CWB September 2004
Virginia Shop Fills a Niche within a Niche>
Gaithersburg Cabinetry & Millwork provides extra service to help its customers and avoid surprises.>
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
"Most of our clients are in the Washington metropolitan area, but we do work up and down the East Coast, as well," he adds. "Some of our larger corporate clients have similar facilities, and we do work for them in Florida and the Carolinas. Other work comes from liaisons with national architectural firms."
In the competitive world of architectural millwork, Smith says a company has to have an edge. GCM's "edge" is that it occupies a niche within a niche. "Specifically, what we do is interior tenant fit-out," he says. "If you are the XYZ Corporation and you are going to create a new corporate headquarters in the Washington metro area, you will most likely hire an architect. The architect does a design and what we do, in addition to the actual creation of the millwork, is assist.
"Some architects call us in advance and say, 'We want to run this type of millwork and we have a budget of X amount,'" Smith adds. "One of our roles is to give them ideas of how they might spend their money. We can guide them in how they can design something to give them good value."
Smith says that the company works in an expensive market. "Labor is also very expensive. We look at a design or set of blueprints and review what kind of work might be appropriate in the facility."
He adds that the company works with the design team to keep them aware of things like long lead issues and value engineering possibilities. "We also provide other ideas that can positively impact the goal of giving the best office environment desired in the time available. Our niche is that we offer suggestions to help the project run smoothly. The fast-moving, fluid environment of interior woodworking requires that each company involved is flexible and willing to work as a team player in order to complete projects with the specified quality and on-time results," Smith says.
The company also helps its clients be creative. "We help make it possible for an architect with some vision to create a ceiling structure in an economical way, for example," Smith says. "Instead of doing it drywall or dropped ceiling, we might suggest a design using lightweight MDF. We would also suggest doing the cutouts for the sprinkler heads and lighting, etc., in advance, so that when we get on the job site, we don't have a lot of head scratching about how we are going to attach this when the project gets to the field."
In other words, Smith and company offer their expertise in avoiding surprises. "I hate surprises," he says. "We like to get in when the client has a blank shell and help anticipate engineering challenges early on. We try to make sure that we work with groups that realize you have to anticipate these kinds of things in advance so things run efficiently."
Smith says that one of the keys to a smooth build-out is advance planning, giving an example of what GCM tries to do for its clients. "If an architect has an idea to do some serpentine walls or large radius, you might be able to put it on a blueprint, but you can't duplicate that 216-foot radius. There is too much stuff in the way to do it the old-fashioned way, where you take a string and have a guy chalk a line," he says. "What we do is create it on the computer and machine the parts. If it is a baseplate, we make one so they can take the baseplate to the job site. We have a duplicate baseplate here, so we can accomplish the rest of the work months in advance of the normal sequence of events.
"We pre-produce products, so when we get down to the mad scramble at the end, with a tenant needing to get into a space, we are not waiting to take field measurements," he adds. "We are proactive and create the radius wall here before we ever get on the job site."
Smith says that GCM routinely produces full-sized templates and uses them to coordinate the exact size, shape and locations of any on-site framing needed to support radius wall paneling or other unconventionally shaped millwork pieces. It also interacts well with a lot of other disciplines involved in projects, from HVAC to paint to carpeting, lighting and sprinkler systems.
"I can't think of a subcontract group that would be on a large project that we don't have some interaction with," he says.
More than wood
Smith says that today's high-end interiors sometimes feature desks that incorporate a little bit of aluminum with a pattern on it, nice wood veneer and possibly a piece of granite for the countertop, plus a paint-grade appenditure coming out one side at an angle. This takes the company's scope beyond wood.
"Another service we do is work with architects and designers to assist them in appropriately specifying materials," Smith says. "We also hold plant tours on a regular basis and invite local architectural firms in so that they can get an idea of what we do here. A locally based national firm recently sent nine or 10 of its project architects over for a plant tour.
"We hope to accomplish a couple of things with such tours," he continues. "One is that they will use our company, but also that they know there is no imposition in them asking us questions. They might say, 'I have some money to spend in this lobby; this is the look the client wants. Can you give me an idea of the kind of veneer that would look good and how do I specify it?'
"There are more expensive and less expensive ways to specify anything, and we want to do what is appropriate," Smith adds. "We try to open a dialogue with as many architectural firms as possible. They learn what we do, which helps them give their customers value for what they design."
A 'sharp' company
The facility, located on eight acres, has received extensive capital improvements, says Smith, including a complete remodeling of the 30,000-plus-square-foot interior. One recent addition was a complete air exhaust system overhaul, with a new air venting system, air makeup and a central vacuum.
Creating a safe, comfortable workplace is a priority for GCM. The company participates in SHARP, the Safety, Health Appreciation Recognition Program. The Virginia arm of OSHA and other environmental groups come in annually and conduct a proactive inspection to confirm compliance with a variety of standards, including clean air, noise, pollution and safety.
"They review the quality of life in a plant," Smith says. "We file reports of VOCs and the chain of custody of hazardous materials coming in and out of the plant. It can take several years to earn a SHARP designation, and we are proud to have earned ours. We want to run the safest possible operation we can."
Based on the drawings, digital information is transferred to the shop's CNC machinery. The company uses Pattern Systems' Draw Power as a companion application to AutoCAD. It automates much of the standard casework illustration and also is used with Pattern Systems' Product Planner to generate cutlists and bills of materials and send information to the CNC machines.
The system allows the shop to track work in progress, as well as to produce parts with a great degree of accuracy, Smith says. "It also helps to reduce errors, which can be very costly and time-consuming."
In the last two years, GCM has added several new machines on the shop floor, including CNC equipment. The production area includes a Holzma HPP81 CNC panel saw, Busellato Jet 6000 XL CNC router, Brandt CNC edgebander, a dowel boring and inserting machine from Accu-Systems and an Optimat KD 78 edgebander.
The newest machine is a Hendricks vertical panel saw. Rick Gookin, vice president and plant manager, says the ProV/102 panel saw is used for high-end architectural flat panels, including cuts for miters and compound angles.
In addition to the production area, both Smith and Gookin are very proud of the finishing department at GCM. They recently purchased a $56,000 air makeup system that cleans as well as heats and returns conditioned air. The finishing department also features a downdraft sanding table.
"Finishing is one of the strongest components of our business. For the work we do, some pieces have six or seven finish treatments. It has to be done right, or there is a subtle difference in quality," Smith says.
Gookin is also pleased with the company's Trakware Systems computer software that enables employees to operate a touchscreen and receive and provide production information in real-time data.
"It has been a great system, because it provides a wealth of information about work in progress and job flow and also gives us information we can use to evaluate how we are doing," he says. "It gives us information for invoices and other business data, and we also can see if we were accurate with estimates, costs, time and our work overall."
Awards and prestigious jobs
Besides being active in industry organizations, the company has won numerous awards from various groups, including The Washington Building Congress, The Associated Builders and Contractors and the Association of General Contractors. It has won a national safety awareness award from AWI for two of the last three years and won design awards from various architectural groups and magazines, including Wooden House.
GCM has worked on a long list of notable projects, including the historic True Reformer Building in Washington, DC. Its work consisted of providing the paneling for the boardroom and the main lobby, as well as other conference rooms, the foyer of the auditorium and hallways throughout. The project included restoring as well as replacing original millwork and adding complementary and new, contemporary millwork. Much was made from quarter-sawn, steamed European beech with maple accents, and a lot of the paneling included fabric-wrapped acoustic panels.
Among the many challenges of the True Reformer project was the need to exactly match paneling used to replace historic millwork in a translucent gray maple to match the existing stone. GCM also had to build and finish the large conference and auxiliary tables, which were decorated with a multi-colored, stained pattern. Stain-grade millwork used in several areas required painstaking and exact finishing, so that the new millwork matched the existing structure.
However, Smith says he welcomes such challenges. "Part of why we host the plant tours is to show prospective partners and clients that we can handle any curves we are thrown and that we are quite willing to assist."
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