Technology Makes Engineering Firm a Concrete Success
Fallingwater was falling apart.
By the late 1990s, the classic Frank Lloyd Wright house displayed massive fissures in its beams, and its very name was becoming an ironic joke.
Today, visitors to the site in rural southwestern Pennsylvania gaze at a house perched stably, if incongruously, on its waterfall precipice. You'd never guess that the place, completed in 1939, was once tottering. That's because a Baltimore area company, Structural, practically out-Wrighted Wright in strengthening Fallingwater
with steel cables to relieve stress on the building's concrete beams, staff at the site confirm.
We'll wager that few Baltimoreans know about Structural's Fallingwater rescue effort, nor do they realize that the National Aquarium in Baltimore
, Hippodrome Theatre and the Art Deco-style Bank of America Building at 10 Light St. all stand as concrete examples of the company's preservation technologies.
Structural also has an $8 million contract to help protect the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York, relying on its trademark blast protection product Ducon. Earlier this year, it won a $23 million repair job for a transit mall, parking garage and office building in Salem, Ore., known as Salem Courthouse Square.
Despite such highly visible projects, the Hanover company has kept a low profile since its founding as Structural Preservation Systems in 1976. Baltimore natives Peter Emmons and Jim Schneider started the company to provide concrete reinforcement to buildings beset by corrosion and cracking. At the time they traveled rather light, packing their tools in a 1964 Ford Galaxie.
Emmons, who still leads the company, is an acknowledged pioneer in concrete preservation and literally wrote the book in the field, Concrete Repair and Maintenance Illustrated, published in 1993. The company itself has expanded into an international enterprise, employing 2,000 people in 15 offices across the country, as well as in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. It employs 350 in the Baltimore/Washington area, with plans to hire 100 employees here over the next three years, in sales, technology, engineering, finance and field management.
Structural is the 10th largest privately held company in Baltimore, according to the Baltimore Business Journal, with 2010 revenues of approximately $395 million. A perennial industry award winner, the company is ranked 22nd among the world's specialty contractors by the Engineering-News Record.
Thomas Amrein, the National Aquarium in Baltimore’s director of facilities, says he appreciates having them in Baltimore. "What makes Structural a great company is their artisans," he says. "This company settles for nothing less than perfection."
From a single ship to a fleet
So how did the company go from a Ford Galaxie to a worldwide armada?
The company’s chief marketing officer Kenneth Chodnicki answers, "a combination of organic growth and acquisitions." Structural's parent company, Structural Group, Inc., has completed more than 10 acquisitions, most notably Pullman Power Products in 2000. Founded in 1902 as a chimney builder, Pullman today provides infrastructure improvements to global energy and industrial clients.
But Chodnicki says the real key to Structural's growth has been the "organic" expansion of the core Structural preservation business, which accounts for 75 percent of the company's revenue. And the driver of that business is technological innovation.
Which brings us back to founder Peter Emmons, who provided advanced technology to the construction world. Emmons pioneered the use of carbon fiber strengthening, applied to refortifying everything from historic buildings to parking garages. He also championed the use of "Cathodic Protection," which employs an electric current to prevent corrosion in such concrete structures as large cooling towers and bridges.
“Structural's commitment to understanding and solving client challenges is a key factor in our continuing success and growth,” Emmons says in an email. He also cites the company's technologies, which are designed to provide "readily accessible tools for clients and employees."
David Lawrence, senior preconstruction manager for Rockville’s Forrester Construction Co.
, has worked with Structural at the design stage of construction projects.
“Their on-site field operations is top notch in safety, attention to detail and schedule management.”
With its continued nationwide expansion and operations in the Middle East, does Structural have a concrete reason to remain in Baltimore?
Chodnicki responds with an emphatic yes, citing the area’s universities and clients in the area.
"As we become more involved with the energy, industrial, commercial and public markets, Structural has begun to become a more active part of those Baltimore business communities.”
Richard Rabicoff is a longtime Baltimore journalist who was most recently managing editor of Citybizlist.
Ken Chodnicki by STEVE RUARK
Others courtesy of Structural