Tom Kelley, vice chairman of the PCI Foundation and president of Gage Brothers in Sioux Falls, South Dakota has worked with the Precast Studio at South Dakota State University for the last four years. He shares some of his experience with the students here:
What I really like about this studio is that we work with the students directly, and they have a hands-on experience.
When South Dakota State University (SDSU) first started the studio, the students went to a little town called Mobridge, SD. The town had a summer festival, but it never had a stage. The students designed one using precast. We helped them. Then they drew the piece drawings, they came down to our plant and helped make the pieces. And the kids all erected the project. It was a year plus long project with a ton of learning by the students.
The school built a new architecture school building shortly after the studio started - and Gage Brothers sold them some precast on that building. The architecture students came down to our plant and actually owned a panel. We did some unique finishes and each of the kids got to do some finishing of the panel. Now those students are fifth year students and when they go up a stairwell, they will point and say, “yeah, this panel I finished.”
The studio has been a really fun experience. This last year they had a design of a four-story parking ramp with mixed use on top of it, total precast. At least once a month I went down to the school and basically I would spend the afternoon teaching. They would have 10 different groups of three doing different designs. I went around the room to these 10 groups and they asked questions and we discussed how everything was coming along and how they were progressing.
The students were great listeners. I visited about four times in about a 2-month period and that class was a 1 o’clock class that was supposed to be over at 4:30 pm. And I never once got out of there by 6 pm. We lost track of time and we would just continue to discuss their projects. We have a bunch of young students wanting to learn. They are all sponges wanting to learn about precast. I have now spent five years with the first group of students who will all graduate this year, six of those students are coming to work for architects in the Sioux Falls area. Now I have six soldiers out there who know, understand and love precast concrete.
Anybody who has spent time with a spec writer has been around a long time know that trying to convince him to use a new product can be challenging. They will not listen to you because they have 30 years of experience built up and it isn’t with precast. Let’s face it, in the design industry many times what someone designs, whether they are an engineer or architect, comes out on their plans is what they are most comfortable using, not necessarily what the best product is. It boils down to what they are comfortable with, and now we have architects who are comfortable with precast.
So, we have changed the dynamics with how we do business. I couldn’t think of a better place to invest our dollars than with these students.
We do many other things with them. We take them to tours, I put them all on a bus and I took them from Brookings to Minneapolis and had a BBQ on the way. We looked at our jobs in progress there.
Currently this year, along with the 5th year students doing the design project, the fourth year students are replacing a storefront in the little town of Volga, South Dakota, about 20 miles east of Brookings. They are actually renovating some storefronts and buildings some really unique and intricate precast shapes. They are now building the forms and they will bring them down later this summer and they will pour those pieces at the plant and then they will set those pieces.
The relationship we have developed with the school has just been wonderful. It has turned into other projects. We currently have about three other projects going with other departments at SDSU because word gets around about our involvement. Suddenly when someone needs something, they will tell them “Call up Gage, they will help you.”
It’s been a very rewarding exercise for us and all the people here, from our formers to our engineers to our drafters. Anyone who has had interface with the students has gotten as much out of it as the students have got out of it.
We are having fun, and we are on our fourth year. Our PCI part of the studio is winding down but we are definitely not going to stop. We will keep it rolling, funded by PCI or not. We are going to keep this steam engine rolling because it has been nothing but successful.