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Spantek In The News...Article Date: 4/18/05
Source: Dee Depass, Star Tribune
Hopkins-based Spantek goes haute coutureSpantek Expanded Metal used to be so ho-hum.
The company made gutter guards, fireplace screens and air-filter grids in an obscure beige building in Hopkins.
These days, Spantek has gone haute couture.
The company has covered the exterior of the Walker Art Center's $70 million addition in shimmering mesh boxes that seemingly undulate in the sunlight. Inside, massive panels of embossed lace mesh cover the 30-foot walls of the Walker's new theater.
The building's metal mesh "skin" and theater panels are made of Spantek's expanded aluminum and came about at the request of Swiss architectural firm Herzog & De Meuron, which first approached Spantek about the work in 2003.
Spantek designed a pattern of angled diamond meshing and set about manufacturing 126,000 square feet of panels with the help of large pounding machines that slit and stretched the metal to make sheets of webbing without even a sliver of wasted metal. In Maplewood, M.G. McGrath Sheet Metal built the dies used to stamp creases or lace patterns into each panel. Plymouth-based AaCron Inc. anodized the exterior panels so they'll shine for 30 to 50 years.
The result is one of the first mesh-covered buildings in the United States, said Herzog's Minneapolis project manager, Tom Gluck.
The Walker reopened Sunday to rave reviews that have thrust Spantek out of obscurity and into a brand-new market -- architectural mesh. The tiny firm, with 25 workers in Hopkins and $14 million in revenue, now plans more building projects that could create millions in new revenue.
Emboldened by heady articles in Newsweek and the New York Times, Spantek President Rod Miller placed an ad in a major architecture magazine. The ad, which prominently features the shimmering Walker building, brought a flurry of calls from architects and designers throughout the country.
Now Spantek is reviewing museum and other projects from companies in New York, Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles, Vice President John Nyquist said.
"A lot of people probably didn't even know we were here ... but at this rate, if it's working this well, I am sure, we would definitely continue" to develop this new market, he said.
While aluminum mesh is not well-known as a building cover in the United States, Herzog has used similar materials on other projects in Switzerland, where the company is based.
Mesh "is a very economical, inexpensive material, and it's very versatile," Gluck said.
"They [at Spantek] use it for furniture and to cover air vents, and for mechanical and commercial applications like stairs. But for us, it did a couple of things. Because the metal is perforated, it has a transparency that gives the whole [Walker] facade the architectural expression of depth. These were the qualities in the metal that were critical. We are very happy with it."
Spantek plans to work again with McGrath in Maplewood for a developing New York museum job, and it might solicit the help of AaCron, depending on the specifications of future projects.
Nyquist readily admits that architectural mesh is a long way from Spantek's traditional gutters, the office furniture it makes for Knoll or the filtration cages it makes for Champion Laboratories and Shop Vac. But Spantek officials are excited about their new, potentially lucrative prospects.
"We were very surprised as the project materialized that this could be real," Miller said. "It's the first time we ever considered something of this magnitude. ... Now we are optimistic that this can play a big picture in our growth. ... I have expectations that this could be a 10 to 20 percent increase in our total revenue in the next three to five years."
Dan Carlsen, a co-owner of Spantek's parent firm, Upper Midwest Industries Inc., said Spantek's annual sales are $14 million. If Miller's predictions come true, architectural jobs could generate up to $3 million a year in new revenue.
The thought is a little daunting, Carlsen said with a chuckle -- Spantek has only one sales rep on staff and six manufacturers' reps nationwide.
When Herzog first approached Spantek, "We thought [they wanted] some little decorative pieces for the Walker. We had no idea it would grow to a project this big," Carlsen said. "Now, it's cool-looking. Our stuff is everywhere" inside the building. (The company used its traditional skills to build the vent covers and the catwalks above the stage in the theater.)
But that's not what caught Walker security manager Donna Dralle's eye last week as she took in the cavernous space of the new theater. Dralle touched the black mesh walls, which were embossed with McGrath's dies to form a pattern reminiscent of lace.
"You have to hand it to them for doing this right. It is incredible," she said.
That's music to Miller's ears. Miller, Nyquist and M.G. McGrath project manager Bruce Reed had to experiment to get the metal screens just right. The first time "we tried to stamp one, it cracked and we had to make another," Nyquist explained. After changing the size, thickness and angles of the diamond-shaped strands that make up each panel, the test runs worked and the massive job of making mesh boxes to cover the Walker begin in earnest.
"We are very happy with it," Gluck said. "Each building we design is different and not something that is reproduced."
Dee DePass is at email@example.com.
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