Turning Big Projects into Big Successes
The post-9/11 Pentagon renovation is the latest in a series of high-profile jobs for Jefferson Millwork.
By Sam Gazdziak
Washington D.C. and the surrounding area is home to many large-scale projects, including the emergency repair and restoration of the Pentagon, called “The Phoenix Project,” following Sept. 11 and the new Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. One local company, Jefferson Millwork & Design, has become a shop that contractors turn to when it comes time to do the millwork and casework.
“We have a strong reputation as the go-to guys,” says Michael Corrigan, who along with Mark Howe serves as vice president and operating owner. “We get ‘invited to the dance‘ at any large project. The opportunities have been consistent [in the current economy], and I think part of that has to do with our reputation.”
Jefferson Millwork, which began in 1990 as an offshoot from a construction company, was recently rated the largest manufacturer in the Washington metro area. The company employs 67 workers in a 32,000-square-foot facility in Sterling, VA.
Typically the millwork is almost the last part of a project. However, Jefferson has created an invaluable service for its customers by getting involved with the project earlier. In some cases, employees have laid out entire rooms using 1/4-inch templates, taken from the Jefferson-engineered drawings. The templates are laid out so all the other tradesmen, from the electricians to the drywall installers, can see how everything is supposed to fit. Either Jefferson or the other tradespeople can alter their work if need be, but at least any errors are noted up front.
“This way, we’re able to proceed with producing the woodwork without delay,” says Michael Almond, project manager. “That’s been a huge selling point for us.”
Such attention to detail can be critical on some jobs. For example, Jefferson’s work on the Maryland Center for the Performing Arts in College Park included a tilting elliptical handrail, and the first two rows of seats sat on a hydraulic lift. The lift had three levels, explains Rob Burdette, project engineer. “The first was for the seating audience, the second level would be lower for an orchestra pit, and the third would be at stage level and extend the stage out by 8 feet,” he says. “We had to have a 1/8-inch tolerance all the way around the radial front, so it wouldn’t pose a problem when the stages met.”
Burdette coordinated the project with the flooring and hydraulic lift installer, as well as two steel companies for the construction of the rails to ensure a smooth installation.
Burdette adds that the contractors are often happy to have Jefferson step in as superintendents. “It takes the responsibility away of coordinating with all the subcontractors that are associated with the work,” he says.
Rebuilding the Pentagon
“I was very aggressive in pursuing that job,” says Corrigan. “I made it very clear to the general contractor, AMEC, that we wanted that job. I think it’s been a boon to our employees.”
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon that killed 125 people on the ground and 59 passengers and crewmembers on American Airlines Flight 77 badly damaged one side of the building. Three outer rings were completely destroyed, and a 400,000-square-foot area had to be demolished for renovation to begin.
Once the massive restoration project was underway, the pressure was on the workers from every trade to have the Pentagon employees moved back into their offices by Sept. 11, 2002. Thanks to the cooperation of all the companies and workers involved, the 10-month project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. “Our owners never said anything about overtime or material costs,” Rocky Brown, production manager, says. “It was just, ‘Go, go, go, get the job done.’”
Brown adds that the renovation had a different feel to it than past projects. “The few times I went on the site, the guys from all the trades were polite, they were helping each other, and they were enthusiastic. The only arguments we had were among the cabinetmakers over who was going to do the work.”
Jefferson’s work on the Pentagon took about six months, with the actual fabrication beginning in July and continuing right up to the end. The bullet-resistant entry doors had to be historical reproductions of the ones already in the Pentagon. Those doors were sub- contracted to Oakwood Classic & Custom Woodworks Ltd, while Jefferson did the installation. Near the end of the project, a chapel and 9/11 memorial were added to the plan. An additional set of doors had to go between the chapel and the memorial. That request was made after the 9/11 deadline and required installation within two weeks. Because of Jefferson and Oakwood’s workload, Almond contacted Architectural Wood of Roanoke, VA, and that company fabricated the last pair of doors, which were installed within the time frame.
An enhanced laminate security desk that Jefferson fabricated went through several changes as time was running out. “First there was an opening on one side,” Almond says. “Then it changed to a gate. Then they wanted it to be one piece to provide added protection for the workers. The whole time, Rocky is asking, ‘When are we going to start building it? We’ve only got two weeks left.’”
A group of employees came into work at 6 a.m. and stayed until 3 a.m. for three straight nights, making sure the desk would be built on time. They took it to the Pentagon at five in the morning the following day. “We told them we would make it happen, and that’s what we did,” Almond says.
One of the highlights for Jefferson’s employees was attending the dedication ceremonies on September 11, 2002. In addition to the public ceremony, presided over by President Bush, there was a separate workers’ appreciation ceremony. Fourteen of Jefferson’s employees who had participated in the project were able to attend.
The people who worked on the Pentagon project all say it was a meaningful experience. Burdette, who received a letter of commendation from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield for his work on the project, started coming to the site when the concrete slabs were just being poured. “The cladding on the exterior of the building and the roof were not on yet, and you could really see what that plane had done,” he says. “I was very proud and honored that they awarded it to our team.”
“In 25 years of woodworking, I can never see participating in another project that will mean this much to me,” says Almond. “It was very rewarding, just participating in what we deemed to be a statement to the world by the American construction worker. We will make this happen, we will put it back, and it will be back by Sept. 11, 2002.”
Jefferson Gets Lean
The company has been involved in a year-long process of incorporating lean manufacturing techniques into the company. Since Brown and Corrigan attended a lean manufacturing seminar, they have held training sessions, organized the shop and have restructured the CNC programming duties.
“We’ve worked on the amount of steps we have to take from one operation to another,” Brown says. “Why walk to one operation in 40 steps when you can do it in 30? We’ve moved equipment and completely redesigned the shop.” The employees charted the course of items through the shop, and timed the process. “We know that if we take this path, it will take us an hour to process one part. But if we moved one machine or one rack, and if we have a point-of-storage rack, we might spend only 20 minutes.”
This type of organization has carried over to the office as well. Every team uses the same forms, and every job file is basically the same. If Brown needs information about a given project and the project manager or engineer is out of the office, he can easily find the information he needs without having to wait or search through unfamiliar forms.
Prior to the reorganization, Brown and another employee did all the CNC programming for all the jobs from three teams. In order to remove that bottleneck, the capable draftsmen from each team have now been assigned that task. While the overall result has been positive for the company, that idea initially met with resistance from the teams.
“At first it looked like a lot of work for the draftsmen,” Brown says. “They not only had to draw the job, they then had to pull the parts out and program them for the machine.”
“One of my reservations from the beginning was because it was a totally different mindset,” Almond says. “I thought they were pushing the responsibility over to us when it was really about making the whole manufacturing process happen more efficiently.”
Because people like Burdette and Almond are so involved with the projects, they know every detail, whereas Brown would have to learn every job. “A lot of time was wasted up front,” he says. “If there was any kind of an exception to the rule or an error in the drawing, I would have to go back, talk to them, and they would have to stop what they were doing.
“Now that they are doing their own programming, it speeds everything up. It’s a little tougher on them, but instead of taking me four hours, it may only take them an extra hour,” he adds. The company has purchased software from Microvellum which will help automate the process further. Once installed it will keep a library of machine-coded parts and products that can be resized and will provide instant cutlisting, material ordering and parts optimization.
As a result of Jefferson’s changes, Brown says the company is producing items faster and at a higher quality than ever before.
High-Tech, from shop to office
Brown has developed a software program, J-MOS (Jefferson Millwork Order System) that links the shop with the office and management. “We run multiple jobs in varied types of work through our shop simultaneously,” Brown says. “This program effectively tracks every aspect of each project all the managers would ever want to track.”
J-MOS tracks the status of every job function from drafting to beam saw cutting and finishing in real time. Along with tracking the status of current projects, it provides information to help Jefferson plan ahead for future production and improve estimating abilities. Brown says the software, which Jefferson is planning to market via its Web site, www.jeffersonmillwork.com, has saved the company tremendous amounts of labor and overtime cost and has reduced lead times.
The shop is also kept up-to-date. The newest machine is a Komo VR1005TT CNC router, which replaced a smaller machining center. The new machine is more powerful, and its two large tables help maintain a constant flow of parts. Other production machinery includes a Holzma HPP11 beam saw, two Altendorf sliding table saws and a Homag SE 9800/S2/ CNC edgebander with a Ligmatech return. Finishing is done on a Venjakob line finishing machine.
With their part in the Pentagon renovation finished, Almond and his team are gearing up for their next large project: the Museum of the American Indian, a new Smithsonian museum being built on the National Mall. Jefferson’s work will include everything from plastic laminate casework and jewelry display cases to veneer work and wood paneling. Some of the lumber comes from 400-year-old cedar that is being hand-adzed in Washington state, and other pieces will include an inlay of wampum shells being created by Wampanoag artisans.
Jefferson’s use of templates will come in handy for this project. “The physical building design reflects the nature of the Southwest,” says Almond. “Most of the building is designed with a variable radius and serpentine walls. Because of this, virtually all of the millwork, from the casework, display benches to the wall wood panels, will have to be fabricated to the required radius.” Look to see how Jefferson responded to the challenge when the museum opens in 2004.
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