by Nick Lerner
For nearly 120 years, US based A. Zahner Company has been at the forefront of technology and innovation within the architecture, engineering and construction industry.
Recently, the company implemented a cloud-based design system to improve communication in what is oftentimes a fast-paced, fragmented industry.
Compass spoke with A. Zahner Company CEO and President L. William Zahner to understand how the company continues its success and innovation in a high-risk market.
A. Zahner Company is a family business. “That’s 210 families; one for each of our employees,” L. William Zahner, CEO and president, said.
Founded in 1897, the architectural engineering and fabrication firm began making decorative metal cornices for buildings.
Now in its fourth generation of the Zahner family, it imagines, designs, fabricates and installs some of the world’s most innovative structures in cooperation with leading architectural practices including Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid Architects.
With a turnover approaching US$50 million, the company employs 30 design engineers; another 90 employees work on production and installation.
“Combining experience, skill, technology and craft, we make the complex simple and get buildings built on time and within or below budget,” Zahner said.
The firm works on signature architectural projects where design intent must be retained, despite the inefficient complexities of what Zahner describes as, “a very fragmented AEC industry.”
In this often unstructured environment, the company aims to reduce the building industry’s biggest challenge: risk.
“What we do is highly risky because we make large-scale things that seem very complex and have never been made before in an industry well known for going over budget and into court,” Zahner said.
To reduce risk and shrink project costs, the firm uses cloud-based 3D visualization to communicate designs and precisely define how those designs will be engineered and manufactured.
“This reduces waste, labor, materials, weight and cost while improving quality,” he said.
Complexity is inherent in the firm’s need to engage with many diverse owners, partners, stakeholders, building contractors and interest groups, including city planners and regulators, even as it develops grander and more complex structures.
Too often, Zahner said, perceived risk limits creativity and discourages innovation.
But by communicating ideas and plans visually through a digital representation over the cloud, the firm succeeds in explaining its vision in terms that anyone can understand, in any language and at all levels of expertise.
This accords with the British government’s “Construction Strategy 2016-20” which states that improved relationships and engagements across clients and the supply chain are key to increased innovation and reducing risk while cost transparency and collaborative working deliver value for money outcomes.
“Building where there are no straight lines can be confusing,” Zahner said. “Our job is to make that simple, which increases people’s confidence to explore, collaborate and then innovate with new ideas.”
Improved understanding also generates efficiencies that help to reduce process redundancy and save as much as 20% of project cost.
Zahner recently used this process to cut project redundancy for a federal courthouse building that was US$6 million over budget, delivering the project for US$1.5 million less than the original budget.
The Inner Arbor Trust (IAT) contracted A. Zahner Company for architectural engineering of the Chrysalis Amphitheatre in Columbia, Maryland (designed by New York-based Marc Fornes & THEVERYMANY).
IAT President and CEO Michael McCall said the 5,000 square foot (465 square meters) performance space consisting entirely of curves will “feel as if it’s a living part of the environment, blending into the forest and the sky.”
“Communicating designs and ideas with cloud-based 3D dashboards gives us the ability to see progress and understand the fine detail of this complex project even though we are at a distance,” McCall said.
“It gives us confidence in the design and it’s fun to use.”
McCall also appreciates that, “in an era of transparency, the software gives us a sense of the challenges and solutions so we know about things that would otherwise be invisible to us. Their commitment to cloud solutions convinced us that A. Zahner Company is on top of things and at the cutting-edge of their industry.”
In today’s most iconic designs that incorporate visually stunning curved façades, detailed precision edges and junctions are key to achieving the aesthetic. “We work on beautiful buildings that require a beautiful finish,” Zahner said.
“We produce digital visualizations of buildings that some clients believe cannot really be built. So we invite customers into the factory and show them physical examples to prove that designs can be made that exceed their expectations and are a lot more beautiful than they ever believed possible.”
One such building is the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which opened in December 2015 after a US$90 million refurbishment.
The Los Angeles Times architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, described its new stainless steel and red aluminum façade, engineered by A. Zahner Company, as among “the most extroverted ever built in a city famous (and in some quarters infamous) for architectural exuberance.”
WORK OF ART
Many of Zahner’s ideas are inspired not only by visionary architects and designers but also by sculptors who hire the company to manufacture their work.
“When you put artists and engineers together, new ideas come out of that collaboration,” Zahner said. “The artists see what is possible and engineers understand the physics in the art.”
Zahner holds an annual sculpture competition and then manufactures the winning artist’s work. “The sculptures can be very challenging to make, but the rewards in terms of inventive input and technical R&D are considerable,” Zahner said.
“And it’s a lot of fun working with some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet.”
After 120 successful years as a family business, the company now is investing for future generations. “In the future, buildings will dynamically adapt to their environments with structures that respond to the needs of smart cities, smart populations and changing climates,” Zahner said.
“New surface finishes will be invented that can generate and store energy and even clean the air. Robots will be doing a lot of physical construction. We may even see the emergence of master designers, people who tackle AEC industry fragmentation and inefficiency in the historical role of master builders who use technology to see how everything fits together.”
In line with its company principles, “be smarter tomorrow,” A. Zahner Company is researching and innovating in business developments that capture and capitalize its knowledge and experience using cloud technology to keep everyone informed and empowered.
“We are reinventing ourselves to be at the forefront of this industry with new spin-off companies that enable employee ownership and success for everyone,” Zahner said.
Thus ensuring that advanced technology, robots, new thinking and a strong artistic and maker temperament will carry its families forward for the next 120 years.