Pioneering Spirit

James W. Fowler Co. Blazes New Trails in Microtunneling

By Jim Rush

From pioneering innovative technologies to completing record-setting drives, the James W. Fowler Co. (JWF) has established itself as a leading contractor in the microtunneling arena.  For example, the company recently completed the longest compound curve drive completed in the United States as part of the Santa Ana River Interceptor (SARI) Relocation – SARI Mainline project.

JWF Crew Members

JWF crew members celebrate the completion of another successful tunnel.

But, like many contracting companies, JWF came from modest beginnings. The company was founded in 1972 in the mid-Willamette valley town of Dallas, Ore. by James and Candace Fowler, who started out constructing ponds for local farmers, roads and other small projects with one bulldozer and one pull scraper.

Today, the company is a diversified general contractor providing heavy civil and tunneling construction solutions for municipalities, agencies and private owners across the United States.  JWF is still headquartered in Dallas, Ore., about 60 miles southwest of Portland, and has regional offices in Seattle and Los Angeles.

JWF’s heavy civil division specializes in water, wastewater, sewer and transportation infrastructure projects including large diameter water and sewer utilities, water and wastewater treatment facilities, fish hatcheries and bridge and overpass construction. The tunneling division excels at challenging microtunneling, tunneling, auger boring and pipe ramming projects.


From the beginning, Jim and Candace Fowler operated their business together from their home while raising four small children. Never ones to shy away from a challenge, the Fowlers worked tirelessly to build the construction business and if Jim didn’t have the expertise to complete a particular project, he asked someone who did.

As small business owners, Jim and Candace wore many hats. Their children relate stories of being with Jim while he negotiated with a farmer to perform a job, talked to a banker, and then as he operated the bulldozer. The Fowlers taught their children from an early age the value of hard work and a job done well. This can-do spirit came in handy in 1977, when the family’s home was destroyed by a fire. With the support of the local community and their church, which provided the Fowlers with clothes, food and necessities, the family was able to rebuild the home and their business. This challenge reinforced Jim and Candace’s support of charities that benefit the local community and those less fortunate.

Over the years, the company continued to grow and prosper. In 1977, James W. Fowler Co. was awarded its first public construction project, building a 10 million gallon water reservoir for the City of Tigard, Ore. Over the next 10 years, the company expanded to build roads for the U.S. Forest Service, Polk County and the Oregon Department of Transportation. The company’s first wastewater treatment plant was built in 1987 for the City of Astoria, Ore.

Jim and Candace’s son, John, joined the company in 1980 to start learning the company from the ground up, progressing from laborer to equipment operator to project manager to his current role of Executive Vice President. Jim’s son-in-law, Mark Weisensee, joined the company in 1993, starting as an equipment operator and progressing on to become a project manager, senior project manager and eventually to his current role as Senior Vice President.

The company, which is still family owned, plans to maintain that status going forward. “I am second generation and we have active involvement from many family members,” John Fowler said. “We are setting the stage for a multi-generation construction company. Family is very, very important to us.”

Going Underground

JWF became involved in the microtunneling market in the late 1990s. At the time, the technology was prevalent in Europe, but was still in its developmental stage in the United States. John’s passion for the new world of microtunneling propelled the company in a new direction. His talent for innovative thinking and “project first” mentality has provided opportunities for the company to utilize new processes and technology to benefit the projects.

JWF became familiar with microtunneling following one project on which it subcontracted the microtunneling work, and another job on which JWF was hired to build the shafts for microtunneling.

“We did a lot of heavy civil work and structures, and we always favored the challenging projects because that’s where we feel we can excel,” said Fowler. “So when we saw those two microtunneling projects, we thought, ‘We can do this. This fits our model.’ ”

JWF’s first job as a microtunneling contractor was the Spanaway Loop Bypass Interceptor project near Seattle. The project consisted of approximately 5,700 lf of 72-in. ID pipe, of which 2,336 lf was installed by microtunneling. To make things interesting, the challenging ground consisted of a mix face strata of gravel/cobbles over glacial till, with the entire pipeline below groundwater elevation – and dewatering was not permitted.

“The Spanaway Loop project was an awfully difficult project to start with,” Fowler said. “It was one that had been terminated before and then redesigned and came out to bid again. We were one of two bidders. It was a tough, tough job, but those are the ones where you learn the most. There were very difficult ground conditions. It was extremely open-graded, lots of groundwater, very abrasive soil, 60,000-psi cobbles, mixed face, long drives – it had a bit if everything. But we also acquired several key people on that job who made a huge difference in successfully completing the work.”

Forging Ahead

In recent years, JWF has gained a reputation for using innovation and new technology in the successful completion of award-winning microtunneling projects. Three projects that highlight the company’s pioneering spirit include the Balch Consolidation Conduit in Portland; the Ballard Siphon Replacement in Seattle; and the Santa Ana River Interceptor (SARI) Relocation – SARI Mainline in Santa Ana, Calif.

Balch Consolidation Conduit: JWF worked together with consultant Jacobs Associates to evaluate, design and implement cutter soil mixing (CSM), a construction method new in Oregon at that time, to meet the City of Portland’s goals of managing risk and reducing cost and schedule on the project. The method was effectively used to construct shafts and ground improvement for the project and reduced construction and completion risks to the project. CSM, which is gaining in popularity in the United States, mixes in-situ soil with cement and water to form rectangular soil-cement (soilcrete) panels. The individual panels can be interlocked to provide continuous straight walls, as well as a structural ring for circular shafts, and can serve as ground improvement.

The Balch project is a landmark use of the CSM method with the construction of five deep shafts in difficult ground. Not only have the CSM panels been utilized for shaft support, but the Balch project is the first known use of these panels for ground improvement for tunneling. Rows of soilcrete panels were employed to support the tunnel machine and pipe through soft alluvial soils between shafts.

Microtunneling on the Balch project consisted of 6,921 ft of 7-ft ID reinforced concrete pipe, 1,115 ft of 54-inch reinforced concrete pipe and six shafts up to 79 ft deep. Drive lengths ranged from 1,133 to 1,685 ft.

Ballard Siphon Replacement: This project required JWF to build two vertical shafts on either side of a ship canal in order for a 3.2m EPB TBM to mine a 2,100-ft tunnel 60 ft below [FJ1] the canal and more than 150 ft below the ground surface. JWF investigated various shaft construction methods to help offset delays that occurred in the bidding process and eventually proposed the use of vertical shaft machine (VSM) to construct the south shaft.  This innovative construction method offered the additional benefits of allowing the shaft to be shored using caissons at an extended depth while addressing the challenges associated with the high water table.

The VSM technology is similar in concept to a microtunnel boring machine, except that the excavation is completed vertically rather than horizontally. The VSM, built by Herrenknecht, was designed to work in Europe’s dense urban areas with a small footprint and in difficult soil conditions with high groundwater tables.  This description fit the conditions at the south shaft area perfectly, which is located in an industrial parking lot with high traffic and a limited project area. The soil conditions included loose sand, silty sand, medium stiff sandy clay, medium dense silty fine to medium sands with gravel, very dense granular and hard cohesive materials, and very stiff to hard clay containing very small sand-filled slickensides.  Additionally, groundwater was encountered approximately 16 ft below the surface.

The 154-ft deep, 9-m inner diameter shaft was finished in about four weeks excavation time and the average excavated depth per shift was 6 to 7 ft. Upon completion of the excavation, the VSM was recovered by the three shaft winches and dismantled within one week.

Santa Ana River Interceptor (SARI) Relocation – SARI Mainline: JWF completed the milestone Santa Ana River Interceptor (SARI) Relocation – SARI Mainline Project for the Orange County Sanitation District in July 2013. It included four microtunneled drives, the third and fourth of which included curves in their alignments. This is first project in the United States to include curves on multiple drives, and it included the longest compound curved microtunnel in North America.

JWF value engineered the curves to reduce cost by eliminating shafts and combining multiple drives. In completing the curves, JWF used the Jackcontrol hydraulic gasketed joint and full-time monitoring system to monitor the pipe string during installation, marking the first use of the Jackcontrol system in North America.

The SARI Project consisted of five four microtunnel segments totaling approximately 4,000 ft.

Building a Success Story

While many companies have come and gone since the time of its founding, JWF has been able to grow and succeed. Fowler points to two primary reasons for the company’s success: its people and its commitment to excellence.

“You are successful as a construction company because of the people that you surround yourself with, and I firmly believe we have the best in the industry,” he said. “We have amazing people and that’s how you complete tough projects. When I was a kid, my dad said: ‘Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and you’re going to succeed.’ We’ve followed that advice and been fortunate to be successful.”

In fact, Fowler says that some of the people who joined the company to complete the Spanaway job are still with the company.

Also key to the company’s success is its commitment to getting the job done right, and that includes partnering with owners, engineers and other industry partners – like Jackcontrol and Herrenknecht. “We value our client relationships even though we are largely a hard-bid contractor,” Fowler said. “We understand the need to maintain a good reputation and we set high standards.

“It’s only when you have a good reputation and good relationships that you can implement new technology and new methods. When you have a track record of successful work it helps to open doors.”

Looking to the Future

When JWF got started in the tunneling and microtunneling business, it started out as a logical extension of the company’s work. It has since become a significant portion of the company’s overall revenue, accounting for about half of the company’s volume in some years. And, Fowler is bullish on the future of the market.

“I am optimistic about the future of the microtunneling market,” he said. “Cities are becoming more congested and it is getting more difficult to build in overcrowded utility corridors. Also, the public is less tolerant of disruption due to construction. As our industry continues to succeed at more challenging projects, it will open the eyes of designers and owners to what is possible, and more projects will naturally start to develop.”

Jim Rush is editor of Trenchless Technology and TBM: Tunnel Business Magazine.

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