And so, after three and a half months of constant work and preparations we had the Acuity installation extension ready to go.
10 Pallets composed of 8 double-tall boxes each, measuring 4′ x 4 x 7′ plus the two metal spheres were assembled on our loading dock and carefully maneuvered onto an air ride trailer. For this kind of installation we simply hire the entirety of a truck. Moving this fragile load and coordinating the meetings between the glass and ourselves and the crews onsite can be a tricky thing. So, working with one driving team and their representatives can simplify things for us. This time, our driver was great and stayed in contact with us throughout the 48 hours that the transit took. He even stopped to text and see that we were ok when a storm caused flight delays on what he anticipated would be our route. And do you know what? It was a good thing he did, because we were delayed! It is a pleasure to work with people who are so considerate and care so much about their job. (thanks Mekonen!)
Here we are unloading the truck… This was a whole lot of glass to move and get sorted. Each box contained pieces assigned to a specific sphere, and further to a panel on the sphere. Much time was spent jockeying these all into position. We were very grateful for the continuous and thoughtful help of Kurt Lodl, the Director of Facility Projects.
Although the staff here is pretty well qualified in hanging glass from ceilings… these spheres were big and also heavy!
Luckily for us, we had two great riggers from Hennes. Alfredo and Bob were great and we were glad to have them there taking care of the hanging of the spheres. Initially, the spheres are suspended only about 5′ off the floor. This allowed us to start hanging the spheres from down low.
Having the sphere within reach of the ground is a great deal easier than working on the scaffolds or lifts. After a few panels we began to get into the swing of things and find our flow.
That first day of hanging pieces was very long. Although we had tested and retested and trouble shot everything over and over back at the shop and this was even the second time we had installed these spheres for Acuity, there were still some nervous moments. But before long, our progress was evident even to our professional worrier and our system had proved itself.
In this image you can see the second sphere in its temporary position further down the hall.
The next day after the Acuity team had gone, It was time to get to work. We had proven we could do the Job. All the production and assembly issues had been worked out. We had one sphere nearly completed and now it was all about organization, logistics and hard work. I had calculated about 12,000 pieces of glass and 85,000 welds and pieces of metal to be cut for all of the seven sisters. and if there wasn’t enough on our plates, we had a film crew due to arrive from PBS, MPTV (Milwaukee public television). It was the 20th of April and it was getting hot, like mid to high 80’s and by the end of the week it was going to be in the 90’s. the weather never stopped us from working, but when the temp got up into the 90’s the hot shop typically would go to around 100-125. and it would get pretty unbearable. the key was to drink lots of water. and I would use a trick I learned from my days as a golfer. If you keep a towel in a cooler full of ice, about every 30 minutes or so you could take the towel and wring it out, put it over your head for about 30 seconds and breathe in that cold air. when done just put the towel back in the cooler and you were good to go for another 30 minutes. It worked unbelievably well. So we put ourselves on a schedule. I simply figured the number of work days between the installation date and our start date and we had our work schedule pretty much mapped out If we made 100 pieces a day we would have enough glass for our August Installation. Luckily the 3 larger spheres were due in late August. The 4 smaller ones were due in September, which gave us a break and a chance to clear out our shop before beginning the second phase. Even with a 5,000 sq. ft. building it wasn’t enough space to handle all seven spheres.
The day the film crew arrived it was 95 degrees. and I was in no mood to be slowed down by anyone. when it’s that hot out the only thing you think about in the morning is when can I stop. so even before we began they arrived. We had a short meeting about how things would go and then we started. The only problem was I had never been filmed professionally before and was quite nervous about the process and so I asked Lois our producer if she had any pointers for budding film stars and she said “just act naturally” and you’ll be great. and so I did just that and before long it was like they weren’t even there. by day three we had all gone out to dinner a couple of times and we’re having a blast. It wasn’t until a few months later when I saw some edited clips on a high def. monitor that I realized why so much work, effort and resources goes into producing even a 1/2 hour film. Seeing myself on that screen was really cool.
Our arrival in Sheboygan
The plan was to load the 60 Foot air ride FedEx tractor trailer. with the first three metal spheres our tools welder, misc. equipment and the 6000 pieces of red, yellow and orange glass. get on a plane the next morning and the truck would be waiting for us when we got there. So far so good we arrived 15 minutes before the trucks arrival. the only problem was It had also been there a few hours earlier and we were missing a crate. This was a problem because everything we shipped we needed to do the installation. With a lot of fussing and me nearly in panic mode we figured out that the missing crate was all our tools and the welding machine. So with about an hour of calls later we we’re able to buy or rent everything we needed.
Later that day we found out what happened. the shipment was refused because no one was expecting it. It was returned to the terminal, unloaded and somewhere along the missing crate was separated never to be found again. fortunately we were able to file a claim with FedEx and we we’re paid for our missing equipment.
Let the assembly begin.
Once we had everything we needed. we had to thing about protecting the floor. which was made of 2 x 2 foot squares of marble. and because we we’re one of the last crews to arrive it was our job to see that nothing was damaged. we protected the floor with 4 x 8 x 1/4 inch sheets of Masonite two layers thick. next we brought all the metal sphere parts up through the freight elevator. then the glass was brought in. fortunately we had a system of labeling the boxes so we knew which box went with which sphere. we had 5 different lengths. 6 diameters and 3 colors. and each panel had a specific arrangement and if something got used up be While Chris began welding the sphere together the rest of us started sorting the glass. once that was done we were able to organize the glass by each of the twenty triangular sections that made up the sphere. It all went like clockwork, we completely assembled all 3 of the 15 foot sisters. including cleanup in just 5 days. we were all very proud.
The group of six executives from Acuity was due to arrive in the early morning. I had rented a Lincoln Navigator to shuttle us all around in, figuring that if I had come this far I should go all in. And so, nervous but excited and both drooling and lisping I put on a blazer (a twice yearly event) and headed to the Trenton Airport. They arrived right on time in the company jet (a Gulf 4, I think) and we headed to over to my very spacious new rental.
We spent much of the half-hour ride out to my property talking over the construction project as a whole. I was asked about my progress and I had no sooner started to fill them in than we were there. Because of the position of the house in relation to where we parked, they could not see the sphere suspended from in the two ash trees at first. We walked about a fifty feet towards the main house and only once we passed that corner did the 15′ sphere come into view.
It seemed like forever while I waited for someone to speak… “Well! What do you think?” I finally asked. They were simply speechless; I believe I got a unanimous twelve thumbs up and everyone loved it. All at once everyone began to speak to each other and to me, telling me how excited they were to have my work in the corporate headquarters. CEO Ben Salzmann said he thought they should do a documentary on the making and the installation of the project. But, as wonderful and as all of this was, the best was yet to come…
We got the blues…
As excited as they were about the three 15′ spheres for the main hall, Ben had a bigger vision. He wanted to add four slightly smaller spheres, two in each the East and the West wings. Now, in addition to the spheres of red, yellow and orange, I had assembled several panels of other colors, primarily in blues and greens. It was important to be sure about the colors before moving forward and these panels would give the executives a chance to see the glass up close and in a grouping of pieces. Ben walked right over to a panel set up in an equal mix of Emerald, Cobalt, Amethyst and Aqua and it was decided right then and there that we would do four more 10′ spheres in colors exactly as I had them laid out.
I’m not afraid of heights, I’m not afraid of heights, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not afraid of heights!!!
On a side note…
A couple of days before the spheres big debut, I had the bright idea of chartering a helicopter and doing a little aerial photography. I popped into the Princeton airport and scheduled a flight. My pilot had done this kind of flying for real estate photography many times before. When I told him what I wanted to do he said “no problem” and “have you done this before?” Thinking to myself “how hard cans this be” I replied “of course”. Now, as I buckled into the tiniest helicopter I had ever seen, the pilot walked around and removed my door! “What are you doing?” I exclaimed, which clearly revealed that I had not, in fact, done this before. He explained that in order to get any decent shots I would have to trust the buckles and lean out of the door to shoot.
As, I began to turn alternating shades of green and white my pilot said ‘Ready?” and off we went. The trip to my home was only 3-4 miles as the crow flies but when you are nervous and nauseous that can feel like a long way. I asked the pilot if it was normal for these things to shake so much, it felt as if the whole machine would just vibrate apart well before we got anywhere. But as we climbed higher and began to move forward a little faster I started to calm down. It actually became exciting! In about ten minutes we had the sphere in view and I watched as we got closer and closer and it grew bigger and bigger. To be hanging out of this little bubble in the sky and clicking away was truly an adventure I will never forget.
Whats in a name?
On the way back to the Trenton Airport Ben said we should name the installation. At this point I don’t remember who came up with the exact name But, I remember saying Seven Sisters and Ben saying Seven Sisters of Acuity and that was how it got its name. Dropping Ben and his team off at the airport I felt exhilarated. Here I was, one day making small gift items and trying to grow my glass business and the next day in a situation that made me feel like the King of the World! Life was Good.
As I had mentioned in my last post, we had agreed to assemble the first sphere in New Jersey as a preview for the folks at Acuity. The question we had was “where?”. Now at the time I had 11 acres in Montgomery Township. About half of it was wooded, about half of that with second growth fields that were loaded with cedars that would never support the 5,000 lbs of the sphere. Luckily, right behind my house there were two 60 foot ash trees about 40 feet apart. After consulting with Olaf, the engineer it was decided that as long as we kept the angles on the cables right and didn’t create too much tension horizontally the trees would be alright.
We began to move the triangular panel sections from the shop to my house and bolting them together we assembled the sphere. Once the sphere was assembled we hoisted it up into the tree and attached it to a 3/8″ cable. The cable had to stay at an angle of at least 45 degrees (picture the way a necklace or a medallion will hang) if the cable were too taught it would pull the trees together instead of pulling down on them. And then, we would have a pile of glass and steel and two ash trees. To lift the sphere we used an old backhoe that I’ve long since gotten rid of. I called it “the rolling biohazard” because no matter how many lines and hoses we replaced it wouldn’t stop leaking its hydraulic fluid everywhere.
So with the sphere suspended, we began bringing over the glass from the studio. in a 5 X 10 Home Depot type trailer. all two thousand pieces. Armed with a lot of enthusiasm and will will power we plodded along. Remember we were making all this up as we went along and it was very stressful. Ben and his executive team as well as the architect were going to visit us in two and a half weeks. They after all were on a schedule. And I had to keep up or all would be lost.
The night Giovanni almost died…
I was so tightly wound the night before Ben and his team was due to arrive at Trenton airport that I couldn’t imagine sleeping at all. Inside I was a wreck because although we seemed to have Ben’s confidence I thought it might not be shared by all of his team. And someone somewhere had let it slip the the architect wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of having his beautifully designed building cluttered up with these massive spheres. But, I tried to get some sleep; each minute laying there seemed like an hour. Eventually I began to doze, listening to the trees complain to each other in the wind. Abruptly I awoke to a loud elongated crash! My biggest fear had come true and the trees had finally had enough. “Bob we’re mad and we’re not going to take it anymore!”
After a few moments my heart stopped pounding and I threw on some warm clothes to take a look. If after two months of this exhausting work this would be the way my glass career ended then I must surely have done something very bad in a former life. Standing at the back door, I breathed deep and turned on the light. As I slowly opened the door I looked and saw that the sphere and its two trees were all intact! I stood in silence for a second and then began to simultaneously laugh and cry. Recently my hammock rope broke while I was napping in it. There was that initial startled feeling as you try to process what has just happened, then the inventory of body parts and then that slightly unhinged laughter as you realize nothing is broken… This moment was like that. It just seemed to be so funny and I had all this pent up nervous energy. Wandering around the house I began to look for the source of the noise. I thought it must be a shelf from the kitchen full of pots and pans, but no. Finally I found the source. In our living room were two very old walk in fireplaces. Our cat Giovanni had somehow managed to knock over the great andirons in one of them and sent the whole thing in a great slow motion crash to the floor. Although in that moment, I was tempted to find out if Giovanni could fly I let it go and free from all that pent up energy, I went back to bed for a little bit of sleep. The next morning would be ShowTime!
There are two stories we tell about this time that make this part of the story complete and set the stage for that visit from the Acuity team. The first is that I had gone to the dentist two days earlier. I had gone to a new guy recommended by a friend. I was told he was the best so I made an appointment and it was decided that I would need some work done. As I sat in the chair and he took measurements I noticed that this dentist had not just one but FOUR hole-in-one trophies. I had to ask; “are they all yours?” “Yes” he replied. At the time I had been playing golf for about fifteen years with a handicap of 7 on any given week; I was proud of my game but sadly, a hole-in-one was not one of my achievements. “Wow” I said, “you must play a lot of golf”. He said “yup” and “sure do” and all of this while he worked away on me. I thought to myself how glad I was to get this work done before my big meeting and after about an hour I was set with a temporary. But, something didn’t feel right. I told him and said I felt like I was speaking with a lisp, maybe drooling. He replied that this was par for the course and told me I would be fine by tomorrow; I would get used to it and just needed a little time. So, I said ok and let it go. The next morning I awoke and I was definitely drooling and had a pronounced lisp. I called that dentists office to complain and to try to get help before my meeting; but, he was out playing golf! Moral: If your doctor or dentist has enough time to accumulate four hole-in-ones they are probably not very focused on being a doctor or a dentist!
Why is it so cold it’s the middle of April?
The second story is just an amazing two inches of snow. April is very, very late for snow here and an accumulation of two inches was quite a shock. The added weight on the sphere was a huge concern for me. Gingerly, I tried to brush the snow off the sphere. My biggest concern with the snow was that it would melt during the day and then refreeze inside of the glass pieces causing them to shatter during our suddenly freezing again nights. But, in the end, that didn’t come to pass and finally, after the long, stressful effort and so many heart-stopping surprises both large and small – the team arrived and the visit began….
After all the design particulars were sorted out and the size and shape and general arrangement of the red, yellow and orange pieces were chosen, we were ready to move forward. Now it would be my job to figure out how to make everything work. My biggest issue would be weight. Each 15 foot sphere had to be less than 5,000 lbs. I made a plan for each sphere to have an internal metal structure that would be 9 foot in diameter. Individual glass pieces would attach to the outer surface and vary between 24″ and 36″ in length. The final sphere would be 9 feet of internal metal framework and then 3 feet on each side of blown glass pieces. This would give me the final dimensions of 15 feet.
The internal sphere would be built like a geodesic dome, with twenty individual triangular, curved panels that would bolt together onsite to create the sphere. The sphere design had come to us through the work of a local engineer named Olaf Pederson. The engineering was worth every penny, instead of attempting a design and hoping it would work, Olaf ran the numbers and proved it. And, as it turned out the design would have withstood an increase in weights by a factor of eight before there was any deflection. Through much trial and error we had determined that each individual panel would hold 100 individual pieces of glass of varying lengths and widths. This would create the fullness on the surface that we were looking for. So each panel was fitted with 100 pins of steel welded in place to hold the glass in position. Again I did the math: 20 Panels x 100 pieces of glass = 2,000 pieces of glass per sphere. Up until this point all of the larger pieces of glass I had made had each weighed upwards of 5 pounds. The metal spheres were weighing in at 800 lbs. That weight plus 2000 pieces of glass weighing 5 lbs each would have left me with a total weight of 10,800 lbs per sphere! This was more than twice as heavy as the limit set by the engineers for the building. Even if I thinned the glass mounted to each sphere by 50% -it would still be too heavy. This was so depressing; I had gotten the job of a lifetime and I couldn’t figure out how to pull it off.
After losing a couple of nights sleep from worry I finally slept a solid eight hours from sheer exhaustion. Waking up I finally felt refreshed and rested and I determined to see what I could do to get the weight of the glass down. Slowly but surely, over the next week or so and after a few hundred pieces of glass I began to make 3 foot long pieces of glass that weighed less than 2 pounds! We kept practicing and they began to look better and better until we had a form I found really pleasing. Now the 2,000 glass pieces and the metal frame came in at a svelte 4,800 lbs! It was truly a great day for me and once again- no sleep! But, this time it was just that I was too excited.
The next day, I began another set of calculations… We needed a total of 6,000 pieces of glass for all three spheres. We would have to cut and weld 15,000 individual pieces of metal for each of the three spheres. Each piece of glass was going to need to be firmly attached to the sphere. I did not like the idea of tying each piece off to the sphere with wire. And, although I felt considerable pressure of time, I believed it would be best to take a moment and come up with an elegant solution. While we moved other areas of the project forward I kept trying new ideas Thomas Edison style. After many prototypes of wire and forms I finally found an elegant solution. I made a little clip that reminds me of a grasshoppers leg. With a loop at each end of an L shape spring that will hold the glass at one end and the sphere at the other while tensioning the glass up into the sphere. Adding a neoprene washer and a protective polyethylene sleeve to each metal pin we greatly reduced any stress on the glass. And with each piece of glass firmly in place on its own designated pin we ensured that the glass at the bottom of the sphere would not bear the weight of the glass at the top of the sphere.
Next we began to puzzle out the different diameters and lengths of glass. It was important to me that at any angle a person would see the glass and not through to the metal sphere. Through trial and error we adjusted a pattern of placing the glass. Because of its shape each of the curved triangular panels has pins that are closer together at the edges and further way as you near the center of the panel. Adjusting the fit using different diameters and lengths of glass we created a layout. Once that was done it was simple work to replicate it over the other panels, creating the uniform appearance I was determined to achieve.
One of the things that helped Acuity in their decision to hire me, an unknown, for this project, was my willingness to do a full scale mock-up sphere for their approval. With all of the above questions settled I started to work on that first sphere. This after all, would be when the project was really secured.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, our lives would never be the same….Part One
We got the call sometime in the fall of 2003, I remember it was very warm, perhaps it was still September? I was just coming in from a run after a day’s work in the hotshop. As I walked up the driveway Sheila met me outside and said she’d received a call from someone named Ben Salzmann. He his wife and had been shopping in downtown Madison she had noticed one of the chandeliers in a local gallery. Knowing that her husband was looking for art for his new corporate headquarters, and liking the look of my chandelier she suggested it. Ben contacted us and explaining he was looking for art for the new headquarters he was building in Sheboygan, WI for his company Acuity, he asked for some information on our company.
Calls of this nature were fairly typical at the time. There are often many enquiries before it’s decided that a project is the right fit for all parties; and I learned early on not to count my chickens before they were hatched. About a week later Ben called back and said he received the info we sent him and asked if we could propose some ideas for the space if he sent us some 3Dimensionsal renderings. If my memory serves the main part of the building was about 150′ long by about 70′ wide and 65′ high at the peak. The ends of the hall were gigantic glass walls facing East and West allowing the room to flood with morning and evening light.
Ben said that he wanted two or three sculptures about 8′ to 10′ feet long by whatever width would work for the space. Although this certainly did have my attention, there still no chickens to count. We worked quickly to produce three sets of renderings which fundamentally were enlargements of smaller works I had done. The first rendering was 3 long tapered chandeliers done in a multi-colored fashion, the second rendering was a somewhat ovoid shape in tones of blue and green and the third was three spheres of varying sizes in a blend of red, yellow and orange. The third rendering was a hit. Ben told us he loved the third rendering with the red, yellow and orange evoking the fiery sun in the windows. The only problem, he felt, was the sizes were all wrong. He wasn’t sure what it was about the sizes that he didn’t like but he said he would like to think about it for a few days.
Over the next two weeks I didn’t get much sleep. I paced around wondering what it was exactly that Ben didn’t like about the spheres. Also, how would I tackle a job that, if I landed it would be so much bigger than anything I had ever done before. When the phone finally did ring the answer shocked me. They were too small! That’s right. The spheres were too small; Ben wanted them bigger, and instead of 6′ to 8′ he wanted them 10′ to 11′. Internally, my response was no way. I couldn’t get my head around the 6′ to 8′ size, how was I possibly going to make them bigger? But, after I thought about it for a couple of days and with some encouragement from family and employees, I figured “I can do this”.
Funnily enough, that wasn’t the end of it. Just a couple of days later Ben called back again and upped the ante to no less than 15 feet in diameter and all the same size. My response was exactly the same as before. There’s no way can I pull this off, I though, not to mention the fact that the engineer for the building said the load limit was 15,000 lbs for all three spheres. And now again, on paper there was no way this was going to work… (Part Two Next Week)