David Nickerson applies high standards to building fabric structures and encourages industry players to set collective guidelines.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“At the end of the day, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror,” says David Nickerson, president of Rubb Inc. in Sanford, Maine. “And that means designing to the building code—period.”
At 23 years old, Nickerson was hired to work as plant manager at Rubb Buildings, which designs and fabricates engineered fabric structures and membrane-clad, frame-supported buildings. At that time in 1983, the company was newly founded by Finn Haldorsen, as a subsidiary of Rubb A/S in Norway and Rubb Buildings in the U.K. Six months later Haldorsen returned to Europe and left Nickerson in charge of the U.S. company. “I was an industrial engineer, which was primarily management and information engineering, so taking the lead at the U.S. company was a matter of learning under fire,” he says. “Fortunately we were able to access Rubb’s established companies in Europe, which supported our growth and helped us make decisions.”
Each of the three companies developed its own area of expertise under the broader umbrella of tension membrane structures. “The U.S. company has more expertise in large-span hangar buildings; Britain’s expertise is in deployable military structures; and in Norway it’s insulated products,” Nickerson says. “We all benefit from that kind of diversity because we share expertise. We’ve got development happening with different product lines, and by different engineering teams in different places, which the entire group can utilize.”
While it may seem obvious that strict attention to code compliance is an important element for successful structures, the reality is that not all companies adhere to the guidelines, Nickerson points out. “We’ve had some serious failures in our industry over the last several years,” he says. “Structures [manufactured by other companies] have collapsed. As an industry we need to set some standards and work to follow them to prevent those failures.
“Years ago the metal building industry faced similar issues, and some of the major manufacturers came together to set some common industry standards, and the industry was better for it. I’d like to the see the fabric structures industry do that as well.”
Building to code requires using the right design methods and the right materials, in amounts relative to the demands of the structure and its environment. “It costs more to build something that will stand up to snow loads and wind loads,” Nickerson says. “Part of what we need to do is educate people as to why they should invest a little more money and do things right the first time.” He recommends that his customers compare the size and weight of structures before they accept a bid, as well as secure independent third party engineering advice.
Designing and building to code doesn’t automatically result in approval from code officials, however. Interpretation of codes is a factor as well. “Building codes can be a challenge because fabric buildings remain a specialty type of construction in the view of some code officials,” Nickerson says. “Still, we find that things are much easier now than they were 25 years ago.” Nickerson references the guidelines spelled out in the International Building Code’s (IBC) chapter on Membrane Structures as relatively simple and easy to understand.
Nickerson practices “the best defense is a good offense” approach to achieving code compliance. “One thing I’ve learned is the importance of having well-documented data related to fire safety performance, cyclic and pressure testing of roof membranes, structural detailing, etc.,” Nickerson says. “When these design elements can be presented to code officials in a concise, accurate and professional way, approvals can typically be readily secured.”
In 1994 Nickerson and his team were contacted by the U.S. Department of Energy to determine how well sprinklers work in a fabric building. Rubb constructed a 2,000-square-foot building inside a test center in Rhode Island, using 28-ounce/sy fabric from the Seaman Corp. Factory Mutual Insurance Company conducted a full-scale fire test of the building. The results were positive, and now Nickerson uses that data to demonstrate the company’s product performance. “When we show people the video of that test and they can see that it was conducted by an independent entity, it goes a long way toward answering questions and concerns they might have,” he says.
Part of an international group from its inception, Rubb Inc. is now a part of an even larger family of companies due to a strategic merger between the Rubb Group and the Hallmaker Group in Norway in 2009. In addition to its operations in Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, the group now also includes plants in Poland, Sweden and Asia. “While these are exciting changes, they also bring some challenges in developing and implementing new product designs and technologies, and enhancing and streamlining internal systems,” Nickerson says.
“There’s more of a focus on strategic planning, and on delegation and empowering people,” he says. “We’re involving employees more in the processes of the company’s growth.” To that end, key managers meet more frequently to prioritize company goals and establish buy-in across the management team. “It can be difficult for entrepreneurs to delegate rather than micromanage,” he says. “About ten years ago at Rubb Inc., we fundamentally shifted the way our business functioned by decentralizing a lot of decisions.” Nickerson hires employees who are committed to the same customer-focused standards that he is. “It’s important that you develop a trust with the customer that you don’t violate,” he says. “It’s pretty simple as far as I’m concerned.”