When contractors for the new Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City found themselves in need of extra precisely cut and shaped stainless steel exterior panels for what many view as an architectural masterpiece, a North Liberty company came to the rescue.
“We can turn custom work around quickly when people need us to,” says Marcus Henning, who operates a growing business called Architectural Metal Folding along with his wife, Emily.
Drop in at Henning’s large job shop in the I-380 Industrial Park in North Liberty and you may see some amazing, high-tech tools in action.
One might be a computerized water jet machining center, which uses a 60,000 PSI (pound force per square inch) stream of water infused with tiny grains of sand to make exacting cuts in everything from glass to 5-inch steel.
“It’s powerful,” he points out. “You stay away from the cutting jet. The installer told us even a finger nick could send the abrasive up your bloodstream to your shoulder. Without the water table to disperse the jet stream, it would cut through the cement floor and 60 feet down.”
Another sophisticated tool here is called a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) folding machine. It can do complex folds in aluminum, steel, copper or brass for just about any of the various custom projects this business gets involved in.
With these, plus shear machines for rougher cutting, a surface finisher, a high-definition plasma cutter and welding equipment, this shop can handle just about any metal cutting and bending job that comes along.
“Basically, we bring flat material in here, then cut it and form it into what is unique,” says Henning. “It takes some math and computer knowledge and trial and error. Some people call it training, but I call it messing up, throwing it away and starting over.”
Henning works with contractors and architects on projects simple and complex, often, like the Hancher project, providing what they need when they are in a construction jam.
“Buildings sometimes come out of the ground before the drawings are even finished,” he said. “Then they get up to the tenth floor and say ‘Now what do we do?’”
You’ll find this firm’s work throughout the corridor and beyond. It created stainless steel counter tops for the new Hilton hotel in downtown Iowa City, the exterior panels between floors for the nearby Chauncey tower and decorative handrail panels for the United Fire Group Building in Cedar Rapids.
“We worked with an artist from Des Moines and made a unique tree bark design for the new Harrison Street Parking ramp in Iowa City,” Henning said.
Other jobs are more distant. At present, the shop is working on lower level aluminum panels for the exterior of the $150 million Children’s Mercy Research Tower in Kansas City. It will also provide a concave aluminum panel for bus terminal signage in Washington D.C.
The firm doesn’t bid projects and relies mostly on word-of-mouth advertising. Its expertise is highly regarded by a core group of about 40 architectural or contracting companies which have helped fuel is growth during its six years of existence.
Henning grew up in northeast Iowa and learned construction through his father’s home-building business. After a few years in sales, he returned to something he liked better, working with his hands. He learned how to cut and bend metal from his father-in-law, Tim Linden, who owned ASI Sheet Metal here.
When Linden sold his firm in 2013, Marcus and Emily decided to form their own company. They leased space for two years, then built this nearly 40,000-square-foot structure in the industrial park, using about half for Architectural Metal Folding and leasing out the rest.
Linden helps out in his retirement and designed the interesting rusted steel and gabion-style rock wall which makes the building stand out in the industrial park.
“Tim’s the artsy one and enjoys working with our customers from the design phase through fabrication and installation,” says Marcus.
All seem happy with the direction the business is going.
“Things seem to fall into place when we can achieve good, honest customer relationships,” he said.
“Over the six years,” he added, “I’d say we have doubled our customer base and quadrupled sales. We’re basically a three-employee job shop in a niche industry, but we like it and we’re capable of handling a lot of projects.”
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