Saturday, August 8, 2009

Operators Help Set Table for Habitat Party

Talisha Franklin holds the keys to her new home.

There were speeches, tears, prayers, face painting, the Harris Stowe University band, and all the other earmarks of a celebration on Sunday Aug. 1, when Habitat for Humanity St. Louis handed over the keys of 10 new homes to the homes' owners. And some Operating Engineers Local 513 apprentices, their instructor, a local masonry contractor, and an equipment vendor played a role in helping the party to happen.

The dedication ceremony was held at the heart of the project near the intersection of Thomas and Garrison in the Jeff-Vander-Lou area. It marked the completion of Phase I of this year's build, which will total 24 homes by Christmas. Last year, Habitat for Humanity St. Louis completed 27 LEED Platinum-certified homes - one of the largest assemblages of LEED-certified residential property in the country. This green community will total more than 90 homes in a long-overlooked section of urban St. Louis, just North of St. Louis University and the Fox Theatre, East of Grand Avenue.

Faced with a daunting schedule and just a week to go before the dedication ceremony, William McHugh, construction manager for Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, put out a call for help with the finish grading for the first ten home sites. Normally that task is performed by Habitat staff, but McHugh realized that if they could get some assistance in the form of Bobcat operators they'd be able to keep volunteers and staff focused on moving the remaining 14 homes forward.

Ready, willing and able, Operating Engineers Local 513 responded to the call, sending seven apprentices and an instructor out to the jobsite. Dan Head of Kirkwood Masonry also stepped up to help. Randy White of Bobcat of St. Louis even hauled in extra equipment to make sure the lots were good to go when the sod trucks rolled in.

Hundreds of volunteers have committed months of time working on the construction that led up to the Aug. 2 event. Mohammed Jier, a native of Kenya, who received the keys to his new home along with his wife Shams Dad, thanked "God, and everyone who helped, and everyone who donated, and everyone who prayed or kept us in their thoughts" for the home into which the couple and their children Ali and Aisha are moving.

Through the combined efforts of generous sponsors, dedicated volunteers and the agency's remarkable staff, Habitat for Humanity St. Louis is literally transforming the neighborhood into which Talisha Franklin will move with her children Ta'Anyea and Terrel at the end of this month. Every Saturday since construction began, Franklin, who is completing her Masters' degree in early childhood education, has worked shoulder to shoulder with volunteers to put a roof over her family's head.

Area of this year's Habitat build

Even after a grueling eight hour workday, construction leaders say it wasn't unusual to see her dash home to tackle an important paper or to ferry her kids to Cub Scout camping trips, birthday parties and family outings. Franklin will close on her new home in just a few weeks.

The St. Louis Police Department is so appreciative of the difference this renewal project is making in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood that it staged helicopter landings on a nearby grade school ball field for the benefit of the families attending the dedication.

Habitat is already well under way with Phase II of this year's build, which is set to wrap up in September. Phase III should be finished in time for Christmas. To find out more about Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, visit or call 314-371-0400,

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hot Rod Heart

“Ooh, let's go ridin'
Cruisin' down the open road
We can put the top down
Listen to the radio
Big ol' Buick
And a big ol' sky
Wheels on fire
And I'll tell you why
I got a hot rod heart.”

From Hot Rod Heart by John Fogerty

On June 15th, a black Monday morning with rain coming down so hard that it sloshed into my shoes, I followed a large and diverse crowd into the Shrine of St. Joseph, just north of the Convention Center.

There were men in suits, women in pearls and other folks in dressy casual. Then there were the guys in the “Geezer Gassers” T-shirts.

I was attending the memorial service for Wayne Arteaga. Wayne was the “quiet” Arteaga – and that was saying a lot. Robert Wayne Arteaga was the son of Robert “Bob” Arteaga, brother of Eldon Arteaga, and uncle of Bradley Arteaga of Arteaga Studios.

The Arteagas have been intertwined in the history of St. Louis and the building industry here for almost three-quarters of a century. Bob began by working for others, photographing legendary celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth. Then the Arteagas received a commission to photograph the Arch’s construction. The assignment was to shoot once a month, but instead the Arteagas shot thousands of photos, creating an unprecedented record of the construction of a national monument.

The Arteagas have been passionate advocates for St. Louis, and particularly for Downtown. On the wall of Arteaga Studios at the corner of Brannon and Delor is a sign from their old studio, which was located from 1946 to 1953 on what is now part of the Arch Grounds. The “A” in Arteaga is an Arch, which is really strange when you consider that the design for the Arch had not even been conceived at that time.

The Arch photography was a defining moment for the Arteagas. Eldon, Wayne, and Bradley have become familiar figures at industry events, and for their documentation of the construction in St. Louis. The breathtaking restoration of the Shrine of St. Joseph was an Arteaga family mission. Sitting in the church on June 15 I couldn’t believe it was the same pigeon-infested disaster they’d shown me before work began.

Bob Arteaga was a walking dichotomy, profane in one breath and deeply spiritual in the next, but always passionate. Eldon is everybody’s best friend, always good for a bad joke. I’ve never had a conversation with him that lasted less than half an hour. Eldon’s son Bradley is the consummate businessman/entrepreneur ­– outgoing, smart, and direct.

Then there was Wayne. Wayne could be funny with a dry wit that could be hysterical at times. But mostly he was quiet in counterbalance to the almost manic enthusiasm of Bob and Eldon. He was devoted to his wife Bernie and daughter Chris. Wayne could almost seem boring… until you saw his cars. When I met Wayne he was driving a lime green Willys that he’d converted into a pickup truck.

Wayne became legendary in drag racing circles for his maroon 1939 Willys with a blown 360-inch Chrysler Hemi engine. Wayne and his friend John Hellmuth blew up engines and had fun through the 1960s. Eventually Wayne’s daughter Chris caught the bug. Wayne converted the green truck into a racer and painted it blue for her.

Wayne is legendary in hot rod/drag racing circles, as a Google search of his name quickly reveals. Brad Arteaga told me that a couple of weeks before his uncle died there was a get-together of the old gasser racers that Wayne attended. “Some young guys were in awe. They were asking him to sign their dashboards,” Brad said.

In his own way, Wayne Arteaga was just as passionate as his more vociferous dad, brother, and nephew. But it isn’t his passion for pre-WWII Willys that I’ll remember him for. When I think of Wayne I recall his devotion to his family and friends, his steadiness in a crisis and the grace that he gave me in some of my less graceful moments.

As John Fogerty would say, Wayne Arteaga had a hot rod heart.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The New Newsweek: A Good Read

Having spent most of my career in print journalism I've cringed as I've watched the laughable attempts of the behemoth print media companies to "monetize" the Web and to address their periodicals' declining lack of relevancy in the print age.

As recently as two years ago I received three newspapers at my front door every morning. Now the only time I enjoy the tactile, ink-smudged experience of a newspaper is when I'm hanging out at the St. Louis Bread Company with time to kill.

I do miss The New York Times Magazine, with its 5,000-word cover stories that exhaustively examine their subject and the NYTM's thoughtful, esoteric mix of essays, articles and photography. The magazines that I still receive – other than the pile of B2B mags that are all over the map – tend to be "good reads" with great graphics. Two that come immediately to mind are Outside and Gun & Garden, an amazingly thoughtful, gracefully-written and edited, well-designed Southern magazine.

Then there's Newsweek. I used to read my ex-wife's copy when she was done with it. Then I became a subscriber. Kludgy, predictable, it somehow filled a void that newspapers missed, and even the Internet didn't totally supplant it.

But I struggled a couple of weeks ago in deciding to renew my subscription. And now I'm glad I did. The new Newsweek is everything a magazine should be. Primarily, it's a good read. It has abandoned trying to dish up the byte-sized pieces of information that the Web does better in favor of in-depth exploration of a truly eclectic mix of issues.

The first issue under the new format included an interview with Obama on his internal driving forces, an exploration of the personalities behind the fall of Lehman, and an examination of the debate around treatment of autism. It also included a piece that would have seemed more at home in Wired, an exploration of Kurt Kurzweil, the inventor of the synthesizer who has reinvented himself as a futurist exposing eternal life through robotics.

The graphics are what really floored me. Newsweek has gone to better paper stock and and open, retro layout that mixes Esquire or New York magazine from the '70s with Good magazine. The Kurzweil article has a chart of his hits and misses as a futurist. There's a chart that does a great job of putting in perspective the size of the stimulus by couching it in terms of a shopping list that includes such items as $146 billion to buy an electric car for every 16- and 17-year-old in America and a $65 billion bailout for all of Bernie Madoff's victims.

The editorial and design makeover is the visible side of a complete makeover in Newsweek's business model.

“Mass for us is a business that doesn’t work,” said Tom Ascheim, Newsweek’s chief executive. “Wish it did, but it doesn’t. We did it for a long time, successfully, but we can’t anymore.”

Thirteen months ago, Newsweek lowered its rate base, the circulation promised to advertisers, to 2.6 million from 3.1 million, and Ascheim said that would drop to 1.9 million in July, and to 1.5 million next January.

He says the magazine has a core of 1.2 million subscribers who are its best-educated, most avid consumers of news, and who have higher incomes than the average reader.

“We would like to build our business around these people and grow that group slightly,” he said. “These are our best customers. They are our best renewers, and they pay the most.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Surrounded by Angels

This morning I read the remarkable story of a St. Louis woman, Rachel Lozano, who recently celebrated five years of remission from cancer. Diagnosed with a rare cancer while in high school, she recovered only to have second occurrence in which the cancer threatened her internal organs and should have killed her in weeks or months.

That she survived is one of God's miracles – in fact the Catholic Church is talking about canonizing William Joseph Chaminade, founder of the Marianists, over the whole deal. That's a topic for somene else's blog.

Through this all Rachel kept her humor (she named her tumor "Spanky"), fortitude, and her remarkable faith. She is now a motivational speaker and a college student at Webster University. She was named woman of the year by the readers of Glamour Magazine.

"It makes me realize that I'm here for a reason, or more than one reason, that God has plans for me," Rachel wrote in her blog,
Last July she married Gabe Lozano. He told a reporter, "Life is not always you think it will be or what you like it to be. But it is the way it's supposed to be."

A few years ago I was in a position where, through my own stupidity and arrogance, I could have died. God's will and a surgeon's skill allowed me to live. Right now I'm personally living a season I never expected to see and would not have chosen for myself.

But I'm surrounded by angels in human form, showing me God's grace every day. To quote Rachel: "I'm here for a reason." Or as her husband Gabe said: "Life... is the way supposed to be."

"The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

St. Louis AIA Helps Young Designers Hit by Recession

Helping HandThe St. Louis Chapter AIA is providing financial assistance in professional development to young designers impacted by firm cutbacks in the face of declining work on the boards. AIA issued the following statement in an email to its members:

"Last week, the trustees of the AIA St. Louis Scholarship Fund met. The state of the economy and its devastating effect on our industry and profession was one of our topics. We know that the number of unemployed and under-employed architects and interns continues to grow. Many firms face extinction as more and more construction projects are placed on hold.

"To assist our profession during these uncertain days, the AIA St. Louis Scholarship Fund is allocating funds to be made available to unemployed/underemployed architects and interns on their pathway to licensure. The funds will be processed through the AIA St. Louis office as interest-free loans, to be paid back when full time employment returns, and then on a mutually agreeable and in a reasonable time frame. These are unique times, and we are undertaking a unique way to support the St. Louis architectural community.

"The funds may be borrowed for ARE testing and preparation, LEED certification testing and preparation, or for computer classes for Revit, BIM or programs that will make you a better architect or intern when you return to work. We will also consider applications for other professional growth and development opportunities.

"We know that there are impending deadlines such as the LEED testing deadline and the 3.1 ARE... We want the funds to be available immediately for these deadlines.

"The AIA St. Louis Scholarship Fund is able to undertake this unique stimulus program because of the generosity of its donors and the ongoing support it receives. We therefore, must express our gratitude to the founders and trustees of the Fund for developing and growing the fund to allow us to continue to invest in our profession."

A link to the AIA application form is available by clicking here. Email the form to Michelle Swatek executive director. Email or call 314.621.3484 for more information.

Making a Building Out of an Anthill

If you're looking for building design ideas that are more energy efficient or building systems that protect the environment, you might literally find them in your own backyard.

A far-reaching trend emerging in green design and sustainability is “Biomimicry” – basically applying the best designs in 3.8 billion years nature to a number of industries – but especially the construction of buildings, cities and communities. On March 19th, Janine Benyus, the world’s foremost expert on biomimicry spoke on the topic Washington University’s Graham Chapel.

biomimicryThe local hook is that St. Louis-based HOK has exclusive alliance with Benyus’ Biomimicry Guild to integrate nature’s innovations into its designs of structures and communities – an asset for a community vying for the Obama stimulus dollars that have a multitude of “green” mandates attached to them.

Biomimicry applies the knowledge of 3.8 billion years of nature to find solutions to challenges in a number of industries. Leonardo da Vinci applied this “nature inspired” design in sketching many of his inventive ideas, such as studying bird flight to concept man-made flying machines. Perhaps the most famous example of biomimicry is Velcro. Inventor George de Mestral came up with the concept after observing how burrs stuck to his clothing and his dog’s fur.

Today, biomimicry is being advanced in the design and construction of buildings and infrastructure in ways that create a more sustainable built environment that coexists in greater harmony with nature. Examples include:

  • Termite mounds – In Africa, certain species of termites have built termite mounds that maintain a constant temperature of 87 degrees F to grow a fungus on which the insects feed. The insects construct air vents that keep the temperature at the appropriate level even when the outside air temperature drops to 35 degrees F at night or rises to 104 degrees F in the day. The Eastgate Centre shopping and office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe uses this termite temperature control to regulate temperate with no conventional air condition or heating.
  • Butterfly wings – Morphotex is a material that imitates the color shifting properties of a butterfly’s wings. As a fiber material, it manipulates the use of light to create color through refraction, instead of using dyes or pigments, which use more energy to produce and are more harmful to the environment. It has applications for building materials and textiles.
  • Lotus plant – researchers have found that the Lotus plant can shed contaminants because its leaves have small bumps and waxy crystals that force water to “ball up.” The bumps raise up dirt -molecules, which are then picked up by the water drops. This “lotus effect” is now being applied to paint and has applications to textiles, wood and glass.
  • Mussels – Building products such as plywood and particle board are being produced using a glue that was inspired by a substance secreted by mussels.
  • The forest floor – More cost efficient modular carpeting is being produce by mimicking the randomness of colors and patterns found on the forest floor. Rather than uniform colors on the carpet, the randomness makes it very easy to change pieces of the carpet without noticing a difference.
  • Whale power – Wind turbines to produce energy for the built environment are being made more efficient thanks to an aerodynamic study of the whale flipper.

Next time you putter in the garden or take a walk in the woods, keep your eyes open. Nature may be telling you something about a better way to build.

Hard Hat Zone

Part of the annual Christmas ritual for my family is a game of “Rob Your Neighbor”. The object of the game is to stick someone else with a particularly unattractive item that has been darkening a corner of your closet. My six siblings, our many kids, and grandkids all get into the spirit. I once unloaded a plaster copy of Michelangelo’s nude statue “David” – only to have it reappear for the next five years dressed in increasingly bizarre outfits.

This year was different for me: I actually WANTED the item I wound up getting. My youngest brother had brought an old hard hat. But it was a hard hat fraught with meaning for me. It has a Day-Glo orange band, an old PRIDE logo in the same orange hue, and – Scotch-taped to the side – the original logo for St. Louis CNR. It was my Dad’s hard hat, the same one that he wore for many years in the “Perspective” column that he wrote for CNR.

The hard hat then, as now, had symbolic value beyond its role as protective gear. The hard hat represents the risk, hard work, and uncertainty that are an inherent part of the construction industry. Ours is an industry that gets things done. At New York’s Center for Architecture the current exhibit is called “Make It Work: Engineering Possibilities.” The exhibit examines new technologies, materials, and building designs that will shape the future. “Make It Work” might be the mission statement for our construction industry.

When we discussing the theme for the March/April CNR cover, Art Director Scott Tripp came up with the idea for the “stimulus drink” that appears in the photo illustration. Originally the idea was to have the model weTom hard hataring a hard hat holding the can.

I’m glad that the final image focuses only on the can and that there’s no hard hat in sight. Because our industry’s role is not to create the environment in which things are built. The Stimulus Package is not something we have created – it just part of the environment in which we operate. The role of our construction industry is to take the conditions and resources as they come and to “make it work.” Making it work is the kind of job that requires rolling up your sleeves and putting on a hard hat.

Freeing the chokehold that financial institutions have on cash for projects will make a difference. The infusion of federal dollars – at no small cost to the future – for shovel-ready stimulus projects will also make a difference.

But our industry can a BIG difference by fearlessly championing new ideas and technologies, by stretching resources to the breaking point. Dan Galvin, public information manager, Gateway Constructors and the public face of “The New I-64”, spoke before the Midwest Council, American Subcontractors Association. Galvin pointed out the daring thinking that allowed MoDot and its contractors to shave four years off the project schedule. Their faith that it could be done – and their ability to get the public to embrace that idea – has created a model that is being studied for other projects around the country.

At the Society for Marketing of Professional Services (SMPS) meeting in February, Emily Andrews, executive director, U.S. Green Building Council - St. Louis Regional Chapter, moderated a “sustainability panel”comprised of Mathew Malten, MEM, LEED AP, assistant vice chancellor for sustainability, Washington University in St. Louis; Grant Lanham, LEED AP/operations specialist, Vertegy Consultants; and Christopher Hulse, LEED AP, vice president, Green Street Properties.

Malten told how the university’s desire to “do the right thing,” coupled with the construction expertise of its own facilities management team and outside construction experts was creating a steady stream of projects at Wash U. with incredibly quick ROI.

Lanham stressed the need to “be more sophisticated. We need to be really careful in how we market what it is to be sustainable. Don’t just push the idea of ‘green’.”

Hulse said that Green Street, a developer focusing on sustainable projects, is experiencing strong interest even in these times because owners are recognizing the difference that an environmentally healthy building can make in worker productivity.

The March/April of CNR addressed some of the ways in which various segments of our industry are making a difference in current economic times. One article took a measured look at green/sustainable construction and what it means in the future. In another, we examined the ways in which the area’s equipment dealers are sharing the pain of their cash-strapped contractor customers. Electrical contractors are applying more and more of their engineering expertise to help customers save energy and expedite installations, as yet another feature explained.

The construction industry doesn’t dictate the state of the economy or the mood of public sentiment… and we certainly don’t control the whims of government. Our job, whatever the situation, is to roll up our sleeves, put on our thinking caps (hard hats) and “make it work”.