True Stories from the Savvy Surveyor   (no joke!)

7 — Tons of Mall Bulkhead

The following conversation did not take place on a tenant improvement construction site in a mall on the west coast, but it could have...

"Hey Boss, we have a big problem out here on the job site. We just uncovered a large pipe column that is going to be exactly in the pathway of the new storefront entrance. It is holding up the mall bulkhead which is very heavy because of the thick marble stone on it. The landlord says it has to remain. What do you want us to do? We are already behind schedule and grand opening is in 4 weeks!"

It was in an older, single level mall on the west coast. My job was to measure a prominent clothing store that was in operation. As I walked up to the storefront, I noticed the mall bulkhead was heavy solid marble stone that was about 1 inch thick (Most mall bulkheads are sheetrock and much lighter weight). So what is a mall bulkhead? Simply put, it is the wall of the mall that starts at the top of the storefront's windows and goes up to the ceiling. In this case, it went up about 7 feet above the glass. That was a lot of stone, and I remember thinking about how expensive that must have been to purchase and install. Usually I only saw marble like that in New York City in the elevator lobbies of big fancy skyscrapers. Little did I know at the time, but that marble mall bulkhead was the first clue that something major was lurking that I would need to find.

In an architectural surveyor's world, it is vital to find problems that are hiding behind walls and above ceilings. You see, clients hire us to find out everything they need to know about a space in a building (or sometimes the entire building). The goal is to put their new store or business in that space. That usually means tearing out walls, relocating entrances and exits, installing new ceilings and floors, and lots more. When their construction crews show up on the job, there is a plan to follow and a schedule to keep. They do not want any surprises. They do not want to get a phone call from the job superintendent like the one above.

So that is what I mean when I say something major was lurking. Back to my story...

Plenum InspectionThis space was a typical, high quality store with hard sheetrock ceilings in the sales areas. That meant my access into the plenum (the space above the ceiling) was very limited. Usually I could lift up an HVAC diffuser and get my head up through there to take a look, but not at this store. All diffusers were ducted down tight and could not be lifted up. My only vantage point to see above the sales floor ceiling was from a ladder in the stockroom in the rear. I had a good flashlight, but trying to shine it 50 feet through a dark plenum that was packed with ducts didn't work so well. This obstacle of limited access was covering up a big potential problem at the storefront and was making it difficult for me to find.

Earlier that morning, before I started working in the store, I was able to spend the time I needed to look through all the mall's drawings in their plan room. I had the column grid lines and their dimensions. I had the beam sizes and spacing. I even had the column sizes. Everything in the store that I measured was matching up exactly with those drawings. In this case, the base building columns were set back about 5 feet behind the storefront glass. They were in the sales floor. That was not uncommon, though, for sheetrock mall bulkheads. They weigh less, so at first, I thought nothing of it. This was another clue that was passively trying to tell me that something was not reconciling. (Heavy marble veneer above the glass but the support columns were 5 feet away?)

The next day, I left the store to go down to the food court to get some lunch. As I walked into the mall common area, I noticed the store directly across from mine. It was a popular clothing store that we all know. But what caught my eye was a large pipe column at their main entrance into the store. It was directly under the marble mall bulkhead and partially blocking the travel path to one of the recessed doors into the store. It was evident that it was not discovered until the construction crews found it (when it was too late).

As I stood there at that column, I looked straight across the mall to my storefront to see if there was any indication of a column over there possibly lurking behind a column wrap that I had somehow missed. NOTHING! Only panes of glass that I could see through into the store. It was strange, but in older malls, strange things abound. That column was another very visible clue that something was lurking at my own storefront, and I needed to find it!

On the third afternoon, as I was finishing up the survey, I found a small ceiling panel that could be lifted up. It was near the storefront. Typically, I can get my upper body through ceiling access panels but not this one. It was only big enough to get my hand through. So I got the ladder out on the sales floor, climbed it, and pushed my digital camera up through that hole and snapped photos is all directions. I then carefully pulled it back down through the hole and pushed the button for the pics to show up on my camera screen. What I saw next was... what I was looking for.

PipeColumnIt was right there in plain site on my camera. It was one of those pipe columns just like I saw on the opposite side of the mall. I asked myself "How can this be?" There was absolutely nothing on the mall base building drawings that showed these pipe columns. What about my solid glass storefront with no columns in it?

I climbed down the ladder and walked out into the mall to take another look at my storefront. Sure enough, I saw what I had missed. In between each 6 foot wide storefront glass was a 2 inch mullion (metal post), but every 24 feet (4 panes of glass) the mullion was 5 inches wide. Inside that larger mullion was a pipe column. However, on the direct opposite side of the mall common there was no pipe column or mullion or nothing but glass. Apparently, the opposite side of the mall also had pipe columns, but they did not line up with the columns on my side. It was very strange and very deceptive. Unfortunately, the architects of that store designed their storefront exactly where a column was in the way because they did not know it was there. Thankfully, I was able to find those columns for the store that I was surveying.

It was all starting to reconcile in my mind. The clues were coming together as one. The pipe columns were there to hold up the heavy mall bulkhead marble but not the actual mall structure. The mall structure in that area was being held up by the columns that were 5 feet behind the storefront. They were two separate structures and both equally important. With that information, I was able to draw those columns on my sketches and guarantee that my client would know exactly where they were and could design their storefront entrance accordingly!