as being better.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve thought a lot about the economic pie and how much smaller it is these days. How do we survive and prosper? I think it’s all about a solid foundation built on proven relationships. As Warren Buffett was quoted, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

Ladies and gentlemen, in the construction business, the tide is down. That’s when, to me, it all comes down to the service you provide your customer relationships. It’s about being transparent, authentic, honest and understanding. This has to be true from the outer skin of an organization to its core. I’ve seen large corporations with well-executed taglines, expensive promotional strategies and beautiful logos, but when there’s no follow through, can it really accomplish long-term prosperity?

The simple fact is, now more than ever, our customers have choices. We in the service sectors are like city buses. If you don’t like the bus that you’re on, hop off and another bus will be by in a few minutes to pick you up. All things being equal, the intangible values of what we offer will make the difference. If our team members are authentic, caring and positive, our customer relationships will stay on our bus for the long haul.

Our team members are ambassadors for the company. Hopefully we are empowering our team to do the right thing for our customers – because these time-tested relationships are the fabric that holds it all together.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

There is comfort in the known. That’s why most of us enjoy having a steady routine at work. But if you’re not careful, getting lost in habit and familiarity can become too comfortable. You’ll end up stuck in a rut while the ever-changing business landscape passes by. As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said,

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”

The construction industry is no different. The economy is forcing many companies to carefully examine shifting demands in the business and ensure their technological capabilities and skill sets meet those demands. Here are a few things I am doing to evaluate new means and methods:

Social Media. I suppose the very existence of this blog gives you evidence that I decided to embrace the social world. Beyond Planting Acorns, we’ve jumped in there and gotten active on FlickR, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Not only has this formed some wonderful new relationships, it has given me another avenue to stay up to date on the latest and greatest industry news.

RSS. I use Google Reader for two main reasons:

  • For social media strategy. I receive updates from Chris Brogan and Mashable. In the interest of time, I believe these are overarching and provide a concise heads up on the latest ways to stay connected.
  • To scan latest articles on advancements in construction technology. I use the word search tool to narrow my reading, and find advancements that allow us to do more with less, increasing productivity. BIM would be an example.

LEED. Marketplace emphasis on sustainable construction and renewable energy continues to increase. I sought LEED accreditation before we constructed our building and it’s led to multiple jobs we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

To sum up, I think the construction industry has not taken full advantage of change. Numerous opportunities are waiting; we just have to open the door. Change is often the catalyst for success.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Stewart Perry in Action

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