Volume 40, Issue 7 July 2005
Putting the Pieces Together
A Look at Contract Glazier BHN Corp.
by Megan Headley
When Schwartz/Silver Architects of Boston was looking for a way to make the proposed Shaw Center for the Arts in Baton Rouge, La., stand out, they decided the best way to do so would be to make it blend in to its surroundings. The architects decided that a complex glass rain screen designed to mirror the flowing Mississippi River situated below would be the perfect way to tie the project to its location. With their focus on using the glass purely for aesthetics, they turned to Memphis, Tenn.-based contract glazier BHN to blend the technical aspects of the glazing installation “seamlessly” into the art.
A Focus on the Unique
The expertise of the 33-year-old family-owned and -operated company is, in fact, featured in the systems that make up many “unique,” nationally-recognized, multi-million dollar projects in Tennessee and throughout the Southeastern and South Central United States. Paul Norman acts as the company’s chairperson, with sons Kevin in the role of company president and chief operating officer; Kent as executive vice president and chief financial officer and Keith the director of special products.
“The arena in which we have the most to offer is technical—the large, complex projects,” said Kevin Norman. “Those jobs I think we pursue, as well as the complex jobs—those that maybe others would not be as interested in—because that’s kind of our expertise.”
“We have concentrated on the more unique projects,” added Dave Clark, who led the company on the Shaw Center project. “We’re still focusing there … although we are still a multi-focus glass house.”
That multi-focus isn’t just on the types of jobs they do, but also the services they offer. In its Memphis headquarters, which include a 38,000-square-foot office and shop and an additional 58,000-square-foot workspace, the company participates in commercial construction at all levels by specializing in the design, fabrication and installation of complex aluminum storefronts, curtainwalls, metal wall panel systems and metal roof systems. It offers fully integrated systems, combining products such as composite aluminum panels, 1/8-inch aluminum plate, factory-insulated panels, standing seam metal roofs, curtainwall, skylights and windows. A staff of 110 full-time field personnel installs these products, while another 33 individuals work in engineering, sales and project management, administration, accounting and operations.
“We have an expertise in the panel type systems … composite, plate, these pre-finished metal panel systems,” said Norman. “We have a background in that, as well as glass and glazing, and I think that the construction community is looking for more contractors who are able to combine these.”
Aside from taking on challenges, the ability to provide seamless component integration seems to be another key to the company’s success. Whether it’s teams of people or elements of curtainwall, the company is willing to take on the challenges of creating a smoothly completed product.
Christopher Ingersoll, AIA, project manager for Schwartz/ Silver, noted that it seemed like many of the contractors he’s worked with are interested only in following standard processes to be finished as quickly as possible. The team from BHN, however, adapted to each new step the architects laid out.
A New Group Each Time
By not specializing in one type of building design, BHN has marked its place in the construction industry with a varied portfolio that includes terminal E in the Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, the Memphis and Shelby County New Central Library and the Federal Express World Headquarters, also in Memphis, Tenn.
“To go from library to airport … to this and that, it’s a whole new group each time,” Norman said.
Recently, BHN completed work on the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center, in Little Rock, Ark.
“That’s a very exciting job, just from the nature of the system,” said Norman. “It was unique from the standpoint that there’s a multitude of different wall types and wall systems that had to be integrated.”
But the glass-clad Shaw Center for the Arts, the culmination of a four-year collaboration between Louisiana State University, the city of Baton Rouge, the state of Louisiana and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, is the company’s most recent project requiring the integration of its services. Described by its architects as a “lantern on the levee,” the $37.5 million, 125,500-square-foot structure is the largest building to date in the United States to be completely clad in cast-glass channels—and is the only use of outward-facing channel glass as a rain screen anywhere.
“We knew from the beginning we weren’t using [the glass system] in a standard way,” Ingersoll said, explaining the aesthetic motivation behind that decision. “With the channels faced outward, it will never be seen as a smooth office building surface.”
Instead, the building will always have shadows from the cast-glass channels thrown back on its corrugated aluminum skin. The play of light was intended to create a water-like effect of depth and luminescence connecting the building to the Mississippi River itself.
While the U LINIT U-Profile U-channel glass from Bendheim Wall Systems has been used in Europe for more than 40 years, it’s only been in use for five years in the States, according to general manager of Bendheim, Michael Tryon.
“Because the product was relatively new here in the States, there was a lot [BHN] needed to learn [about it],” Tryon said.
Clark said that since the U-Profile system is normally used for interior partitions or exterior screens, and since this was an unorthodox use of the system, Bendheim had no specifications to offer on the installation. However, Tryon said that the individuals from BHN with whom he worked were very willing to explore the properties of the new glass and its limitations, and were even involved in some of the test evaluations for the glass.
Because Louisiana is at a high risk of experiencing hurricanes, the system was tested using a full-scale mock-up with equipment that simulated hurricane-force winds. A DC-3 engine was used to simulate 100-mph hurricane winds to test the wind-pressure integrity of the wall construction. The assembly was also tested for its performance as a rain screen.
Water from a spray rig was reduced to a mist in the space between the channel glass and the corrugated aluminum siding, showing that its unusually large 2-inch joints would work.
The mock-up constructed for the structural testing was also used for testing different lighting techniques.
Building a “Lantern on the Levee”
BHN installed nearly 40,000 square feet of the single-glazed U LINIT U-Profile glass, suspending the screen 8 inches from the building’s aluminum exterior wall system.
Two-inch joints lay between each piece of glass to facilitate cleaning. The glass was supported by specially-made wind load clips, based on the architects’ specifications. The real challenge came in the size of the lites used.
The architects used different lengths of glass, ranging anywhere from 5 to 22 feet, 22 feet being the greatest length at which the LINIT U-Profile glass could be installed without intermediate metal supports. Different lengths supported the architect’s design use of the horizontal ribs, according to Tryon. They also chose two of the four standard widths that Bendheim offers for the structure’s exterior lites, 9 and 13 inches.
“[This way] you never have to worry about 60 feet of seams or 60 feet of straight lines,” said Tryon.
However, Clark noted that getting the glass’ seams to not match up was “probably the more difficult part.” Placement of the lites had to be laid out in advance and continually “checked and rechecked” to make sure the glaziers weren’t loosing sight of an arrangement the architects hoped would further enhance the water-like image they were seeking.
Ingersoll commented that from his observations, the most challenging part of the installation had to be when BHN maneuvered the largest of the panels into place. To raise the largest lites, the glaziers had to use two lifts working in tandem.
But Clark disagreed, “The actual installation was less difficult than anticipated.”
He explained that the installation of the aluminum skin had been so complicated that, by the time the project was ready for the glass installation, it didn’t seem as though his team would be faced with such a difficult task.
“We went through six months to a year of finalizing the design,” Clark added.
Before construction even began, the glaziers had constructed a mock-up on the roof of the neighboring hotel to see the visual effect of using the glass over the planned aluminum skin. In addition, they’d assisted with tests on the structural assembly of the glass and its attachments and the wall assembly as a whole. The company was also involved in some of the early discussions the architects held and provided technical support in the documenting.
Ingersoll noted that BHN provided a guiding role in the construction process when working on the Shaw Center.
“I thought they were quite helpful,” Ingersoll said. “They tried to work with us on technical issues.”
Just Good Business
As Schwartz’s comment suggests, this variety of projects is partly a result of taking what is available and partly from developing a good reputation.
As far as what is available, Norman said that a restricted market in which the same numbers of competitors are looking at a condensed number of jobs has expanded the types of projects BHN pursues to a degree. Having completed projects in 11 states, the location of a job has never been an issue for BHN’s acceptance of work. Norman said, however, that local jobs are easier to pursue.
“Everyone wants to work in their backyard,” he said, “but we can’t always do that to get the volume and find the type of work that we specialize in. You have to grow that circle.”
Networking and reputation-building have played an important part in the process of expanding that territory. Thirty-three years of word-of-mouth from customers, out-of-town contractors and designers, but primarily through a repeat customer base, have worked in building a strong reputation that brings in work.
“It’s good business and good marketing to do a good job,” Norman said. And while good marketing may lead to repeat business, a competitive edge doesn’t hurt either.
Competitiveness, for example, is a crucial component in vendor selection for BHN.
Although the company has always done its own fabrication, using the right materials is the first step toward producing the right product.
“We are only as good as the suppliers that we use,” said Norman. “If we don’t have somebody that makes good glass, then we don’t do a good job.”
In addition, Norman said that providing a systems solution lends a degree of control that makes the company more competitive.
“We have the most to offer on jobs that integrate the systems, where the customer or the designer is looking for one source to provide more than one system,” said Norman. “We do well in coordinating that.”
While there are challenging issues on every job, there are also challenges that the construction industry regularly throws at contract glaziers.
“Scheduling is always a problem,” Norman said. He explained that as systems over the years have become more complicated, with an increase in laboratory and job-specific testing, lead-times grow longer, even as schedules are tightened.
“As time is money and as the ownership community continually condenses the time frame … the window from start to finish has over time—certainly in the last 20 years—condensed,” Norman said. “But now the time it takes for me to do my work is increasing, due to the complexity and sophistication of the design parameters.”
There also remain the challenges glaziers have always faced, such as seeking qualified technicians and craftspeople to do the work.
It’s up to every business to deal with industry challenges in its own way, but BHN has dealt with lean times by enjoying its consistency in business.
“There’s been some consistency over the last four or five years for us and we like the level we’re at,” said Norman. “We’re not looking to double our sales nor cut them in half, so we like where we are.”
And why not? The company sees itself poised to meet industry trends with its integrated systems. It has been a part of projects, such as the Clinton presidential center and the Shaw Center, that have received national attention. Their facilities feature custom-designed, automated fabrication systems and provide plenty of space for the current amount of business. Moreover, the process of integrating systems and people and companies to ultimately produce a unique structure is a challenge that forms the basis of the company, a challenge that is each time new and exciting, according to Norman.
“I have to develop a working relationship with all these people to build a building and that can be a very challenging process,” Norman said. “But it’s kind of fun to try to make that work. In our industry it’s a new game every time. It’s a monster challenge.
“But I enjoy watching it come together.”
Megan Headley is an assistant editor for USGlass Magazine.
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