TROY, Mich. — Becoming a journeyman in the Sheet Metal Workers union requires completing a four-year program that teaches all facets of the trade. It doesn’t usually include wringing out soggy papers or moving fire-damaged sheet metal forming machinery.
But that was the experience for many apprentices studying at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 292 training center in Troy, Mich. They were called on to help renovate the union’s training center after an electrical fire destroyed the entire building in August 2013.
“The top of the second floor was completely gone,” said Kevin Stanbury, training director for the local. “There was no roof or nothing upstairs — everything was destroyed. The back part of the building, all it had was a lot of water and smoke damage.”
The union said $120,000 in equipment and other contents were lost in the fire. Everything inside the facility — including equipment, furniture and documents — had to be removed from the building. Salvageable items were cleaned and moved back inside after renovations were made to the scorched training center.
Although the building took a major hit from the fire, Stanbury saw the incident as an opportunity to build a new, modern training center — one that he and his students could be proud to inhabit.
But a training center isn’t something that you just start erecting, Stanbury pointed out.
“Of course, because it’s a building for a city, we have to have it stamped by an architect,” he said. “We had the architect design the whole thing and had input all the way through the whole thing.”
During the training center’s reconstruction, Stanbury took on the role of project manager, overseeing a team of contractors while handling the construction budget.
“I managed the whole project, so that was a project on a $1.4 million budget that involved multiple contractors, all union contractors,” he said. “And the problems along the way with the city, I handled all of those problems. So it was quite a learning experience.”
Stanbury quickly discovered rebuilding the center triggered numerous updated code requirements, which complicated the 45-year-old facility’s reconstruction — and added $150,000 to the project’s cost.
Whether or not the building needed an elevator or new firewalls and the building’s roof pitch were among many issues Stanbury faced during the building’s reconstruction.
Fortunately, obtaining funds to complete the project was not one of them, since the $1.4 million cost to rebuild the facility was fully covered through insurance.
“I ended up having the perfect amount of money from the insurance company. I didn’t have a penny left over,” he said. “They gave us an upfront check of $250,000 to get started, and we went through that pretty quick.”
The front part of the building, now complete with a newly renovated main entrance and offices, cost around $500,000 to rebuild, Stanbury said. That’s because the entire main building, along with the majority of its contents, had been wiped out from the fire.
“(Office) stuff was a total loss. They had nothing — it was all gone,” he said. “So it was a lot of work trying to get that back up and running.”
Laura Tomasi, office manager for the sheet metal works union, said the fire was the worst thing she’s ever been through.
“Everything we tried doing was a mess,” she said, recalling the group’s efforts to retrieve remnants of office supplies, documents and equipment. “Not to mention (office) people walking out, not staying with it and not being here and it was just not good. Not something you like to think about very often.”
Learning on the fly
Despite not having a classroom — or sheet metal shop — to teach in, Stanbury still found work for his students during the training center’s restoration.
And there was plenty to be done, given the amount of smoke and water damage the building suffered from due to the fire.
“We were moving things, we were fixing things, cleaning things… and putting things away because a lot of things were damaged by the water,” Stanbury said. “We had to re-do a lot of stuff — we had to resurface all the floors and everything.”
Since the entire sheet metal shop — equipment and all — had to be packed away after the fire took place, Stanbury’s students still had quite a task on their hands once the building had finally been rebuilt.
“They (the students) unpacked about 10,000 boxes,” Stanbury said.
The students’ involvement in the project enabled them to keep busy instead of waiting until the building was reopened.
Among the students who helped rebuild the facility was first-year apprentice Mark Graves. He said he found the experience very educational.
“It was a group effort,” Graves said. “Everyone’s opinion counted as to how everything was going to fit back together. Instead of delaying it and letting us sit home for four or five months, they stepped us up until we could go back and continue with the program. I think they handled it very well.”
For months, students helped clean, paint, build shelves and welding booths, and move equipment back into the building. Stanbury even appointed apprentices to serve as supervisors on different days to assist in leading the training center’s restoration efforts.
“They were in charge of the project, of course with my supervision,” he said. “There were a lot of things they were able to do they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise. Imagine every nut and bolt was gone. They had to re-do everything. It was my vision to get it done, but they did the work. They realized the value we’ve added to the school, making it a better place to learn.”
But Stanbury said some students were upset by the unexpected change in lesson plans.
“They learned some things, but it was mostly frustrating for them a lot of times because we were unable to do the things that I normally do,” Stanbury said. “I wasn’t teaching them sheet metal at that point — I’m teaching them how to organize a shop.”
Dennis Grant, a three-year student of the program, said he and his peers were initially discouraged by all of the changes the fire had brought about.
“At first we were a little bit out of whack because our location had to change, but after they started having the contractors come in, I, too, was a part of the reconstruction process,” Grant said. “I was on the team that put the office furniture back together. Now we’re back in the swing of things.”
The center officially reopened in November 2014.
Along with a new building, the fire was also responsible for fostering a greater appreciation amongst Stanbury and his students for the union’s HVAC construction program.
Third-year apprentice Terry McNeese said he enjoys being taught in the new building.
“Now we have newer equipment, they put money into this classroom, and now everything’s cleaner now after 30 years of dust and stuff, so it makes our learning a lot easier now,” he said.
Stanbury said teaching in the renovated training center has been great because it’s now exactly the way he’d always envisioned.
“You can’t say it’s the best thing in the world for you to have a fire,” he said. “However, that being said, this building is at least 10 times better than it was before the fire, simply because we could put it back the way we wanted it.”
Stanbury also quipped about how this experience has inspired him to pen a guide on enduring fires.
“I’m going to write a book on fires and how to survive a fire, because I had no idea going into this that it would take as long as it did and it would be as frustrating as it was to get it back where it is,” he said.
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