The Biggest Dam Project

Deep down, our DIY endeavors are just like the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Look at the Hoover Dam not as a monument but as a project and you’ll marvel at its immensity. Imagine the reaction in 1918 when the Reclamation Service proposed constructing this mammoth structure to corral the Colorado River: “What??? First you’re going to channel the river by blasting four 56-ft.-dia. tunnels in the solid-rock walls of Black Canyon and then line the three-plus miles of tunnels with a 3-ft.-thick layer of concrete? And that’s before you can even start to excavate down who-knows-how-far to find a suitable base for a foundation?! Then you’ll build a concrete barrier that is 660 ft. thick at the base, towers more than 70 stories high and extends nearly 1/4 mile across the canyon? All in a scorching desert with the nearest town (Las Vegas, population 5,000) 26 miles away. Yeah, I don’t think so.”

It doesn’t seem feasible – even in this century. Yet we humans tackle seemingly impossible projects, all for the prospect of a better life and the promises of problems solved. In this case, the driving force was the dam’s potential to control erratic water levels and prevent catastrophic floods, to provide a reliable water supply for agricultural and domestic use, and to generate electricity to support expansion in the Southwest. For 80 years, the Hoover Dam has fulfilled on all counts.

On a smaller scale, DIYers often tackle projects to solve a problem (squeaky floors, a leaky roof, an unstable deck) or to achieve a dream: a beautiful landscape, an upscale bathroom or a state-of-the-art workshop. With a sense of vision, we propose a solution and create a plan. As with the Hoover Dam project, our success hinges on having the right skills, resources, materials and tools, plus plenty of time and energy. Here’s a look at a few lessons we can learn from this historic construction project.

Base your plans on proven methods. To manage the Colorado River, engineer Arthur P. Davis conceived an idea to construct what at the time would be the world’s tallest dam. Before it was built (from 1931 to 1936), some 200 engineers, along with countless geologists, several architects and numerous other experts, had a hand in the design. Examples of existing dams provided assurance that a concrete arch-gravity dam would be viable.

Collaborate to achieve optimal results. If you and your housemate (or neighbors) sometimes butt heads on DIY ideas, imagine coordinating the interests of seven states and then gaining the approval of Congress before starting a project. All had to agree that the dam would be in the best interests of everyone, including Mother Nature.

In a similar vein of collaboration, six contracting companies merged their areas of expertise to bid on the project. The newly formed “Six Company Inc.” won with the lowest price of just under $49 million. Their combination of skills enabled them to bid smart and to accomplish the task in five years, two years ahead of schedule.

Combine the required resources and materials with your own ingenuity. The dam required 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete, poured into columns of wooden frames. (An additional 1.25 million cubic yards went into the diversion tunnels’ lining and other structures.) To temper the heat generated by the curing process, workers incorporated 582 miles of custom-made cooling pipes within the pours and filled them with ice water. A dedicated refrigeration plant produced as much as 1,000 tons of ice a day for this purpose. Without that innovative measure, the concrete could have taken 125 years to cool to ambient levels – and it surely would have been too weak to hold back the world’s largest man-made reservoir, Lake Mead.

Make sure you have the right tools for the job. Much of the necessary equipment didn’t exist on a scale to build this colossal project, so special trucks, trains, foundries and factories, cables and tools had to be created.

Work hard, and ask for help when you need it. The Great Depression of 1929 led several thousand desperate workers (many with families in tow) to the desert project, despite long hours, rugged working and living conditions and low pay (about $1 an hour). The enormous feat could not have been accomplished without them, just as our DIY endeavors rely most of all on human resources. Whether you compensate your assistants with pizza or the promise of a future favor, the real payoff is the shared realization of the amazing things we can achieve when we put our minds and hands to work.

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