October 21, 2000
To the untrained eye, the paddle wheel sculpture in Grand Forks' Town Square looks as if it had been carved from a giant block of stainless steel. The metal grain of the wheel is unbroken by seams or weld marks and each paddle looks like a polished slab
But Jason Hanson can tell you the wheel alone took up 11 sheets of steel, each 1/8-inch thick. Under the right light, he can even tell you where the welds are. After all, he and his crew of four spent three months building the thing. Hanson works for McFarlane Sheet Metal of Grand Forks, which recently won the Craftsman Award from The American Institute of Architects' North Dakota chapter during an Oct. 3 conference here.
The paddle wheel was one of three projects that won the company an award. The others were a stainless steel kitchen and Alerus Financial's reception area in the Corporate Center. Town Square architects Widseth Smith Nolting in Grand Forks designed the wheel and nominated McFarlane Sheet Metal for the manufacturing. The architect firm also has four other offices in northwestern and central Minnesota.
While relishing the recognition, Hanson and his boss Dave McFarlane were just as excited by the sculpture itself and the fact they had made it. When it left our shop, Hanson said, we knew we couldn't do any better than that. McFarlane said when it was erected for the first time, even people who worked on it were amazed by how good it looked.
Hanson's team faced numerous technical challenges, McFarlane said, because they'd never attempted anything like it before. He said in most of the industrial components his firm makes, function came first, looks came second. But with the paddle wheel, he said, the looks are the function.
The company had to develop techniques for welding that avoided warping, searched for padding that wouldn't scratch the metal once it was polished. They even designed and built two machines to polish around the curves, because nothing on hand suited the task. Keeping with the curve, Hanson said, was needed to maintain the illusion of solid steel.
The obsession with polish went beyond the machines. The team spent two-thirds of their time polishing, Hanson said. At one point, they were polishing 20 hours a day, he said. The result so impressed Roger Helland, lead architect at Widseth Smith Nolting, that he nominated McFarlane Sheet Metal for the Craftsman Award.
According to AIA North Dakota's executing director Bonnie Larson Staiger, there has been no nomination and, therefore, no award in recent years. It's one of those things that takes you beyond the typical sheet metal work (like ducts and vetilation shafts), Helland said. It looks like one big monolithic piece of steel, he said. It takes quite a bit of skill to do that.
But Helland was equally impressed with the pride Hanson's team took in their work. The day they erected it, he said, all the people involved in manufacturing it were on hand with their family. They're still showing it off, according to McFarlane. Driving around at night, he said he's seen various team members by the sculpture with family and friends.
Pride in your work, that's right, McFarlane said. You're doing something that will live longer than you. Outside of pride, he said he expected the AIA award to garner him more business. There were 90 architects at the associations conference, he said. You can't buy advertising like that.