Traditional Building Portfolio




Michigan Master Builders

With over a century of experience in construction, The Christman Company continues to find new building types and fields to add to its corporate resume.
By Gordon Bock

Building a business may be a figurative expression, but building a building business – especially one with the history and range of The Christman Company – is also as much about recognizing the changing uses of buildings and materials as it is growing a balance sheet. As a contractor, management and development company, whose project areas range from historic preservation to higher education to religious buildings, the firm has over a century of experience in seeing a new field and then becoming experts in it.

The modern Christman dates back to 1894 when H.G. Christman formed a legal partnership with his brothers to grow an existing construction business in South Bend, IN, and the surrounding environs. Through the following decades the company prospered by catching the waves of the growing auto industry and the use of poured concrete construction – a skill that continues today.

Prescient Historic Preservation
A good example of being in the right place at the right time occurred in 1986, when Christman became involved with the restoration of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, not far from its corporate headquarters. Since the comprehensive scope of the $58-million project involved restoring and reversing a century's worth of alterations to the huge building – from correcting missing structural supports to rebuilding skylights and decorative roof features – the project manager at the time, Ronald D. Staley, FAPT, now senior vice president and director of national preservation, decided to do his homework and visit numerous other state capitols.

Staley remembers, "Part of what I did was to ask my peers, 'How did you get a state capitol project, and what are you doing after it is done?'" The results were intriguing, and started to take on a life of their own. "What really hit me," says Staley, "was when a colleague in New York asked, 'How can someone do a project as monumental as the State Capitol and then just leave the experience behind?'"

It was a good question – so much so that, once back in Lansing, Staley saw an opportunity in the answer. As he remembers, "I met with the president of Christman at the time, Phillip V. Frederickson, P.E., and said, 'I have 13 of our best people working on the Michigan State Capitol project right now; they're going to be there for four years; I can't see them throwing this experience away." Moreover, Staley couldn't ignore how each of the four architects on the project had a practice specifically devoted to historic preservation – they were known as preservation architects – but there was nothing of a similar nature in the contracting industry. Put together, all the observations pointed in the same direction. "We did a study to see if there was a sufficient market in the Michigan region, which there was, and then a put a business plan together, and I've been carrying that torch ever since."

Judging by the project list that torch has been burning ever brighter, especially since the late 1990s. In 2001, the Historic Preservation Group at Christman found itself involved with two projects beyond their home turf – the administration building at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and the Old Governor's Mansion at Georgia College and State University – and another horizon came into view. Says Staley, "We looked at the out-of-state projects we were doing and thought, if we really want to expand the group, then we should focus on a couple of areas where there are more old buildings."

This canny conclusion led to opening two new offices – one in Augusta, GA, headed by Jeffrey R. Arlington, vice president, regional director of historic preservation, and another in Washington, DC/Virgina, headed by Staley himself. Says Arlington, "What I love about historic preservation projects is that they're always, different, always interesting."

Sustainability Begins at Home
As luck would have it, the new century also brought a new focus to the group in a remarkable project that turned on "green" building as well as historic preservation and church-based structures. In the 1990s, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious congregation of women known for their pioneering work in education, began the restoration and renovation of their Motherhouse in Monroe, MI. (See Traditional Building, December 205, page 34.) When built in the 1930s, the 280,000-sq.ft. Motherhouse was the residence hall of the convent – particularly for novice nuns – embracing some 220 rooms as well as a service wing and other functions.

By the 1990s, however, the needs of the order and its shrinking congregation were changing, so the sisters stepped up to address those needs in the building. Says Staley, "As their congregation aged, they really hadn't done a lot to the facility, but after 70 years, they decided that what they needed was to convert it to a retirement home, with a full progression from independent living, to full nursing and full medical care for the members." Forward-thinking enough perhaps for any organization, but as teachers the Sisters had yet another mission for the building. "They're very in tune with sustainability – they've always been self-sufficient, farmed their own land, and so on – so they wanted to maintain that idea of sustainability in the new role of the building," Staley notes.

As part of this vision, the Sisters took specific sustainable-building measures to ensure that Motherhouse would be viable in the future. "They were very big-picture oriented," says Staley. "They really looked at the work from the standpoint of how lightly they can touch the earth, including a very detailed analysis of restoring windows, versus replacing them, and recycling materials." The work included not only the enlightened reuse of existing materials and features, but also the latest in "green" technology, such as a huge geothermal field for heating and cooling, solar energy panels, and a gray water system.

The combination of old and new is not as unlikely as it sounds. Says Gavin L. Gardi, LEED AP, CFD, AVS, sustainable programs manager, "Historic buildings often provide a really good opportunity to address water issues because typically, the plumbing fixtures are going to be very old and the door is open to upgrade them to modern standards"

The Sisters were equally thorough in analyzing the green materials systems in terms of payback – not only recouping the dollar premium they may cost, but also regarding the intangible returns. "By most people's standards," says Staley, "the new gray water system at Motherhouse would not have a good dollar payback, because water is so cheap here in Michigan, but it has an educational value for the Sisters."

Indeed, the Sisters can demonstrate to visitors that they save thousands of gallons every year by just running their sink and shower water through a natural bioswell and then using it for toilets. This becomes valuable education for the inevitable day when water will be more precious. Says Staley, "People talk about sustainability, but a lot of folks don't really know what they're saying. The 'business' has to be sustainable or the building won't exist. The Motherhouse has been designed to be sustainable because it's got flexibility. Walls may get tweaked down the road, but anybody can use a geothermal field or gray water system."

Another example of clients practicing what they preach is the recent renovation and restoration of Christman's own national headquarters in Lansing. The 1928 structure, which began life as the headquarters of the Michigan Millers Mutual Fire Insurance Company, (see Traditional Building, April 2009, page 34) was in need of major repairs by the time Christman took it over and well behind the communications curve in terms of building systems.

Rededicated in 2008, the building now combines a sensitive rehabilitation and preservation of the building's historic fabric with state-of-the-art "smart" systems for heating and cooling, earning it the first double LEED platinum rating: LEED CI for the commercial interiors and LEED CS for the core and shell. "One of the goals of our group is to show the client how to achieve a LEED rating for a building in the most economical way possible, and historic buildings typically offer many options," Staley notes. He explains further that, for any project, there may be more than one path to a desired LEED level, and part of their job is to explain to the client the incremental costs for each path – if indeed there are any costs. He adds, "The interesting thing about our office is that we don't have solar collectors or wind turbines, and yet we have a LEED platinum rating."

It's all part of Christman's efforts to be a green company across the board. "We've put into place all kinds of programs," says Gardi. "We recycle building materials or divert them from the waste stream on all our projects, not just sustainable projects." In addition, the company reviews indoor air quality during construction programs at all projects, LEED or not. Christman also strives to buy sustainable building products and office supplies with recycled content – even food that's locally grown where possible. Adds Gardi, "Our company has fully embraced the whole sustainable approach in part because it makes the best business sense. You can operate and build buildings more cost-effectively if you build them in a sustainable manner."

An Inspiring Project
A textbook example of a religious building problem, as well as the kind of mechanical challenge that excites the Historic Preservation Group, was the repair of the bell tower at the Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Though built in 1950s, the church is a postcard-perfect Gothic structure down to the heavy masonry buttresses supporting the 170-ft. tower with its 77-bell carillon. Unfortunately, misguided repairs of the belfry roof had multiplied over the years until water intrusion began to threaten not only the masonry structure but the parishioners below.

"The real problem was that no one had ever looked holistically at this tower to see what was going on," Staley says. Indeed, after water was observed trying to exit the masonry joints, the church hired a contractor who re-pointed the joints with a waterproofing product that only exacerbated the problem. With no way to escape, the water continued to come though the walls and even blow the masonry apart.

"It got so bad that about 70 rock faces started to pop off, and the wide buttresses were literally falling away from the tower," says Staley. To complicate matters, scaffolding could not rest on the ground because there had to be constant access to the adjacent sanctuary, which was in use all week for weddings and services. Before any actual repairs could proceed, Christman's solution was to erect a structural framework through the tower and around the carillon to support 40 tons of scaffolding. Then the Historic Preservation Group worked with a series of subcontractors to install a new lead-coated copper roof, reattach or replace some 300 loose stones, repair the back-up masonry, and improve the roof drainage system – all over a period of nine months.

"The tower was a great team project, where we brought together a variety of groups – from the mason, roofer and other trades to the structural engineers, architects and clients," Staley notes. "We like the complex projects, the ones that give us a real structural challenge." Judging by the continuing growth of the Historic Preservation Group, that's a good way to run a business.

Gordon Bock is a writer, consultant and longtime editor of Old-House Journal who comments on historic buildings at TB

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