Photo: Tudor Van Hampton
Ironworkers install shackles on a shaft casing, with Jones (center) supervising.

Rob Jones is a former Marine, so slogging through swampy soil and confined spaces comes naturally. He's a big fish in a small pond, digging deep foundations on Chicago's tightest jobsites. But this drilling superintendent's pond is about to get much bigger.

Last month, he was in charge of an overcrowded jobsite in downtown Chicago at Aqua, a $475-million, 81-story mixed-use tower designed by local architect Jeanne Gang, and part of a $4-billion development called Lakeshore East.

This month, he will start building the massive foundations for an even more spectacular structure: The Santiago Calatrava-designed Chicago Spire, a 150-story skyscraper that will rise 2,000 ft high and may rise to become America's tallest. It all starts with a sturdy base.

No matter how high-profile the job is, Jones, 38, has the down-to-earth attitude of a soil contractor. He is a real drill sergeant on the jobsite, just as commanding as the hulking foundation rigs that his employer, Roselle, Ill.-based Case Foundation Co., operates. He stands 6 ft 2 in. and weighs in at a solid 265 lb, with a blonde buzz cut that keeps his sense of alertness high and tight.

The hair is "low-maintenance," Jones says, because he doesn't have time to primp before work. Jones usually is the first to arrive and the last to go. He operates like a machine, working between 70 and 90 hours a week, often arriving on site at 4:00 a.m. to receive materials. He leaves many days at sundown.

The crew respects and listens to him. When the "roach coach" drops by the jobsite, Jones usually skips the egg rolls, corn dogs and hoagies. Instead, he grabs a soda, lights up a cigarette and checks in on the workers while they take a break.


A Day in the Life of Rob Jones

Being a driller also has its sacrifices, especially at home. Living in rural Indiana makes for a long commute; Jones is at least an hour away from most of the jobsites he visits. It's not uncommon for him to sleep only four hours a night. How does he do it? "I guess it's mind over matter," he says.

Sunday is all rest--sort of. Jones nests with Rita, his wife; Samantha, their 10-year-old daughter; and Robbie, 8, their son. "At home, you are never separated," Jones says. Still, he can't resist the urge to work. "I'll be on a lawn tractor cutting grass, and my boy'll be there sitting beside me," he says. There's seldom time left for Jones to cruise in his 1970 Monte Carlo or ride his bike, a 2006 Fat Boy.

Like many young managers, Jones elected not to take a salaried job, so he gets paid the same rate as a union crane operator and piles on the overtime. What keeps him coming back every day? "Money," he says. "For a blue-collar guy, working in the construction industry is not a bad way of life."

Every now and then, Jones thinks about simpler times. "I used to be a driller. Sometimes, I think it's easier to drill than to run work. When you sit in the drill, you just drill." The hardest part about drilling? Blindness. "You don't ever get to see your work," he says.

Photo: Tudor Van Hampton
Jones helps a crane operator sink a steel casing (above). Later, he checks the foundation shaft for proper alignment (below).
Photo: Tudor Van Hampton

Jones manages everyone around him, even the general public. In the morning, Jones may catch a homeless man eliminating or another stealing wire. He may usher away others when they get too close, such as one man the crew nicknames "Sidewalk Joe," who frequents the site, watches them work and takes photographs. "It's like day care," Jones says.

People aren't the only thing Jones has to wrangle. The job of ordering materials, such as concrete for caisson pours and recycled brick for soil stabilization, falls in his lap. Meanwhile, his cell phone rings nearly every minute with questions from suppliers, workers or his boss, Craig Bishop, a Case vice president. Dealing with machine breakdowns and consoling frustrated workers clutter up the day, too.

Spend a day with Jones, and it's easy to see why he's the boss. Though he joined Case fairly recently, in 1998, he is moving up the ladder "like a rocket ship," Bishop says.

Drilling is about as hard on Jones as Case's ground-engaging equipment. Challenges arrive at every moment. Some are minor; some major. A crane throws a drive sprocket, leav-ing the operator high and dry; a dump truck runs over a pump hose, making a sloppy mess; a loader blows a hydraulic pump, and the spoils from a caisson shaft pile up until it is fixed. Jones runs from place to place, helping the crew prioritize.

Jones also keeps track of all the tools: Augurs, excavators, air compressors, down-hole hammers, muck buckets, chisels, all of which litter the site with an organization that only a trained eye can detect. Some tools attach to other tools. There's even a tool called a "gallows," a large steel gantry that helps drillers extract stubborn foundation liners.

With so much going on at once, things get lost. But Jones seems to know better than his crew where things are. "Rob came out of the Marine Corps," says Bishop. "He's like a sponge. You can't feed him enough information."

On the job, Jones is constantly on the go. At the site of the Aqua skyscraper, Jones was finishing up the last of 305 caissons that Case was drilling for James McHugh Construction Co., the local general contractor working for Magellan Development Group.

Early in the day, laborers had just finished grouting the "annulus," or outside diameter, of Caisson No. 238 and were removing a 35-ft-long steel casing when the top half of the belled caisson ripped out of the ground. Somehow, concrete had leaked outside of the caisson's corrugated liner and cured, gluing the foundation to the outer liner.

"That's about the worst thing that could happen," Jones said. Improvising on the fly, he located a similarly sized casing on the site, and laborers descended on the hole with tape measures, bright-orange spray paint and marking stakes. A driller hooked up an auger to a crane's "kelly" bar and bored out the hole, which was starting to fill up with groundwater.

Workers set the new casing in the hole and cleaned out the spoils. When the dust settled, Jones lowered a floodlamp into the hole and saw solid-white concrete. Right on target. With the help of dowels, epoxy, rebar and fresh concrete, the caisson was done the next day.

With Aqua's foundation in the ground, Jones will soon direct his biggest job ever. He'll be in charge of sinking 10-ft-dia caissons that will be drilled 120-ft and socketed into bedrock. There are 34 of those big ones, with 85 smaller "bells" supporting the Spire's parking garage. Unlike Aqua, Jones won't supervise the project by himself.

"Oh, I'm going to need help," Jones admits. But people in Case's office aren't too worried about him keeping on top of the hard work. "The whole big objective is to keep your rigs moving," says Jones. "'Cause if that bar isn't turning, then they aren't paying the bills."