The desire to build and create is a basic human drive. As technology has advanced, so too has our mastery of construction. But every now and again, technology leaps forward to bring about new eras and breakthroughs in construction technology.
The Supreme Group, a collaboration of ten companies in western Canada and the northwestern United States, is on the verge of ushering in a new era in construction as the largest steel production and erection company in Canada.
Supreme’s story began in 1972 when engineer John Leder and his wife Sally established a small steel erection company in Winnipeg. Over its long and storied career, the company has expanded thanks to its expertise, professionalism, and, above all, compassion, according to Managing Director for Business Development Jeff Skibin.
“It’s quite refreshing…to see compassion as a value within an organization,” says Skibin, who moved to the company from Canada’s oil and gas sector. This compassion and focus on the customer’s needs, he believes, has empowered Supreme to rise above its competitors to take its dominant industrial position it currently enjoys.
Today, Supreme group boasts ten separate divisions across Western Canada and the northwest United States, with offices in Vancouver, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg, the Edmonton headquarters, plus a new office in Portland, Oregon. All told, the group’s combined offices are capable of manufacturing over 1,600 tons of steel weekly and over 150,000 tons annually, making it capable of handling larger-scale projects.
The company has hired over two hundred new employees in the past year, and its shops – despite the group’s immense size – are at capacity for the next eighteen months, allowing Supreme to hit the market in a “very dominant position,” Skibin describes with justifiable pride.
This larger production volume, in Skibin’s view, is one of the other large factors that set Supreme apart. “We can level load multiple projects,” he explains, meaning the company now has the infrastructure, workforce, and ability to meet urgent demands rapidly and professionally. In addition, it can handle all parts of a project – surveying, construction, logistics, maintenance, and inspection – all within the group’s various companies. This makes Supreme the natural choice for taking on larger projects at which smaller companies might balk. With all companies under one roof, so to speak, customers across Western Canada still deal with one supply chain and one operational manual, greatly consolidating building operations and reducing logistical problems.
This enormous production capacity has made the company the natural choice for larger construction projects. The Capitol Theatre in Jasper, Alberta; Vancouver’s Port Mann Bridge; and an expansion to Edmonton International Airport are only a few of the group’s more recent projects. Other projects, showcasing the group’s abilities and versatility, include piping networks for oil and gas companies in Alberta, the second-largest Ikea in Canada, the Seattle Seahawks stadium, and hospitals in Victoria, British Columbia and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The Seahawks stadium project was not open to bidding but was given directly to Supreme, as no other group could accommodate the project’s size and complexity.
One of the company’s most recent and proudest achievements is the Amazon Spheres, three conservatories built for online retailer Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. Far from the usual company headquarters building, the spheres are three identical hemispheres covered in 2,600 individual glass panes and linked together with 650 tons of steel rods. Using advanced three-dimensional (3D) modeling software, Supreme custom manufactured components to maximize space and accommodate the delicate weight distribution required by the spheres’ unique design.
Through its various subsidiaries, Supreme manufactured nearly 25,000 individual pieces, plus over three hundred shims – custom-made components designed to be used in the event pieces did not fit. However, thanks to the precision engineering and advanced 3D models, only three shims ended up being used, so construction time was shortened by nearly one-third.
These 3D models are known as building information modelling (BIM). Using cutting-edge software, Supreme’s engineers, architects, and designers created 3D models of planned structures with unprecedented accuracy. Using data from many sources, the company’s BIM simulations can predict structural weaknesses, power use, and resource consumption, allowing designs to prioritize space efficiency, lower environmental impact, or increase aesthetic appeal as the customer requires.
In fact, BIM has proven so effective that the company now employs a dedicated surveying and engineering corps to perfect and implement the modelling software continually. This process, while not unique to Supreme, allows the group to generate far less waste during the construction process to create buildings more efficiently and accurately than ever before.
The company’s efforts to stay on the cutting edge of technology have resulted in a breakthrough in steel construction. SpeedCore, as it is called, is a radical shift in steel construction, a brainchild of the Seattle-based architecture firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates. Supreme, while not holding a patent on the process, is leading new efforts to implement this process in Canada and the United States.
Traditionally, most buildings have been constructed on a concrete foundation, with steel girders supporting a concrete frame and walls. By contrast, SpeedCore uses steel plates in lieu of traditional rebar, providing not only structural framework but also formwork for poured concrete. The concrete, working in concert with the steel, will provide a high degree of structural support while occupying less space. Finally, through this steel framework, SpeedCore aims to reduce construction time, simultaneously increasing stability and durability and even reducing waste.
Once it is fully understood and implemented, SpeedCore promises to change the way modern buildings are constructed. The American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) even has a piece of SpeedCore modelling in the lobby of its Chicago headquarters, demonstrating the organization’s faith in this new construction process. But despite the confidence in the process and its architectural solidity, SpeedCore admittedly has yet to be fully proven.
SpeedCore’s debut will be in Supreme’s latest project: Rainier Square Tower, an 850-foot, 58-storey structure currently under construction in downtown Seattle. Like the Spheres, much of the tower has been slated for online retailer Amazon, with the remainder of the space as luxury apartments and shops. A three-dimensional model provided by Magnusson Klemencic estimates that using the SpeedCore process would shorten construction time by at least twenty percent, and that number is likely to climb as companies get more familiar with the process. “This,” Skibin predicts, “will revolutionize the steel industry.”
But while the company’s future certainly looks bright, the company, like any other industry, will soon see a change in its staff. Most employees have worked for the group’s various branches for over twenty years and, in some cases, for nearly forty years. Sooner or later, Skibin admits, the company will see – and is already seeing – the beginnings of a generational shift.
However, the company is meeting this challenge head-on and is benefitting from it, bringing in younger employees from outside the steel industry. “We’re looking for people who bring in different sets of skills,” he explains, highlighting his own previous career experience in the oil and gas sector.
Skibin admits the steel industry is slower to adapt to technological advances. The company is just now embracing three-dimensional printing, for example, but younger workers have been instrumental in developing and integrating the previously mentioned technologies. This variety in employee age has made Supreme more flexible, allowing it to consolidate its construction, engineering, and architectural expertise further.
To this end, the company is in the midst of rebranding, a process which is causing some understandable growing pains. Even with its vast scale and resources, the group is experiencing some organizational hiccups as its ten separate divisions work to integrate better.
As the group grows, so do its procurement needs, and Supreme is now working to bring in “new blood,” in Skibin’s words, to develop more of a global presence, rather than merely a continental one. In Skibin’s opinion, one of the company’s biggest challenges in moving forward will be assimilating new technologies fluidly while not straying from its core as a steel manufacturer.
But despite these challenges, it is this adaptability that he believes has kept Supreme afloat over forty-plus years and will continue to do so well into the future. “If you look at Western Canada, companies that are so focused on the oil and gas sector have either gone through some major transformation, or they’re gone,” he states.
Skibin further emphasized the need to innovate, expressing companies’ need to “stay hungry and focused,” on the customer. “You have to be able to answer the question, ‘all things being equal, what are the things that differentiate me and my company from my competitors?’”