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Towering achievement

Beaverton-area residents play key role in new World Trade Center towers
by: Jaime Valdez John Beaulieu, vice president of Benson Industries LLC, points to the tallest of four proposed World Trade Center towers his firm is working on in New York. The Portland company is creating the skyscrapers’ angular steel-and-glass exterior.

For Beaverton's John Beaulieu, rebuilding the World Trade Center towers in New York City is a mission that transcends mere practical concerns.

Sure, there may be some demand for office space nearly 1,776 feet above the streets of lower Manhattan. But construction of One World Trade Center, aka the 'Freedom Tower,' next to footprints of the two towers terrorists destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, fulfills an altogether more profound role.

'In terms of the symbolism of it, a nation like the U.S. is not going to be set back on its heels,' Beaulieu says from his Benson Industries LLC office in Northwest Portland. 'We're going to come back stronger than ever. 'Yeah, you knocked it down? Well, we're gonna put it back.''

Beaulieu, who serves as Benson Industries' vice president, may be speaking on behalf of a resilient nation, but when he says 'we,' he's speaking literally. The company where he's worked for more than two decades was instrumental in planning, designing and engineering the angular steel-and-glass exterior of the tallest of four proposed World Trade Center high rises.

The 5-foot-wide and 13-foot-long panels that, collectively, will cloak the building are now being fabricated at Benson's plant in Gresham. The 12,000 units are shipped, at about 24 at a time, by rail from Oregon to New York.

That's right. The outer motif of what will likely be the most famous building in the world was perfected by the likes of Beaverton and Cedar Mill residents, and manufactured just east of Portland.

Reaching for the sky

Mild mannered and modest though he is, one can hardly blame Beaulieu for exuding pride in his company and his colleagues' roles in the fledgling tower.

'I can speak for a lot of people here. I don't know anyone in America who wasn't upset with what happened (on 9/11),' he says. 'When I was first brought into this project, I said, 'We have to have this building.' This building means something to us as a country.'

After its projected completion around 2016, One World Trade Center will be the tallest building in the U.S. and one of the tallest in the world. A permanent antenna topping the 105-story monolith will reach 1,776 feet, symbolizing the year America achieved its independence.

'This is probably my 42nd year in this business,' Beaulieu says. 'I've built buildings all around the world. I've been here 23 years now. Nothing comes close. This is the most important building in the world for the foreseeable future.'

Top of the heap

One might think bids for the project would come from far and wide. However, the pre-assembled 'curtain wall' panels that comprise the tower's most visible architecture are, shall we say, a specialized kind of item.

'There aren't that many people who do what we do, even in this country,' Beaulieu says. 'When a major project is put forward, we are usually contacted. It doesn't require advertising.'

Including Portland-based Benson Industries, an employee-owned company founded in 1923, three companies submitted bids for the project about two years ago. One was eliminated early, leaving Benson to, as Beaulieu says, 'fight with the other guy.'

In the end, Benson's $160 million bid carried the day for the exterior of Tower 1's upper 88 floors. A competitor won out for the lower 'podium' section - the equipment-dominated first 20 floors - of the approximately $2 billion project.

'We were not as aggressive on the bottom part,' Beaulieu admits. 'The design was challenging. We weren't sure if we could pull it off, so we decided to just let somebody else do it.'

Benson is also responsible for the glass-and-steel sheathing around the less imposing World Trade Center's Tower 4.

All for one

As a project of this scale would suggest, the design and engineering process involves a complex planning process that includes many trips to and from the drawing board.

'Our specialty is the exterior enclosure,' Beaulieu says. 'The architect shows us the designs, and we develop a set of documents. Their engineers go through it. You can never know exactly what they want. This goes on for months and months. You reach a final agreement, and then you start trying to build a building.'

In his role with the company, Beaulieu focuses on interpreting the architect's designs and putting a price tag on the work and materials. He works with Jeremy Mucha, the project's chief designer, and many others to concoct a first-class product and efficient work schedule.

'It's not a one-man operation by any stretch,' Beaulieu says. 'There's very much a team effort here. Everybody in the company gets involved. It took years to win this job.'

Highest ground

Mucha, who serves as Benson's vice president of engineering, says the company applies the same quality standards to the trade center project as with any other contract. Except this one is a bit different.

'With the design and engineering, we're taking our normal systems and bringing them to the highest level of performance we've ever dealt with, because of the stature of the building and its height,' the Cedar Mill resident says.

Calling the buildings 'the project of a lifetime,' Mucha says he, Beaulieu and their colleagues rose to the occasion when the World Trade Center project presented itself.

'Once we had it, we knew we would throw all we had at it,' he says. 'Benson is fortunate in that every time we go to New York City, it's touching to see what you've produced.'

Mucha recognizes the buildings will stand as one of Benson Industries' crowning achievements long after the current crew has moved on.

'This is our legacy,' he says.