Working Public Works

“Our bread and butter is public works pre-engineered metal building projects,” says Dan Halme. He’s president of Halme Builders, a general contracting firm based in Davenport, Wash., which is about an hour west of Spokane. “I just ordered a fire station. We do more of the industrial part of public works and that sort of thing. That’s just what our company is built for.”

Halme Builders uses refined processes and AC478 accreditation to differentiate itself

By Paul Deffenbaugh

Halme Builders partnered with Nucor Building Systems for the digester facility at the Spokane County waste water treatment plant in Spokane, Wash.

Halme Builders is a general contracting firm that self-performs metal building assembly, structural concrete and miscellaneous carpentry. “We do a lot of division 5 steel and welding,” Halme says. “Although we do quite a bit of other work beside pre-engineered metal buildings, it’s become a niche for us where we like it. We’re interested in it.”

The origins of the company date back to 1992 when Halme’s father started it as a home building company that provided custom, on-your lot home construction. “Dad spent a lot of time in residential,” he says, “but I’m not a home designer, and I wasn’t interested in becoming one. We did okay on it; it wasn’t a bad living.” They split the company in 2003, forming Halme Builders and Halme Construction, which does “dirt work and bridges and those kinds of things,” Halme says. Halme Builders built its last home in 2005.

Dan Halme, owner, Halme Builders, Davenport, Wash.

An opportunity arose in a nearby town to build a feed mill that was a pre-engineered metal building. Halme partnered with Behlen Building Systems, Columbus, Neb., “and we’ve been a Behlen builder ever since,” Halme says. The company is also affiliated with Nucor Building Systems, Charlotte, N.C., but its primary supplier is Behlen. Having a secondary relationship gives Halme Builders flexibility, especially if one manufacturer is backlogged and unable to hit a short delivery schedule.

Processes and Accreditation

The transition into the public works business became a primary differentiator for the company. Its ability to manage complex projects and navigate the bureaucracy and paperwork required for public works projects puts it in a small group of contractors capable of doing that kind of work. Halme Builders is set up for this kind of work, and even though contracts often go to the lowest bidder, its ability to manage the process efficiently puts it right in the running for contracts.

“We really have a strong niche in the public works market,” says Halme. “There are very few contractors that can stack up against us within our niche.” Being able to provide both general contracting services and pre-engineered metal building experience, delivery and assembly capabilities further reduces the competition. “That’s not to say we’re on our own and we won’t lose projects.” One way Halme Builders might lose a bid is on a large project that a general contractor took and he found a low-cost metal building assembler. The company can’t compete against the fly-by-nighters. “I’m not against losing work to people that do quality work,” says Halme, “but a good share of these erectors that come out to do the job, the last four jobs they did were agricultural or something that was a totally different animal. And now they’re having to deal with blower door tests and energy codes and things they’re not set up and ready to do.”

Derek Bergman and Frank Kiraly, Halme Builders, install primary steel at the Spokane County waste water treatment plant

AC478 Accreditation

There is another way Halme Builders can differentiate itself, and by supporting it help change the industry: AC478 accreditation. Last year, Halme Builder achieved AC478 accreditation for metal building systems assemblers. The program was rolled out in 2016 by the Metal Building Contractors & Erectors Association (MBCEA) with the stated goal of recognizing metal building assemblers who are devoted to excellence. It is administered by the International Accreditation Service (IAS). MBCEA hopes it will accomplish four things:

  • Establish a level playing field and improve the end product.
  • Provide proof that accredited companies have the experience, procedures and commitment to assemble metal building systems.
  • Benchmarks for accountability and measurement.
  • Complement the AC472, which is the accreditation program for metal building manufacturers.

For Halme, the accreditation gave his company the imprimatur that it was doing quality work. In fact, because Halme Builders does so many public works projects and the governments have strict requirements going through the accreditation was not too burdensome. Everything was already in place. It just needed to be worked into the application and then proved through a site inspection.

“The process looked monstrous and difficult,” Halme says, “but at one point I just said what’s it going to take?” The staff told him he needed to get hands-on with the submission. Once he did, the application moved quickly. “I think we had the submission in place with less than 8 hours of my time,” he says. “And with some tweaks, we got it approved shortly thereafter. There was probably another 8 hours invested prior to the inspection. We then sat through a meeting and made some adjustments to our systems right there and we were approved.”

It was reticence about tackling the project that was the main hindrance for Halme Builders. The company already substantially had the processes in place. Washington is a highly regulated state and Halme Builders, because it does public works projects, had a quality control program and a robust safety program among other things. That is what gives it the ability to take on complex projects and meet the requirements of public works projects. In short, the company’s processes are what differentiate it from its competition, and now with AC478 accreditation, they have proof of that differentiation. “You have to have your ducks in row,” says Halme. “I mean, we have the processes to being with. You can’t do this if it’s all in the owners head.”

Halme Cashmere Ti 3

The accreditation has already paid off in one project, where the architect specified that the work must be done by an AC478 accredited company. Another company, that was the low bidder, was initially granted the contract, but the architect filed a protest because of the specification, and Halme Builders got the project.

Critical Mass

For Halme, that’s the biggest promise of AC478 accreditation, but just having one architect and one contractor using the system won’t ever allow it to succeed. “We need to achieve critical mass,” Halme says. “That’s when we’ll know that we have it. As soon as you can look over a map and see that we have the country covered. If you had one in every state, you’d pretty much have critical mass. Obviously, some markets are to going have four or five in a state.”

Are there enough companies like Halme Builders to achieve that critical mass? Looking around at his competitors, Halme estimates that about 10 companies could get AC478 accredited with about the same amount of effort it took his company. “There’s really no reason 10 erectors couldn’t have this in eastern Washington,” he says.

Achieving critical mass also means that companies need to be dedicated to metal building assembly. “In my view of the industry, it would be a lot better if people just put their foot in. You can’t just do one or two projects a year. If you have two or three weeks’ worth of erection and then go off and do all this carpentry stuff and have basically full turnover in your crew, you can’t do one project the next year and expect good results. It takes an investment.”

Halme describes a city public works project that was a small job. “It should have been a slam dunk,” he says. But it went to the low bidder and the job didn’t have an architect, the builder “totally destroyed the building. He installed the roof panels using a single forklift without any rigging. He pulled the panels over the top of the forks.” Instead of buying new panels, he tried to jerry rig a system where he cut the panels and installed two panels on the roof instead of one. The panels didn’t break on the purlin and he added an angle to the panels to make it work, but the bottom of the panels ran too far off the roof so they overlapped the gutter. It got worse from there.

Halme Spokane Metals 2

The Importance of People

Processes are processes, but quality and accreditation can’t be achieved without the right people and the right culture. Halme Builders averages about 29 employees with 22 of them in the field. The company relies heavily on foremen and expects them to be help create qualified foremen. “We do quite a bit of hands-on training through our foremen and superintendents who are knowledgeable. But mainly it comes down to qualified foremen that make the big difference, and so a lot of the focus of our company is to develop qualified foremen. To keep them moving up, treat them right.”

Washington has a state-sanctioned apprenticeship program and companies involved in public works have to utilize it, but it focuses mainly on carpentry, so Halme Builders also relies on the Metal Buildings Institute’s (MBI) Quality and Craftsmanship Training series.

Competitive wages attract quality workers and help retain them. “They appreciate it,” says Halme. “That doesn’t mean that they’re going to do good work, but it does attract qualified people. In the end, it’s about maintaining qualified foremen, and when you have qualified foremen, and their interest is to create more foremen (and that’s a hard interest to create), I believe that’s a cultural point we have in our company. We put some emphasis on keeping ourselves humble and keeping an open mind toward curiosity and taking action on things. I think a lot of it’s just the values that keep people pushing forward to do the right things for the company.”

Establishing a culture like that takes communications, which Halme acknowledges. “The most critical thing is that you hire and communicate values around that. And fire for that matter when somebody just isn’t cutting it. People can see what’s important to the company.”

That’s one side, but the ownership also needs to express a vision of the company. “When people connect to that,” says Halme, “when they are aligned with the interest of the company and that dovetails from company ownership, company leadership and right into the everyday employee that we’re in this together, that this is what we’re building together, they can feel it, they’re interested in it as it becomes theirs.”