Building for the Future with Clear Principles in Mind

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman Incorporated is Connecticut’s only construction firm that is also a licensed engineering firm. BAC serves as a unionized contractor and subcontractor, providing a range of engineered construction expertise in such areas as bridges, dams, foundations, highways, millwrighting, and marine construction and rigging.
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“It is my creed to build for the future; to build quality and permanence,” Charles W. Blakeslee affirmed one hundred and seventy-five years ago. This tenet remains as true today, as when he proclaimed it in 1844, and established Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman Incorporated (BAC).

This family-owned business in New Haven, Connecticut, was originally named C.W. Blakeslee and Sons and operated as movers of household goods. It eventually transitioned into the construction sector – road construction specifically – which proved to be much more profitable.

The company was sold in 1969 to Westinghouse Electric Corporation, at which time BAC was more heavily engaged in other aspects of the construction industry. Westinghouse then sold the company to Vincent Arpaia and Roger Chapman, vice presidents of Blakeslee’s construction division, in 1976.

“We’re still primarily working in Connecticut,” says David Chapman, president of BAC and son of the late Roger Chapman, from his headquarters in Branford, Connecticut. Although, “We have picked up more work out of state,” he notes.

For example, BAC is currently undertaking a $6-million project in Providence, Rhode Island. The job entails constructing a bulkhead on property owned by the electric utility, which is transferring some of the property to Brown University for development. “We’re repairing a very old bulkhead along the Providence River,” says David. And the company recently completed, “several projects in New York on Long Island,” he continues. “We’ve been bidding on some projects. We’ve bid as far south as Delaware.”

David says that road and bridge construction has been somewhat dormant, especially in Connecticut, but that, “One area where we have seen significant pick up is in marine construction.” He explains that the rationale for the surge in this particular activity is that much of the industrial waterfront was built in the sixties and seventies, and, “that work kind of tapered off in the early eighties. After thirty or fifty years, corrosion, time and use have taken their toll on these structures.”

There is still significant work to be done if facilities such as unloading docks and wharves are to be properly maintained. Also, older, abandoned waterfronts are seeing an increase in development, “for residential, entertainment, and business. There’s been quite a bit of that going on too,” adds David. “Commerce, transportation, and infrastructure are all dependent on one another. It’s hard to have a thriving economy with deteriorated infrastructure.”

BAC has several professional engineers, graduate engineers, and a licensed surveyor who have all required skills for any challenging project that may come its way. “Depending on our workload, most of our [employees] have worked across the different divisions at different points in time,” says David of their versatility. This “really allows them to develop a wide variety of skills.”

“A lot of the projects we do can be kind of complex, and when we try to find solutions, the input comes from people in the field. So people realize that no matter what their level is, their input is considered important. I think people realize that their skills and abilities are recognized. When you have that, people have a certain pride in their work.”

Some of its reliable employees have tenures as long as thirty or forty years. “Both in the field and in the office, we have a lot of people who have spent a significant part of their career with the company,” says David. “In some sense, it’s more than just a job. It’s a continuance of a tradition.”

Part of the positive corporate culture that helps retain people is the company’s safe work environment that not only increases productivity but establishes loyalty. “Safety has always been important to us,” says David. The company has a safety program managed by its director of safety who aligns himself with both project superintendents and foremen who are responsible for communicating and implementing the safety program to those out in the field. “A lot of the guys in the field take responsibility for it too.”

David says that in the 1940s, BAC formed an independent safety committee referred to as its foremen’s club. Many of the employees in the field would report to management and, “tell them what they thought were problems and what needed to be addressed. We still have that. That program is ongoing.”

This committee meets regularly to discuss ideas for possible changes, and the approach is proving successful. “Many companies have a top-down safety program [with] a manager and safety director disseminating information out to the field, which we do,” says David. “But we also have a safety committee which is kind of a bottom-up.”

He says that someone working in the field may realize that there is perhaps a better way to do things or that a particular piece of equipment is required. “It gets discussed and fine-tuned,” adds David. “It really kind of works in both directions. It’s top-down and a bottom-up, and it’s been something that’s been highly effective.” As it is self-insured for workers’ compensation, the company is “really sensitive in trying to keep the job site as safe as possible.”

The construction and engineering industry is not immune to technological advances in all facets of operations. The industry is quickly incorporating innovative technologies to provide real-time insights that can effectively change project outcomes. Some of these include three-dimensional building information modeling (BIM); augmented reality (AR); drones; and global positioning tracking systems.

“There’s been a lot of new technology since I started my career,” says David. “Technology has brought a lot of new tools that allow us to find solutions that probably, at one time, would not have possible to find.”

One area in which BAC has taken advantage of advanced technology is surveying. “We have automated transits for the one-man survey teams. We’ve recently developed GPS base stations that allow us to go out and establish coordinates, no matter where we are,” David states.

“So there have been a lot of advancements that would have otherwise taken a crew of four guys a week to do. And now it can be done in a few hours, with one guy,” he says. However, the technology still needs to be applied within a broader context. “I sometimes worry that it becomes so easy to generate a computer solution using these tools that really don’t have a clear and complete understanding of the problem and only knows what you tell it.”

“You can get an answer,” by working with new technologies, David acknowledges. But, as a cautionary note, he says that if one is not really completely familiar with a project or the question being presented, that sometimes a hands-on approach would be more appropriate. “You would have a deeper knowledge of what the existing structures were [and] what the existing conditions were. Sometimes, I think we can get answers that may not be the solution we’re looking for and not realize it. I can see that leading to some significant problems.”

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, (ASCE), the United States is not performing well in terms of the state of its existing infrastructure. The country received a C+ or D+, depending on the type of infrastructure in question. The report card for Connecticut gave the state a C- rating, although not as many categories were taken into consideration as those with the ASCE. “There’s certainly a lot that needs to be done,” says David. “Technology can play a role and allows us to do a lot of things that we couldn’t do before.”

With burgeoning populations in urban areas creating substantial demands on older infrastructure, such infrastructure is, “being pushed to do more and more,” he says. “They’re beyond whatever capacity anybody ever possibly envisioned for them,” adding that there have been no substantial funds focused on infrastructure since President Ronal Reagan.

“Roads have become more deteriorated and overcrowded, and some of the structures are, quite frankly, very dangerous. We’ve seen infrastructure that we’ve had to fix, but it really should be replaced.” Infrastructure funding, or the lack of it, has been the topic of discussion for decades. “What we really need is to put some money out there and replace or repair a lot of these facilities. It’s really not a technology issue. It’s a money issue.”

David indicates that one of his favorite projects was in Greenwich, Connecticut, where an old cast iron railroad truss, built in the mid-1800s, had to have a girder bridge placed inside the truss. This involved a complicated system of jacks but was done on time and on schedule. “There was probably a good eight or nine months of preparation and planning that went into that job.”

Another recent project involved working with the local utility company to install security fences around some substations that “are meant to deter terrorist threats to the substations,” he says. These four fences were ten to twenty feet high with drilled foundations. This job required a tight time-frame, that was met, and was a challenge but, “We felt really happy to work with the owner to try and solve a lot of problems and make the project come out successfully.”

This year, BAC celebrates its 175th anniversary. “It really is an accomplishment,” David says of the milestone. “We’re all very excited about it. We believe we are the oldest continuing construction company in the country.”

And the reason for this longevity is that Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman has, “always been known for being able to do difficult or complicated jobs and having a reputation for quality,” asserts David. “The fact that that has been consistently true over the ages is something that I find kind of remarkable.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 15, 2019, 9:54 AM EST