Penn Installations: Making a Mark on Ceilings
It started with flooring, but people started looking up as the company grew.
Don Procter / March 2023
Those who look up in buildings at Penn State DuBois are likely to see ceilings installed by Penn Installations.
In the early 1950s, only a few years after Pennsylvania-based Penn Installations opened its doors for business as a flooring contractor, the company’s president, Al Kuperstock, saw a growing demand for acoustical ceilings and forged a relationship with Armstrong Cork Company, adding ceiling products to its established flooring lines.
What might have seemed like a bit of a gamble at the time proved to be a seminal decision. It widened the contractor’s market share, and 70 or so years later the ceiling side of the wall and ceiling contractor’s portfolio is a significant portion of its business. “Now our work in ceilings is primarily through distributor partners who provide us with materials,” explains Howard Bernstein, Penn’s president.
That doesn’t mean the road to continued success in the sector is easy for the contracting company, which has offices in Johnstown and State College, Pa. With the level of complexity of today’s ceiling projects increasing, it can be a challenge to estimate execution timelines but also to maintain a corps of skilled workers to perform the work.
“We like to think our long history of experience is an advantage for us, and hopefully we’re still learning and growing to stay on top of things,” says Bernstein.
Much of the contractor’s work is in educational institutions where deadlines are tight, and medical facilities where intricate details are a responsibility. Along with ceilings, Penn’s contracts often include other responsibilities. “When we perform several scopes,” Bernstein explains. “We offer great value to construction managers and owners because it brings a single source of responsibility to the table. We have the capacity to be a one-stop shop for commercial interiors.”
Technology & Training
Bernstein says the large percentage of the company’s self-performing work is high-end ceilings that require “a fair bit of technical skill.”
Mike Burgo, estimator for Penn Installations, says an extremely aggressive project schedule is often on the table for major projects. “Ceilings are always at the end, and we get compressed by lost time in the excavation and concrete work that are affected by the weather at the beginning of the work,” he says.
Burgo says on some contracts manufacturers supply shop drawings, on others Penn turns to takeoff software for quick, accurate measurements and SketchUp modeling to place grid lines in rooms.
Total station surveying equipment is becoming indispensable for wall, ceiling and bulkhead layouts. “It lets us set layout points on CAD drawings to where we then transfer to the jobsite floor or ceiling,” the estimator explains. Time savings is the result. “It can cut days off manual layouts for complex curved shapes, and the accuracy is phenomenal.”
The company has worked on a number of sizable jobs that have involved occasional BIM review meetings when there was a design conflict, but building information modeling is not a major part of Penn Installations world. Bernstein suggest that might change in the future, though, because there is value for wall and ceiling contractors like Penn to be at the design table as more architects and designers are expressing themselves through ceilings, specifying a multitude of trims, details and shapes such as undulating cloud-like acoustical ceiling forms. “I think everybody realizes the great value of solving these problems on the front end,” Bernstein says.
Penn Installations has a full-time safety director certified to teach in-house courses, equipment training and other skills as they arise, but Penn also looks to others for training. A case in point is when Penn retained a fire caulk trainer from a manufacturer for an update on best practices for fire rated wall assemblies.
Equally important is providing installers with the training they require for ever-complex designs, he says, noting that the company’s affiliation with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America is where training starts for its unionized workforce and where Penn sends crews when upgrade training is required.
The pandemic created its own set of challenges, sometimes with material delivery scheduling and occasionally labor shortages, says Burgo, adding that the UBC has been instrumental in supplying skilled labor in a timely fashion. “While there are times we have to wait a day or two for manpower, for the most part we can get men or juggle our workforce to accommodate our project needs,” he explains.
Bernstein points out that with increasing job complexity, the company sees value in looking for answers to problems by networking with cross-country colleagues through AWCI’s Business Forums, which provide a non-competitive atmosphere where business ideas can be shared in confidence.
And while we are on the subject of job complexity, read on.
The Children’s Hospital
The atrium bulkhead at a recent addition to the Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Pa., included four types of acoustic tile in both standard and aluminum grid systems for labs/restrooms, and three different wood veneer ceilings in the elevator lobbies and the atrium. It took extensive planning to configure the veneered tile sizes to fit. Much of the ceiling work required specialty trim, including stone-colored grid and knife-edge axiom trim at the wood ceilings. Two-inch inverted axiom trim and 4-inch axiom transition trim were required where ceiling elevations changed.
Burgo says coordinating crane and freight elevator times was critical for the four-story addition atop the existing five-floor children’s hospital in Hershey. The vendors had to understand that lift times were limited, so on-time deliveries were paramount.
“This was one of the largest ceiling projects I was involved in, and it was challenging just to keep up with ordering materials and scheduling deliveries,” explains Nancy Soflarsky, project manager and estimator for Penn. She employed a crew of a dozen or so carpenters for the ceiling component of the work (part of a $10 million overall contract at the hospital). About 20,000 square feet of walls and ceilings were completed in phases over three years.
Soflarsky says while the contract took longer than expected, it was largely because of issues beyond Penn’s control.
Especially on big projects, expecting the unexpected is important, she points out, noting problems relating to GCs, construction managers and architects are often addressed in the field by Penn’s installers. “A lot of issues that come up are due to architects not designing the ceilings properly, such was the case at the Penn State University art museum contract,” she says.
At the museum, the architect wanted a specific grid system that was an integrated acoustical panel ceiling system with a proprietary concealed extruded aluminum grid and panels. The design thought was that the ceiling panels would “just drop down” for easy access to mechanicals above the ceiling, but that was not possible since the architect also wanted baffles suspended off the grid.
“The decision was made by the ceiling manufacturer’s rep and presented by Penn to use a standard grid so that they could remove the ceiling panels without interference from the baffles,” says Soflarksy.
Another significant contract recently was for Penn State University’s Pattee Library at the main campus in State College. One of Penn’s innovations was the Velcro strips it attached to the edges of acoustic panels to prevent them from moving every time the HVAC system came on, Burgo says.
Currently at the state university’s main campus, Penn Installation’s work includes metal framing/drywall and ceilings that require 2-by-2 and 2-by 4-foot ceiling tiles on a 15/16-inch grid. In several art gallery spaces, Penn is installing ceiling panels on a grid system, and a baffle ceiling system is suspended from main beams.
“It is my understanding that a lot of planning went into this by the design team so that the lighting and colors, even the way the sun shined through the windows at certain times of the day, did not put shadows on the art work,” says Soflarsky. “We are still in the shop-drawing process of these ceilings.”
The First Impression
Bernstein, who admits that ceilings, floors and walls are in his blood, looks at them everywhere he goes. “I stare at corners, how things are mitred, how the tile is cut, is it balanced, is it level …. It is just part of the nature of this profession for me.”
One of his most memorable jobs was his first, a contract in 1989 for Crown American Associates on the Pasquerilla Plaza, a building in downtown Johnstown, Pa., designed by world-renowned post-modern architect Michael Graves. The interior contract, which included a complex ceiling grid, was unlike any other. “To this day I have never worked on a project as monumental,” says Bernstein, crediting Graves for “stunning” design details that included a speciality flush ceiling tile system.
“It was the first time I had seen lay-in tile that just pops into the grid,” says Bernstein.
The sky blue flush tegular tile that was created specifically for the building needed to be field applied as there was not quite enough quantity for the manufacturer to factory apply it. This building includes concealed spline one-by-ones, which Bernstein believes is not made anymore. Graves specified the tile and numerous other acoustical ceilings systems at the building.
That 1989 job wasn’t the last of Penn’s work on the plaza. Since 1991, when Don Hartline was hired by Crown American Associates, a large real estate developer in the mid-Atlantic region, the company has retained Penn Installations for multiple tenant renovations of its office headquarters at the Pasquerilla Plaza mall. “I have worked closely with Howard or his staff regarding permits, details, construction drawings, etc.,” Hartline says. “They have always met our deadlines whether they had to bring in just a few guys, run two shifts, do weekends or holidays”
Hartline, Crown’s facilities director, says in 2020 Penn Installations was instrumental in repairs and renovations to the 134,000-square-foot plaza after a major flood affected all five stories. Some of the damaged spaces, such as the executive wing, were original to the 1989 Graves design. “It was a trying time, my first major catastrophe,” he says, “but I feel that Penn and the rest of the contractors went 100% and beyond to meet deadlines and the specifications of the original build.”
Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario.