For half a century, SGH has upheld the goals of its founders, while earning numerous accolades and awards.
By Cory Sekine-Pettite
In 1956, three professors from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology established their own engineering design and consulting firm – Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH) – with the simple goals of earning the lasting trust of their clients, gaining the respect of their most capable peers, and furthering the standards of practice in all areas of their profession. To say they succeeded in their goals would be understating the matter.
Today, SGH has five offices nationwide, employs more than 350 staff, and works with the nation’s top building design firms and developers. SGH often seeks out the more challenging or interesting projects to keep its staff motivated. For example, the firm has influenced the design or restoration of many recognizable structures, including Spaceship Earth, the 160-foot-diameter geodesic sphere at the entrance of Epcot Center; New York’s Grand Central Terminal; and the Hultman Aqueduct in Massachusetts. Further, masonry design (construction and reconstruction) always has been a major part of the SGH’s project portfolio.
Brent A. Gabby, an SGH principal and the practice leader for the firm’s preservation technology practice group, said SGH always has worked with masonry and its role in various structures. In fact, magazine articles authored by SGH staff are quoted and/or referenced in the Brick Industry Association’s technical notes. (The firm’s engineers and scientists also serve on many state and federal boards, contributing significantly to code development.) In February, Gabby spoke with Masonry Design about the history of the firm, its role in various masonry projects, and about the state of masonry design and construction in the United States.
“The ability to design and investigate masonry structures is fully integrated throughout our services and areas of practice,” Gabby said. “In addition, several members of our staff specialize in masonry and have developed extensive expertise in this area.”
What makes the firm unique, Gabby said, is the integration of the SGH staffs’ skill sets, knowledge, and the firm’s services across all of its projects. “Our experience in building envelope engineering extends to materials, sealants, masonry and stone, glass and metals; roofing, wall systems, and below-grade waterproofing; and building systems interaction and integration to achieve optimal performance,” Gabby said. “Our knowledge of waterproofing design, air infiltration, and thermal and moisture drive allows us to develop high-functioning designs that address the interaction of building envelope and structure to deal with a variety of conditions.”
These skill sets have been put to use on a number of high-profile and/or award-winning masonry projects, including both contemporary designs and historic restorations. A few of the more recent projects in these categories include: the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (Newark, N.J.), the Miami Dade Center/Stephen P. Clark Government Center (Miami, Fla.), Milwaukee City Hall (Milwaukee, Wis.), and the Bowdoin College Chapel Restoration (Brunswick, Maine).
The Milwaukee City Hall rehabilitation project is one of the larger projects the firm is working on currently. For this $70-million project, SGH is replacing lost architectural terra cotta pieces; replacing much of the 1890s-era, original brick; and rehabbing the slate roofs and copper spires. “We started the project in 2003, and we will likely go through 2008-2009 before it is completed,” Gabby said.
According to Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works, the people of Milwaukee have identified with this local landmark for 110 years. The building has become a local icon whose architectural character distinguishes it from all others in the nation. This restoration project, the department says, has become of recent national interest and currently is the most historically significant project in the Midwest.
Engberg Anderson, the Milwaukee-based architectural firm of record for the City Hall project says that: “Architecturally, Milwaukee’s City Hall is a unique representation of late Gilded Age Revival architecture, and the only American city hall to be constructed in the Flemish Renaissance style. It remains one of the largest city halls in the country.”
Finding masonry materials for such rehab projects is an interesting issue, Gabby said. By comparison, brick can be easier to find and replace because there are many more sources of the materials – those companies that still may be in business and those manufacturers who can make replacement bricks. Natural stone is a different issue altogether, he said.
“For instance, we restored a couple of towers at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine,” Gabby said. “It was a pre-Civil War chapel that has two, 120-foot granite towers that were falling apart. We knew that we had to find replacement granite.”
The chapel, designed by Richard Upjohn and built between 1845 and 1855, is a Romanesque church of undressed granite with twin towers and spires. To find the appropriate stone, SGH went to various suppliers of granite in the United States and in Europe, trying to find a matching stone. However, Gabby said the firm was having a hard time. “Someone came up with the idea that we should ask this crotchety, old geology professor where he thought this granite came from. He looked at us, and he said ‘Hey, dummies, this is a local granite that was mined on Quarry Road just two miles from the college.’” Fortunately, the firm was able to obtain enough material from this long-forgotten quarry.
Clearly, SGH is willing to go that extra mile (even when it doesn’t necessarily have to) to complete its projects and satisfy its clients. To that end, the firm constantly is researching and investing in technology to benefit its work in designing masonry structures. “When dealing with masonry structures, one highly beneficial new development is hygro-thermal modeling,” Gabby said. “This modeling technique allows us to better understand – and communicate to our client – how a masonry wall ‘breaths’ as vapor and moisture move through the wall system.”
These computer modeling programs, he said, allow engineers to model how a wall will behave given certain scenarios of warm, humid inside air and cold, dry outside conditions. Such modeling programs have been around for about seven to 10 years. “They allow designers to build a better mousetrap,” Gabby said, “and if a building envelope actually fails, to understand how it failed.”
As technology continues to lead to newer materials and software, Gabby said, the masonry design and construction field will need to keep up with trends and new developments, as will the building industry overall. He added that the brick industry should be aware of all the new products and technologies coming to market that are part of a wall system – self-adhering membranes, breathable membranes, spray foam insulation, etc., that can have an effect on how a wall functions and on the brick cladding itself. “They need to stay on top of changes that are occurring in other industries.”
By staying on top of change itself, as well as embracing technology, influencing construction guidelines and completing high-profile projects, SGH and its current group of employee/owners (about 80 shareholders) has upheld the goals of its founders, while growing the firm and earning numerous industry accolades and awards. To say that SGH has another 50 years of impressive growth ahead would not be an understatement.
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