Science Center Story #4: Men of Steel

by Larry Schall

24 May 2002


At lunchtime yesterday, I stood in the sun on the edge of the construction site and marvelled at the skill of the steel erectors. I was told the sign on the construction fence, "Do Not Feed the Iron Workers", was put up by the crane operator. Doesn't look like many of them have missed a meal, so I don't think we have to worry.

This is my favorite stage of the whole process, and this project has been through lots of phases and there are still plenty ahead of us. It seems like a decade ago that the first science center committee met to select a planner to help us think about our needs. It's been just three or four summers, in reality. After that work was done, the big planning committee was formed, with Rachel Merz stepping into her role as leader and Jan Semler as project executive for the college. It was (and remains) a sort of Noah's Ark committee. One of everything or everybody, I suppose -- we had maybe two dozen people on the committee in its heyday. Despite its size, the committee has been fabulous from day one and they have done, both collectively and individually, an unbelievable amount of work. We picked a design/planning team to help us get this built, did a lot more study of what we needed, visited other schools' science centers, built a web-site (courtesy of Carr Everbach), reviewed more than a dozen possible designs, picked one, and proceeded to review in excruciating detail increasingly refined plans. At some point, the amount of minutae the committee was looking at was beyond me. I simply could not make the time nor, frankly, could I listen to one more conversation about how many outlets should go in the housekeeping closet on the ground floor near the electrical closet. To their immemse credit, Rachel, Jan and the committee never stopped looking at every little thing.

One of my favorite stories is the committee's trip to Manhattan to sit on chairs. Yes, the committee went to sit on chairs. To be honest, it was not just chairs, but also couches and a table or two. I think we actually stood on the tables, trying to imagine every possible scenario for student use/abuse. I also understand some of the committee have gone back because it was so hard to remember one chair from the other, or maybe because there was a new chair that was proposed. During the first trip, though, I had to excuse myself before lunch. It was like shopping with ten spouses --everyone had a different opinion and I knew mine was not going to matter. In any event, I has asked my father who lives in the city if he wanted to join us at the Knoll showroom, knowing that he loves Knoll furniture. He's in his early 80's and has always had a style about him. Chicago Cubs baseball hat, a day's growth of facial hair, baggy jeans and a nice t-shirt (on a good day). This has been a source of discussion with my mom for probably five decades, but my dad, to his credit, rarely bends to pressure. On this day, he sort of sneaked up on the group and just started wandering with us, from one showroom to another. On the way, he struck up casual conversation with one of our group, asking her what she did at the college. My dad will do this to total strangers --that's been another source of conversation with my mom, but I won't go there. Our unsuspecting committee member, having no idea who this man was, assumed, of course, he was a street person and was just thrilled he never asked her for money. Later in the day, when my dad had gone home, she commented to someone abut this nice street person who had tried to talk to her. It was then she found out he was my father. My dad loved the story, of course. My mom wasn't as thrilled.

Back to the steel. When I came to work here in 1990, the steel was being erected for the LPAC and knowing virtually nothing about building big buildings, I remember being awestruck at how quickly an image could arise out of the ground. At the time, I didn't appreciate all the work that enabled this magic to happen so elegantly and so quickly. The relocation of a maze of utility lines, excavation of soil that here always includes veins of rock, the pouring of footings and foundations. Even knowing all those details and having spent years helping make it happen, it remains magic for me. Until yesterday, I think every piece I saw raised fit perfectly together and within minutes of being raised from the ground, was bolted in place in the sky. But now, a piece was sent back down. It took maybe fifteen minutes or so with a torch to slice off an inch-wide sliver and the crane swung the newly-crafted piece back into place --it fit just right.

Ray Berry is the man who runs this twelve person crew for Northwest Erectors --ten iron workers and two operating engineers. He has been with Northwest for 21 years. Ray was a connector for the erection for LPAC, meaning he was the one climbing all over the steel. Back then, his dad ran the crew. The connector job is by far the most physically challenging and generally the youngest guys are the ones who climb. Jim, one of the workers, just about fifty by his own acknowledgement, is on the ground now. But Ray pointed out that he couldn't get Rick Beck, at the age of 47, off the steel. And another of his connectors has only one eye. Just this year, new safety regulations were imposed that required harnesses when working above a certain height. Most of Ray's crew opposed these new rules on two grounds. One, it slowed everything down. And two, they felt they would less safe as they would be tied down with a two-ton piece of steel swinging at them. They ask --would they tether a matador with a bull rushing at him? I asked both Ray and Jim whether there was anything different about this job than another. Jim pointed out this steel was not painted like their last job and that was a good thing, easier to climb because it was less slippery. Other than that, they each said no and sort of apologized for not being able to come up with some snazzy answer. They pointed out some of the columns weighed 7000 pounds and that is on the heavy side, but that didn't really seem all that exciting to either of them.

By the end of today, Friday, all the steel on the east wing will be erected. The remainder arrives June 10. The good news is the chiller plant on the edge of the woods looks much smaller now. This is a big building, though, for our campus. The chemistry wing, which is the tall, three story-structure along the parking lot, is indeed tall. Because of all the mechanical systems that need to be put in place, the floor-to-floor heights are oversized. In fact, the third floor space on that wing is all mechanical space, not a person to be found. Building a basement of that depth with the rock present was just not economically feasible. It will all be clad with stone and granite, designed by our wonderful architects; I do not worry that it won't be beautiful, and when all the new trees shoot up along that facade, I know it won't seem that tall, but for now, it's pretty damn big.

I urge all of you to take a minute or two and watch the steel go up. Once it's up and scaffolded to allow the masons to lay the walls, it will never seem quite the same.

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last updated 5/27/02