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We were wrapping up an interview almost a year ago with Tony Ahern, president and chief operating officer, J. F. Ahern Co., along with Krista Ebbens, general counsel/corporate secretary and executive vice president, inside the mechanical, fire protection and fabrication contractor’s original storefront office on Main Street in downtown Fond du Lac, Wis.
It’s where Ahern’s great-great grandfather, David Ahern, an immigrant from County Cork, Ireland, started a steam heat and plumbing business in 1880 that’s grown to become one of the largest specialty contractors in the country, one that employs over 1,500 people, operates 15 offices throughout the upper Midwest and oversees projects undertaken in 49 states and even overseas.
Our interview for the day was to discuss how the company had bought the space, after years of neglect, and turned it into a combination meeting room/history museum in the run-up to its 140th anniversary several years before (bit.ly/3IS1AAZ). [EDITOR’S NOTE: Trust us, we would have been there much sooner, but Covid got in the way.]
As we prepared to leave, however, we asked Ahern what he thought the company was doing that would warrant a further look for PHC News. Without hesitating, he said the company’s prefab operations in Appleton, Wis. were “doing great things.”
Pipe Fabrication Division
So we filed that idea away and, eventually, we got back in the car last November to pay a visit not only to the company’s Fond du Lac HQ where its original piping prefab operations started in the 1970s, but also another 45 minutes north to Appleton where the company consolidated its Pipe Fabrication Division beginning in 2017.
“I guess everything we prefab could still be done onsite,” says Gavin Barfknecht, Ahern’s regional general manager, pipe fab and manufacturing, and who was our tour guide for the day. “But it’s never going to be as efficient, it’s never going to be as safe, and it definitely will be more expensive than what we can do onsite in our shops. It not only matters what we can prefab beforehand, but we can also synchronize the arrival of all these various components in the best way possible for a timely completion of a project.”
We met Barfknecht at his office in Fond du Lac and proceeded with a quick tour of the prefab work that’s still done on the corporate campus. For the sake of focus, we chose to center this feature on the work done in Appleton. However, work for Ahern’s Plumbing Division remains in Fond du Lac. Essentially, plumbing prefab to Ahern means copper and PVC. And we hate to shortchange the work done for the company’s very successful Fire Protection Division, but that work is also still in Fond du Lac as is prefab work for the Sheet Metal Fabrication Shop – with an important distinction we’ll get to shortly.
Before we headed up to see Appleton, Barfknecht showed us an overhead picture of the Fond du Lac property, and, while the company originally built its headquarters on 12 acres of vacant land way back when, there’s really not much space left to grow any longer. (There’s a lot more company history in our sidebar.)
“We ran out of room and wanted to expand,” Barfknecht adds. “Plus, it definitely has more of what we need for pipe fabrication and modular work, including not just more square footage, but overhead cranes, and we’ve also put in a lot more automation.”
Appleton also includes about 15,000 square feet of so-called flex space.
“That’s set aside as-needed for much of the modular work we do,” Barfknecht explains. “The space gives us the room to get into more of the multitrade solutions for our customers where we’re not just providing piping. We’re trying to move toward being a single-solution to our customers.”
It’s important to add here that while Ahern, like many other multitrade contractors, originally ventured into prefab for its own internal needs, the company has also long been a provider of prefab and modular solutions for external clients, whether that’s a GC or another mechanical contractor.
In this way, Ahern, which is a licensed mechanical contractor only in the state of Wisconsin, can leverage its extensive prefab infrastructure well outside the borders of the Dairy State.
“We can provide what’s needed to start and finish a project,” Barfknecht explains, “but there’s only so much that we can ‘sell’ to ourselves. Just because we’re a pipe fabricator in Wisconsin doesn’t mean we can’t ship truckloads of prefabbed pipe to a wastewater treatment facility in California.”
Barfknecht also says the union contractor also can tap into that many more pipe fabricators and ASME-certified welders in the Appleton region.
In addition, the Appleton location is home to Industrial Services born, in part, from Fond du Lac’s regular HVAC/sheet metal shop, which includes such items as welded ductwork, but also prefabbed rack, skid and pod system; and industrial components such as tanks and pressure vessels to event staircases railing and platforms.
Added together, the Fond du Lac and Appleton locations comprise 397,000 square feet along with more than 36 acres of laydown yard capacity to accommodate projects that require fabrication of bigger assemblies.
To pick up on Barfknecht’s point on being a one-stop shop, Ahern also has plenty of expertise off the shop floor, too. In-house preconstruction experts, including PEs and a structural engineer, provide design, build and assist services for complex prefabricated components and systems to ensure proper code compliance.
You can be sure that this crew is outfitted with the latest in construction technology. 3D and mobile technology is vital for complex multitrade modular prefabrication systems. The Ahern crews need more details upfront to ensure fit, function and proper operating conditions. Ahern’s has even customized its own software to seamlessly move information from model to manageable assemblies to cut sheet that results in more effective fabrication.
In addition, Ahern’s quality control process includes material verification, QC inspector checks at every phase, and X-ray mag particle testing, dye penetrant, and hydro testing as required by code or specifications.
“I think part of what distinguishes Ahern is our multitrade capabilities,” Barfknecht explains. “What I mean is that we aren’t just talking about our prefab expertise, we’re talking about our project management groups and we’re talking about our engineering groups, too. Plus, we have knowledge on the plumbing side, the mechanical side and the HVAC side. So we have all that expertise, but then we also know how to build it.”
Barfknecht also keyed into another important distinction to meet the demands of customers who know they want to take full advantage of prefab or modularization, but don’t really know enough how to do it.
“With our design and engineering expertise,” Barfknecht says, “we can take what wasn’t really planned to be modular and create real value by making it so. Many architects and engineers are not thinking about prefabrication or modular concepts in the design phase. And once a project moves through certain stages, it becomes increasingly difficult to institute large-scale prefabrication practices. We can take a design early in the process, sit down with our GC and make a plan. We can reduce our own installation costs, and, thereby, reduce the GC’s costs. We can help our customers engineer it in a way that allows us to build it effectively.”
Many of Ahern’s capabilities are clearly on display in a couple of recent jobs.
For example, Ahern won a BUILD Wisconsin Award last year from the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin.
The Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals expansion in Madison, Wis., included the installation of a new mechanical penthouse. This project called for more than 5,000-man hours squeezed into a seven-month award to turnover schedule.
Approximately 22,000 of the 31,000 square footage of space remodeled was lab space. Ahern utilized 3D BIM coordination to ensure ductwork and piping could be installed clash-free of other trades. The mechanical penthouse was 100% prefabricated and allowed Ahern to shorten the onsite time needed for installation from three month to 1 ½ months. In addition, the project was completed under budget.
A recent edition of the company’s internal Pipeline publication also highlighted the company’s work at the ThedaCare Medical Center Orthopedics, Spine and Pain Center, a new 240,000-square-foot hospital, ambulatory surgery in Appleton, Wis.
The project was one of Ahern’s first projects to be built entirely in Revit. Building a multitrade project entirely in one Revit model allowed the information to be live and easily updated and coordinated among all the construction trades. In addition, the pandemic required that all preconstruction actives had to be completed virtually.
The project involved the prefabrication of 90 multitrade racks covering three floors, which included all the MEP components. Most of the project was completed in a nine-month schedule with nearly 60,000 field man-hours worked with no safety incidents. Ahern installed approximately 260,000 pounds of ductwork; 95,000 feet of plumbing pipe and 2,400 fire sprinkler heads.
What’s next? We did get the inside scoop on an interesting project that we’d already read a bit about without knowing Ahern’s participation. But while that nears completion, it’s under wraps for now. We certainly hope to talk about that in a future issue.
Barfknecht left us with an interesting maritime job that definitely wasn’t on our bingo card for the average mechanical contractor. Ahern will be providing the piping for a liquefied natural gas barges. These barges in turn help refuel cruise ships.
“We look at any opportunity to showcase our capabilities,” Barfknecht says.
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