Fireproofing the Site of 9-11

Thomas G. Dolan

July 2005

The job the Patti fireproofing family will always be most proud of is the one, paradoxically, that burned down. For this was the Seven World Trade building on Sept. 11, 2001. The nearby Twin Towers took the two direct hits from the terrorist attacks, but their collapse spewed the flames onto the nearby Seven World Trade Center building. Because of the superior fireproofing job E. Patti & Sons had done on this building, it burned 10 to 12 hours, allowing all the people in the fully occupied 47-story building to escape. There were no fatalities.

Patti & Sons, Inc. is a family business. It was started in 1955 by Ernest Patti and his son, Michael, then 18. Michael, now 68, took over as president in 1982. His younger brother, Nickolas, now 65, joined the company about five years after Michael, and is now secretary. His son, Nickolas Jr., joined the company about three years ago, and is vice president. The three men are partners.

For the first 22 years of its existence, the company did only plastering. But, as recalls Michael Patti, "As drywall came in, the plastering market began to dry up, so we looked for something to take its place. Fireproofing is similar in nature to spraying plaster so it was a natural thing for us to pick up.”

Usually, when you move into a new field, you have to start modestly and build your way up. But the Patti company started at the top, in more ways than one. "Our first job was for a customer of our plastering work, and it happened to be a big job,” Patti recalls. "This was 9 West 57th St., our first big high-rise, about 48 stories of structural steel.”

At the time, fireproofers commonly used a fiber material for spraying. Patti recalls that "I could not get the manufacturer to supply me with enough material to do the job productively, so I opted to get other manufacturers involved. W.R. Grace was very aggressive in soliciting us and helping us to get our first job done.”

More Jobs via Word of Mouth

Grace was promoting its product, Monokote, which, at the time, was commonly used strictly for elevator shafts and other high density areas such as hallways. Grace was pushing for a broader application. Grace reps took Patti to various sites to show him how the product worked and looked in application. Patti was sold. He explains that the change was from the light cloth-like fiber to more of a motor brick cementitious product. "Monokote had much better adhesion and durability,” Patti says. "It requires less patching after the other trades come in to attach equipment. Fiber is easier to put on or take off, and easier to fall off. You need a chisel to scrape Monokote off.”

There was a problem with Monokote, however. Fiber was typically pumped up a building through plastic pipes and then sprayed through a hose. But plastic pipes were too lightweight for the heavier Monokote product. So Patti came up with the innovation of using heavier aluminum pipes. This solved the problem.

Depending on the circumstances, the bottom floor is fireproofed either first or last. But the rest are done progressively, from lower to upper floors. "First the steel goes up, then the cement, which we follow, with the mechanical trades coming after us,” Patti says. The key personnel include people who make sure that Monokote, basically a premixed product, has the appropriate amount of water put into it in a continuous mixer. It’s then put into a pump that a man sends up through 2- to 3-inch pipes to the desired floors, with scaffolds used to allow the sprayer to reach his work. The appropriate nozzles are used to give the desired spray pattern. The fireproofing is applied directly to the steel. There is perimeter protection to protect the environment from overspray. Excess material falls to the floor and is put into containers for disposal.

Patti’s idea to use aluminum pipes meant that all the equipment for spraying did not have to be carted up to every floor. This represented a big cost savings for the customer, and helped make Patti’s first fireproofing job a big success. This job led quickly to many others in New York City. General contractors would visit the sites, see the work, and word spread quickly.

More Jobs via Travel

In the 1980s, when construction in New York declined, a new development took place. Grace began introducing Patti to different cities. "They said we could do the job faster and cheaper than local contractors who didn’t have the experience or equipment,” Patti says. The company expanded its operations to many states in the Northeast, as well as all around the country, to Tennessee, Arkansas and Wisconsin, to name a few. Part of the mutual understanding is that Grace would utilize Patti to get its product introduced in new areas, but then, over time, would educate the local contractors in how to do the work, and Patti would phase out. Patti finished what he believes might be his last out-of-state job last year.

Fireproofing has been Patti’s main line of work since he’s gotten into it. But he has gone into a couple of secondary areas. He did reinforced concrete for a time, but not anymore. He does continue to do some lightweight flooring, using the same equipment he does for spraying gypsum or cement on concrete, wood, or other existing floors.

When asked about some challenges he’s faced, Patti replies that, since he’s used to doing high rises, situations in which many buildings are spread out are difficult.

"The headquarters for Merck Pharmaceutical was one of those jobs. It’s a big site, but there were various buildings spread over the campus. So we had to be mobile and use different machines.” He adds that the sites usually have water and electricity, but there have been occasions in which he had to bring in water by truck and bring in generators for electricity.

Certainly the company’s biggest recent challenge has been fireproofing the new Seven World Trade building. This new structure cost in the neighborhood of $300 million, with Patti’s contract being $4 million. Though the first building was done with standard Monokote, Patti says, "This time they opted for the Monokote 106 medium density, which will provide even more bond strength, better adhesion and more impact resistance. They paid a premium for that, and did so after I had the contract.”

Why did they go to the Monokote 146 high density product? "That would have been overkill,” Patti says. "That product is used in exposed areas, where it’s something to the weather, which is not the case in a building.”

Some 1,200 to 1,500 men worked on this building. Patti’s crew was 12. "We worked normal hours, but there’s always some overtime, some Saturdays in preparing areas for the next trade to come in,” he says.

The big challenge on this job, Patti says, was winter.

"We worked under very strong conditions with the winter cold,” he relates. "We heated the floors with kerosene blower heaters that emitted 600,000 btus per heater. We had 10 heaters per floor. The tops and bottom were concrete but the sides were exposed, so we wrapped the perimeter in canvas. We checked the temperature of the steel before spraying, and then maintained the heat for 24 hours.”

This project was a "green building,” Patti says. "We recycled bags, wood, everything we could. We went beyond the building code of New York City.”

Keeping It in the Family

Patti’s involvement took about a year. The entire project, close to being finished when this article was being written in May, will have taken about two years.

Patti says he could do more work if he wanted, "but I prefer to do just two to three jobs at a time. I give a lot of personal attention to each job. That’s our forte, the personal touch.” Because of this, along with the quality of the work, virtually all the company’s work is by negotiated bid as opposed to the hard bid. "We add value but get paid more,” he says. "A few times out of duress we did some work for the city and state, which amounts to nothing but delayed claims. I stay away from that kind of work, and prefer to deal with people we know.”

When asked how times have changed over the past half century when he went into business, Patti replies, "Back in the beginning, my dad always said a handshake was worth a million bucks, and the contract a mere formality. Unfortunately, as times changed, with all the lawyers and lawsuits, we’ve had to change our way of doing business. Today everything is strictly contract, and we scrutinize every one.”

Another change Patti has noted is that "in the past it was more typical for sons to follow in their father’s business. That’s what my brother and I did. But now we see many families in the industry educate their kids and they go into something else. We find the passion for doing this business is not the same if there’s not that family continuity.”

One of the problems with family businesses is that the patriarch often doesn’t want to let go of the reins. "My dad was like that for awhile, but then he backed off. But we’re not like that at all. My brother, nephew and I are pushing for others in the family to gradually take over, and giving them the financial and moral support to help them out.”

Meanwhile, Patti has no plans to retire anytime soon. He’s bidding on the new Time building, and, with the design for the new Twin Towers having been recently completed, Patti says, "We’re bidding on that project too.”