Building A House - How to Get A Steel Beam in Place?
November 24, 2008 5:35 AM   Subscribe

My brother is building his own house (a carriage house - no basement and living quarters above a garage). He needs to get an 800-pound, 40-foot steel I-beam across the top of the first floor walls. He wants to do this himself using a backhoe and the help of some friends. He's not sure how to do it and I've got some concerns about doing it safely.

How would a professional builder do this? I'm thinking they would probably use a crane service of some kind. However, I suspect my brother is reluctant to spend the money on one. He's also building in a rural area where such a service may not be nearby, or they may have trouble finding his property.

I'm looking for either advice about doing this ourselves, or a good argument that I could use to convince him to hire professionals to lift it into place for him.
posted by 14580 to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
Bringing in a crane for one lift would be pretty expensive. If the backhoe is available and can lift high enough (a foot or more over the top of the walls), it should be possible to do this safely. Assuming the backhoe can drive into the structure (ie., the fourth wall isn't up yet), he can loop chain around the center of the beam, attach to the backhoe bucket (which often will have hooks for just this purpose), drive in with the beam hoisted high, and set it down. Friends just have to be at both ends to position the beam precisely as it is lowered (they would have to do this if a crane were involved, as well). Whether it's a crane or the backhoe, obviously everybody stays out from under the beam and watches their fingers setting it down.

If the backhoe can't drive right into the structure, you have a different problem. You could set it on the walls at the end of the building, and then you'd have to use muscle power to slide it over. This is probably doable, maybe with some soap or grease to help it slide -- again being very careful not to be under it and not to let it drop off the top of the wall.

A builder might in fact bring a crane if they have other lifting to do, like placing roof trusses. But if this is the only lifting required, I'd go with the hoe. Use a very strong chain, like you might use to drag logs out of the woods. Don't use rope of any kind.
posted by beagle at 5:52 AM on November 24, 2008

To be honest, most of the small-scale contractors I've worked with would do the same thing -- there is a real tendency to work fast and dirty if it will save a buck. But you are right -- there are a lot of ways to hurt oneself when lifting 800 pounds overhead.

Any company that builds pole buildings (which are really common in rural areas) will have the equipment for overhead lifting. Ditto for any of the larger contractors who do bridge projects and big commercial buildings. So I think he should spend an hour on the phone, call five or eight of these companies, and get some bids. Chances are that someone will be hurting from the economic slowdown and will be willing to bid cheap just to get a crew working for the afternoon. A few hundred dollars is a lot cheaper than a crushed hand, you know?

Lastly, if he is really insistent on doing it himself, has he gone and had a chat with his local equipment rental place? Mine will rent any idiot with a credit card really heavy machinery, including boom trucks, large forklifts, and so on, and the guys at the front desk are good at, when given a description of what one is trying to do, knowing what piece of machinery to rent you.
posted by Forktine at 5:57 AM on November 24, 2008

800 lbs isn't a lot of weight. A standard sized backhoe should be able to easily handle that. But if he is an amateur backhoe operator then he better practice away from people or walls that may be expensive to replace. Assuming that this is to placed inside the footprint of the house may provide extra challenges especially if there is a wood floor atop a basement where the backhoe won't be able to drive.

Probably the non-heavy equipment way to do this is with 6 or more strong friends and stepped scaffolding. Use the backhoe to bring the beam close to the area and set it on scaffolding so that it can easily be lifted manually. Then they can lift the beam and carry it up a temporary stepped ramp to place it by hand with more precision and safety than using a backhoe.
posted by JJ86 at 5:58 AM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Our framers used a big forklift type thing to lift a similar, though wooden, beam in place (photo). It looked like the type of thing that would move shipping containers around a rail yard.

These were professionals and they either owned the machine or rented it for a while because it was on-site for most of the duration of the framing job. They used it for other stuff, like lifting lumber to the second floor and putting the upper windows in place.
posted by bondcliff at 6:00 AM on November 24, 2008

Using the backhoe isn't out of the realm of possibility -- so long as the load is within spec.

But doing it alone is a bad idea. You really want people on downhauls to stabilize the load. To do it alone, you need to balance the load in a sling perfectly, so that you can lift it to height, then position it where it needs to be, tie down, and release. If the load starts to slide in the sling, and you don't have people on downhauls, you could end up in a world of hurt very, very quickly.

Furthermore -- if something bad happens and you're alone, nobody calls for help.
posted by eriko at 6:08 AM on November 24, 2008

All the walls are up, but I believe the garage opening is big enough to drive the backhoe inside. The backhoe has an extra long boom so it should be able to lift above the wall, the beam is also within its lift capacity.

My brother said that the beam was going to be a little longer than the inside width of the garage, so he was planning on putting it diagonally, lifting it up and turning it so it is over the supports he built in the wall.
posted by 14580 at 6:11 AM on November 24, 2008

Pick it up from the middle with the backhoe and then have ropes tide at either end for your friends to hold on to, to keep it from tipping.
posted by unreasonable at 6:21 AM on November 24, 2008

I-beam or bar joist? 20 lbs/ft sounds awfully small for a 40 foot beam. Any idea what the beam section is?

If the numbers are correct, a backhoe shouldn't have any trouble. There's heavy duty nylon lifting straps that you can get from a construction supply house, or chains are appropriate. Get a bunch of help, move slowly and stay away from the ends.
posted by electroboy at 6:32 AM on November 24, 2008

About 6 guys did it by hand in our basement. They used heavy scaffolding to get up to the right sanding height. Sound like he's thought it through.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:47 AM on November 24, 2008

The diagonal, then turn plan seems reasonable. The things to be concerned about are the backhoe being overbalanced and rocking forward, the load shifting or the attachment points giving way. Nobody should ever get under this thing! Don't wrap the ropes on the end around your hands (see unreasonable's comment, above). Good communications between everyone working on this is important.

Someone will probably be up top at some point. Make sure they have an "Oh Shit!" zone to jump to if they suddenly find them self saying, "Oh Shit!" Don't go up top until you have the piece just about in place.

Finally, remember the backup plan. If it starts to do something bad, BACK UP! It's not like you are going to heroically pick up an end of this thing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:27 AM on November 24, 2008

14580 writes "My brother said that the beam was going to be a little longer than the inside width of the garage, so he was planning on putting it diagonally, lifting it up and turning it so it is over the supports he built in the wall."

This is the approach I'd take:
  • Sling the beam in the centre and extend a rope from each end for swampers.
  • Lift the beam onto one of the parallel walls using the swamping lines to keep it steady and prevent it from rotating. The swampers should not attempt to keep the beam level. If it starts getting out of level they should move away lest it twist out of the sling and squish someone.
  • Once the beam is as far into the building as he can reach set it down on the walls at each end.
  • Now alternating each end walk the beam to the centre of the building.
The advantage here is there is little chance of anyone getting injured if they stay clear as there is minimal human contact with the beam. The biggest risk is in over turning the hoe as it approaches full extension depending on how large the machine is.
posted by Mitheral at 9:19 AM on November 24, 2008

I agree with electroboy, 800lbs. for a 40 ft. beam seems very light.
posted by lee at 4:56 PM on November 24, 2008

Careful, lifting long heavy objects on the end of a boom is one way to get in trouble when operating, you can swing that mofo right into the space you are occupying in the machine cab and skewer your self. That said have some help taglining the beam, commonsense and don't rush it and it should be fine.
posted by flummox at 7:16 PM on November 24, 2008

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