Area Erectors provides steel, ornamental iron, pre-engineered metal building, and precast erection to the Northern and Central Illinois and Southern Wisconsin areas. Founded back in 1964, the firm has made Engineering News Record’s list of America’s top 20 erection companies every year since 1994. The business has expanded steadily over the decades to operate offices in Rockford, Villa Park, Peoria, and Rochelle, Illinois.
In addition to structural steel erection, the company specializes in pre-engineered construction. Area’s precast concrete division focuses on the construction of parking decks, warehouses, hotels, office buildings, and similar structures. The team can also handle de-erection and removal of precast concrete buildings. “We are very fortunate to have some extremely experienced people here that have done all sorts of precast,” says Estimator/Project Manager John Hall. “We are a PCI Certified Erector and, to my knowledge, we are still the only independent erector in Illinois with that status.”
The precast division typically runs four to six crews out of Area’s Rochelle office, which is also home to the company’s crane fleet and the majority of the firm’s lifts and trucks.
Precast concrete is not the right solution for every construction project, but the building approach boasts distinct advantages for a wide range of structures. “In many applications, precast is a fantastic product,” says Mr. Hall. “There are so many things that you can do with it structurally and architecturally, plus the fact that you can put up a building much faster.” Precast concrete can also substantially lower the cost of a project.
The company’s recent precast projects include Indiana University’s Arts & Sciences building (erected in just 26 days), Kendall 11 Theatre addition in Oswego, Illinois (completed in only four days), Tri-State Parking Deck in Lincolnshire, Illinois (erected in 28 days—two days ahead of schedule) and Parkside of Old Town in Chicago, a ten story precast residential structure with 1149 pieces (erected in 48 days).
Area’s pre-engineered metal buildings also deliver substantial advantages for certain types of projects. These durable, reliable structures can withstand high winds, heavy snow, and other hazardous weather conditions—and still cost less than traditional builds. “It is something that you can put up relatively quickly and relatively cheaply and you don’t have to have a whole lot of other trades or other people to finish a structure,” says Vice President Jeff Shelton.
Pre-engineered metal buildings feature easy-to-install, pre-made walls and roofs, but they still allow customers a degree of flexibility, allowing the team to build everything from warehouses and manufacturing plants to retail offices and churches. “If the customer has certain specific needs that they are looking for, the building can be tailored to meet those needs,” explains Corporate Safety Director Jeffrey Hardison.
Area’s Water Street District project showcases the diversity of pre-cast concrete and pre-engineered metal buildings, as well as the team’s expertise with steel erection. “Overall it was a very complex, high profile job that we were able to complete on time and stay safe,” Mr. Hardison summarizes.
Located in Naperville, Illinois, the large-scale mixed-use development utilized all three construction methods for its retail shops, restaurants, 520-space parking garage, and 158-room upscale, urban boutique hotel with luxury amenities and class A office space.
Area executed three separate contracts for the complicated project. “It was very demanding [with] stringent requirements,” and entailed “a lot of things that aren’t necessarily usual,” Mr. Hall remembers. The team more than met expectations, however. “We met all the challenges and we have gotten and continue to get positive feedback for what we’ve done on the job.”
The project’s location along a waterway was just one of the many challenges. “It was adjacent to a river walk that flowed right into the project,” Mr. Hardison explains. “We did both precast and steel in a relatively small area. It was not easy working in the jobsite area because of the lack of space.”
Careful planning and coordination helped keep the project on track. “It is relationships with the controlling contractors and working together as a team that brings these bigger projects and more difficult projects together for us,” says Mr. Hardison. The company’s in-house expertise also played a critical role. For example, “we have a certified 3D crane expert that draws up our lift plans in house. We can walk [customers] through the job before we even erect it.”
Difficult projects like Water Street are Area’s specialty. “We don’t get the simple structures,” Mr. Hardison explains. “We get more of the challenging structures because the customers know that we can deliver. We can erect their buildings and get it done.”
Maintaining safety throughout the project is part of getting it done. “We always strive for zero accidents. That is one of our goals and we put thousands of man hours into this project and we are accident-free.” This commitment to safety is seen in all of Area’s departments and on every project. “Area Erectors maintains a strong commitment to safety from the President down to all branch office employees,” Mr. Hall reports. “The work we do is hazardous—you can’t get away from it completely, but our culture and values are to try and minimize the hazard as much as possible while still performing efficiently.”
Area offers 30-Hour OSHA training along with First Aid and CPR/AED training throughout the year to maintain a strong safety culture. The company also employs a full-time safety representative as well as a Corporate Safety Director to design safety plans and monitor jobs in progress.
“These employees work together with all Area offices to ensure safety policies and procedures are not only being enforced, but that all employees are properly trained and understand the importance of safety on the jobsite,” Mr. Hall shares.
Area is “deeply committed” to enforcing a six-foot fall rule on all jobs, “a standard not typically required during precast or steel erection.” In addition, the team just switched to a fall protection solution that better suits their needs. “We don’t have the anchorage points that other trades have,” Mr. Hardison explains. “We create those anchorage points for them, so most of our fall protection and fall arrest equipment is engineered from the waist down. So we are always looking for the leading edge and the best manufacturer to do that. There are not that many players in the game but we have recently made a transition to a vendor who meets our needs a lot better. It is more ergonomically correct. We are always looking for the best for our employees.”
All of these safety efforts have paid off. “Our mod rate is down to .51,” Mr. Hardison reports. “That is an amazing number; that is an amazing feat. That is a lot of months of accident-free work.” Area’s EMR has stayed below 0.91 for the last five years.
The state of the industry
“Clearly business is much improved the last few years,” says Mr. Hall. “We are particularly seeing more residential and private work and apartments and condos, and still seeing hospital and school work, which has always been a huge percentage of our work. All phases really seem strong right now… The construction industry in the Chicago area as a whole seems positive for the next six to eight months.”
The abundance of work can bring challenges due to a lack of skilled labor, particularly in the precast concrete industry. “We are always trying to keep up with the skilled labor that we need to complete the job,” Mr. Shelton says. The company is taking a proactive approach to the problem. “For precast we need to find the next generation of skilled labor and we have worked very hard with the local unions, trying to come up with a method to identify and train those people for the long term,” Mr. Hall reports.
Adopting the latest technology can also be a challenge, although Area has managed to do so successfully. “[We are] using modern technology, and especially communications with smart phones, integrating that into our business and making it more efficient in terms of how we communicate data to and from each other in the company and to and from the customers,” Mr. Shelton shares. In addition, the company has recently transitioned to a cloud based documentation program.
The team plans to continue building and maintaining a strong presence within the Chicago market. “We have some very large projects getting ready to start,” Mr. Hardison reports. The list includes a 1.25 million square foot distribution center for IKEA as well as a large-scale facility for another major retail player. No matter what the project, Area is committed to maintaining its stellar safety record and successfully delivering a full range of erection services.