Unistrut Construction, a division of Atkore International, designs, fabricates, and installs mechanical support structures. The Illinois-based specialty sub-contractor has been the installation arm of the Unistrut Metal Framing System for the better part of a century.
“Unistrut Construction was started about 60 years ago as an opportunity for the Unistrut Company to create value for its customers and also install the product that it was manufacturing,” says President Steve Elsdon.
The Company’s unique metal framing system is ideal for the healthcare industry, the datacenter industry, and specialized commercial construction. “Our services are primarily attractive to a client that understands the value that we bring to a complex project whereby a standard, out-of-the box supply-and-install model won’t fully address their needs,” explains Mr. Elsdon.
Whatever the sector or project, Unistrut Construction relies on state of the art Building Information Modeling (BIM). With this technology, the team is able to design, model, and coordinate the job virtually—catching costly problems before installation and ensuring a reliable solution.
The healthcare industry requires advanced support structures for its constantly evolving suite of equipment. Traditional solutions are complicated; they utilize a lot of components and have to be fabricated onsite. This takes more time, creates extra costs and can introduce unforeseen complications for everyone involved. Unistrut Construction, on the other hand, offers a streamlined system that simplifies the entire process and can be prefabricated offsite.
Take a typical operating room, for example. “Operating rooms are very sophisticated spaces now,” Mr. Elsdon says. “There is usually a lot of equipment that must be mounted from the ceiling. We facilitate the support of that equipment using a very specific engineered solution that meets the needs of that room.” This equipment includes everything from patient lifts and monitors to surgical light, microscopes and structural air handling systems found in the most progressive of healthcare designs.
To make matters even more complicated, that original equipment will need to be updated when the technology becomes obsolete, which can happen in just a few years. Therefore, Unistrut Construction creates support structures that can accommodate these updates. “They are changing out the equipment more frequently so [we have] to think about what are we going to use this room for now and how we can reuse these mounts—not recycle them, not take the steel down and install something new, but actually reuse them.”
In addition, the Company’s support structures have a smaller, less evasive footprint than traditional systems. This is a huge benefit when multiple trades are vying for prime real estate in the plenum space during the construction process. “You can’t just put a huge support superstructure up in [the operating room ceiling] because you are going to make it very, very difficult for the MEP trades—mechanical, electrical and plumping trades—to serve the room themselves. So we have pioneered a very small footprint, internally braced superstructure that we can install in an operating room to allow the MEP trades the space and the flexibility that they need to serve the room but still, from a finished product standpoint, provide the booms and the lights in the right places around the room.”
To create these specialized support structures, the team works hand in hand with medical equipment manufacturers, hospital managers, architects, and general contractors. The result is an individualized solution that meets a customer’s specific and unique needs. When designing and installing these specialized systems, the team can accommodate the demands of either new construction or a renovation project.
The company’s datacenter business builds upon its robust existing network. “Our strength in the data center business has really been providing a service to the customers that we have known and developed relationships with over the years within the healthcare market,” Mr. Elsdon says. “So our business really is successful with what we consider to be key customers—those larger and midsized general contractors that recognize high value work and have worked with us into the data market.”
Data centers are complex buildings, “but they are very repetitive once an individual design has been agreed upon, so our value in that chain is heavily concentrated around the front end design and around value engineering a solution that works for the general contractor and for the client.” The team jumps into the project at the very beginning to help develop the best overall system. “We are there working at the early stages, helping facilitate the needs of all the parties involved,” Mr. Elsdon says. “We can usually create a higher quality product for the client, and usually do it with a lower total cost, and always with that quality in mind.”
As with healthcare projects, the team can engineer, to the clients objective, fabricate structures offsite to simplify and speed up the construction process—and do it all for a lower cost. Unistrut installs these prefabricated structures all over the United States and Canada for some of the nation’s leading technology firms. When installing in the field, Unistrut Construction can assemble crews with as many as 30 experienced workers to ensure an expert job and quick turnaround.
The industry outlook looks positive for the near future. “I think the industry is strengthened overall,” Mr. Elsdon says. “I think the recovery has taken longer than anyone wanted or hoped that it would, but I would definitely say we are in a recovery.” Industry forecasts predict that the general, non-residential construction market will grow “pretty meaningfully in 2017,” he adds. “Some of the numbers I’ve seen are in the middle four percent range.”
The good times may not last, however. “I think when we look at some of the future forecasts it gets a little troubling again. Some of the stats that I’ve seen recently suggest that the recovery only has about two or three more years, until about 2020, before you start to see a flattening and then ultimately some negative growth overall.”
But, for now, the industry’s greatest concern is skilled labor. Mr. Elsdon calls it the “biggest challenge in the industry right now” and says that it is a “concern for us.” He traces the problem back to the recession when construction jobs dried up and significant numbers of workers “just left the industry to go to work and do other things.” They never came back.
Unistrut Construction overcomes this shortage by training and mentoring young talent. “We spend a significant amount of time identifying talent and then developing that talent, putting together a plan [for] someone that we think can be a future field leader in our business.”
Even though workers are hard to find, the company still maintains a high bar when it comes to hiring. “We are very selective with who we take into our business because our clients are very, very demanding and we know that if we don’t bring the right individuals into the business, our customers will suffer, our quality will suffer, safety will suffer.”
The team is eager to continue pressing forward and breaking new ground. This will require a continued emphasis on customer satisfaction, which the company has always made a priority. “We work very hard to attract and develop relationships. We work really hard to create value for customers. And, as we do that, I’m always impressed by the fact that we are getting phone calls with great regularity from our customers on work that we wouldn’t necessarily have access to otherwise. So we will continue to create value and build value for our customers and that will ultimately take our business, perhaps, in very different directions.”
Regardless of future growth, the team will always maintain relationships with loyal customers. “We never want to abandon those core customers and those core markets that we focus on.”