Custom fabrication company finds the keys to success

By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal

You’ve probably seen their work all around town and you didn’t even realize it.

Architectural Elements is a custom fabrication company that builds projects that sit at the confluence of art and hardware.

“For high-end home and commercial construction projects we’re the ones that build the building jewelry,” owner Joe Clark said. “We’re trusted with the high-detail fabrication that not everyone can execute.”

Architectural Elements built many pieces around Bellingham.

They’ve done a number of projects at Barkley Village, including the pink tree sculpture that sits outside Umpqua Bank and the picnic benches surrounding the retaining pond.

They built the sign for the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention.

They’ve fabricated elements for King County restaurants including Din Tai Fung, 13 Coins, and Storyville Coffee.

Much of their handy work can’t be seen by the public. They’ve built sculptures, kinetic “gizmos”, staircases, furniture, fireplace surrounds, signs, canopies and many other elements that grace the campuses of companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Clark started Architectural Elements in his garage ten years ago, and the company has experienced rapid growth ever since.

It has more than 25 employees, and is currently hiring more.

Four months ago the company moved into a 15,000-square-foot building in the Irongate neighborhood.

It’s double the size of their old building, and was the fourth move for the company, having outgrown all it’s previous warehouses.

Clark said they are already looking to add even more space.

The new space has allowed them to accomodate larger proejcts. Currently Architectural Elements is working on a sculpture called “Wind and Leaves” for the city of Oak Harbor. It is 40 feet long and 18 feet tall.

They’re also in the middle of developing a line of high-end outdoor furniture for, hopefully, large-scale production.

Architectural Elements is Clark’s second attempt at starting this company. About 15 years ago, he tried to start a similar company, but he was inexperienced the timing was wrong. It only lasted a year.

“I take complete responsibility,” he said. “That for me is one of my core values, take responsibility.”

It was, however, a learning experience.

“I don’t mind making mistakes,” he said. “I actually consider mistakes to be advantageous.”

There are a couple of keys to which Clark attributes the success of Architectural Elements.

When the company gets a new job, it approaches it holistically — to not just deliver one piece, but aid in the success of the entire project.

“One of the key factors to our company’s rapid growth is our dedication to the overall success of the project,” Clark said. “Not just what is detailed on the blueprint.”

That means they don’t just deliver the part they’ve been hired to make, but sometimes they’ll throw in the correct type of bolts needed to hang it up, or build fixtures to make installation faster and more precise. Clark calls it “solutions-based fabrication.”

“What we do is provide solutions to allow trades to run concurrently,” Clark said. “And give the construction project managers piece of mind.”

For Amazon, they were hired to fabricate armatures that would hold sheets of glass in an office building. Not only did they deliver the armatures, but they built tools to make sure the armatures could be hung quickly and exactly, and they built a template so that the team handling the next stage of the process, the glass workers, could build their pieces at the same time, instead of having to wait for the armatures to be installed and then having to go take measurements.

Amazon was so impressed by Architectural Elements’ work on that project they’ve hired them back to do more work on other building projects.

“Joe’s company isn’t just interested in delivering [products],” President Steve Alamin said. “They’re interested in making sure that they go up right and they look right when they’re done.”

What’s also different is Architectural Elements’ dedication to excellence in their product, even toward the end of the process, even if the budget has run out.

“We would much rather lose money on something than deliver a poorly executed product,” Clark said. “We execute well, all the way to the end, and we redo things, if necessary.”

A major endorsement of their work is in some of the clients that they get.

The company’s main job is making architects’ visions come to life.

Some of those same architects come back to the company when they want something built for their own home or garden.

Another key to success is hiring fabricators who are dedicated to the artistry of their work. A weld test is pretty standard when hiring someone in a shop — usually candidates are asked to weld two metal plates together. The Architectural Elements test is a bit tougher.

“We fabrication-test people,” he said. “When they show up we ask them to do a simple but detailed fabrication project.”

That includes cutting, fit-up, welding and grinding or sanding.

They’re judged based not only on whether they can weld, but how they can fit and and finish a piece. And once they’re hired, their education doesn’t stop.

“We train our employers to a high level such that they’re not just a welder, not just a woodworker, but a fabricator,” Clark said. “They can handle any sort of fabrication thrown at them.”

Some employees are hired straight out of Western Washington University and Bellingham Technical College.

The company also has worked with Western students and classes and is in the process of working with to BTC to offer students more hands-on experience and apprenticeship opportunities.

In general, the company focuses on local talent and local suppliers. Most of its suppliers are based in Whatcom County, many just down the street.

“We have a whole supply chain here locally in the Irongate area,” Clark said. Meanwhile, many of their clients are based in the Seattle area and the Bay Area and beyond. “One of the important things we do is we bring money from King County and into Whatcom County.”

Another one of the keys to Architectural Elements’ success is marketing. The company has a fun, very active social media presence. Its Instagram page is full of photos of completed projects, but also artistic inspiration and behind-the-scenes photos and video of fabricators in action.

The company also has a Vimeo page. It’s full of videos detailing projects the company has completed, as well as both serious and funny interviews with employees.

Other videos are just funny — like the one where the team “fabricates” a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving from beginning to end — transporting it secured with tie downs on a pallet in the back of a flat-bed truck all the way to cutting it open with a reciprocating saw.

The goal is to create a buzz about the company, make people want to be a part of it, Clark said.

And spread the word as far as possible.

“In terms of product awareness, or company awareness, I want people on Mars to know what we do,” he said. “We want to take our message to the world and beyond.”


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