In Seattle, Washington, evergreen forests, Puget Sound’s blue waters, glinting high rises and stormy skies all mingle into a color palette unlike any other found in the lower 48.
The birthplace of grunge rock and Microsoft, The Emerald City has built a reputation for creativity that places big expectations on the contractors that work within its limits. So when Tumwater, Washington-based glazer, Mission Glass, won a bid in December 2015 to work on an electrical substation in the vibrant, centrally-located Denny Triangle neighborhood, the now 10-year-old company knew it wouldn’t be just another public sector project.
From substation to art piece
To be clear, electrical substations are typically functional affairs of chain-link, concrete and lots of voltage. But the structure in the Denny Triangle has as much in common with a typical substation as a paper airplane has with a 747.
“The project involves very complex geometry that makes each step from estimation to fabrication and installation more complicated,” says President Jeff Nickel, who co-owns the company with his wife, Jamie.
The exterior cladding of the building, which will be completed in 2017 and “plugged in” in 2018, includes a sloped wall of translucent glass that will give the station an ethereal glow when dusk falls.
Jeff adds that this intricate glass work means there is no room for error: “All of the materials we order, fabricate and install can’t be off by more than the thickness of your fingernail.”
The station has received national recognition for its energy efficiency—it will use solar panels and a heat recovery system to provide all of its own heating needs—and for including walkways, parks and art installations that will make a slick addition to the fast-growing neighborhood in which it’s located.
Behind the glass curtain
Jeff says that since starting the company in 2007, Mission has won bids on major projects like the substation because they’re skilled at tackling sophisticated work and staying abreast of advances in the industry, like unitized curtain walls. These massive sections of glass walls are installed on the exteriors of buildings, giving them the mirrored look associated with high-rises and big cities.
“We’re able to build the frames, crate everything up and install the windows in the shop, so we can review and reject imperfect pieces of glass,” Jeff says. Because the walls are manufactured in the controlled environment of the shop, the tolerances are razor thin and the quality testing rigorous.
Another advantage of unitized systems is that they can be brought to the site and hoisted into place in a third of the time it would take to do an on-site, or “stick built” installation. Jeff says his crews need only focus on getting the units to the site as quickly as possible, rather than coordinating separate shipments of glass, steel and other materials.
Jamie says the company was able to transition to unitized systems after upgrading to a 70,000-square-foot building in 2015. Mission is putting up their first true unitized curtain wall in Seattle on a 15-story Marriot Residence Inn. It’s also teaming up with general contractor, Pennon Construction, to install unitized systems and glass covered horizontal sunshades in the Fremont Office Building in the Fremont neighborhood.
While this new glazing technology helps Mission glass install more durable windows more quickly, Nickel says it’s also important to stay current on the planning software that helps the team dream up those intricate structures in the first place.
Mission Glass has stocked up on hi-tech planning and design equipment like 3-D printers and scanners, as well as virtual design software that lets it send three-dimensional models and sophisticated diagrams to its clients ahead of the construction phase. On projects like the Denny substation and the Marriot, this software helps Mission demonstrate how a complex glazing project will look and also helps the staff achieve the tight tolerances it needs.
Climbing up and spreading out
Erring on the side of complexity helped Mission Glass grow through the Recession of 2008; the company was small enough to avoid big overhead costs while still doggedly pursuing high profile projects and completing them on smaller margins than their competitors.
“Part of it is, we’ve had good timing on selecting projects and part of it is that whenever we hit a plateau, we immediately look for a way to climb higher,” Jeff says.
For Jeff, owning Mission Glass is the summit of his own climb through the glazing industry. He’s been in the business since graduating high school and has worked his way from on-site tradesman to co-owning a company.
“I’ll walk the floor now and talk to different people and it’s kind of funny because I’ll picture myself back in those days talking to my old foreman.”
The company plans on expanding into the other heavyweight of Pacific Northwestern markets, Portland, Oregon. Jeff says that Mission Glass’ headquarters is near Olympia, Washington putting it smack in the middle of the two metro areas.
“It’s a way to double the market by taking advantage of our location,” he says.
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