When a client wanted to build a 35-meter-long, encased pedestrian bridge made of interlocking commercial bronze, glass and steel over Queen Street, Toronto, Canada’s busiest shopping mile, Seele Inc.—the North American division of Seele Group—rose to the challenge.
The project required that an old bridge be dismantled and the new bridge be installed within two, pre-determined, consecutive days, during which Queen Street would be closed.
While the casual observer might overlook the apparent ease with which Seele achieves lofty goals, those in the know recognize that it deals in only the most complex and exacting. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, after all, and Seele Inc.’s parent company, Seele Group, is a German company known for its ambitious glass façade and building envelope construction.
“The complexity of our projects is where we excel because we dedicate ourselves to solving the client’s design philosophy, the client’s expectations,” says Michael Steinhuelb, Seele’s president.
Involving the intricate
In a way, the more demanding a project is, the better.
The company’s successes include 4-story-high restaurant sliding doors, an eye catcher at Apple’s new Cupertino, California, campus anchor, “The Ring.” The doors are made of 10 panels of glass, each weighing roughly 6,500 pounds, which must move silently. When Seele was interviewed by Blueprint in July, it was building a striking, curved-glass roof over the central courtyard for the rehabilitation of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, Canada.
At New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Seele helped build the “dance box,” a rehearsal room suspended below a cantilever and complete with an all-glass façade of almost 80-square-meters, through which passersby can watch rehearsals. And in Washington, D.C., the two glass-roofed atria Seele built at the American Institute of Peace, form a dove and an olive branch, which can be recognized from afar as emblems of peace.
“We are a humble participant in the building task, where we bring our expertise to the table,” Steinhuelb says. “We don’t take anything off the shelf. We work with the client and his team to provide him the best solution that is possible.”
Though Apple is just one of many Seele clients, its projects are perhaps the most well-known, not just because of the famous client but for their complexity. Since the early 2000s, Seele has contributed to more than 70 Apple retail stores located all over the world, including the iconic glass Cube at Apple’s 5th Avenue flagship.
“We want to provide our clients with the best quality that is available, the quality that they bought in coming to Seele to fulfill their projects, their dreams,” Steinhuelb says.
“A project can be very small; it can be very big,” Steinhuelb says. “It is the uniqueness and complexity of a project that make it interesting for us.”
Both the complexity and uniqueness can be seen in the handful of museum projects Seele has completed. Those projects, which are viewed as much as art installations as they are functional designs, include a 4,500-square-meter pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the three-story Pérez Art Museum in Miami, Florida, that is built to withstand hurricane-force winds; a glass-roof atrium, which links wings of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts; and a new façade of aluminum, glass and terracotta panels at the Museum of Art & Design in New York City.
Seele is also building a high-tech glass structure for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. Located in a prominent spot beneath the Gateway Arch, it will form a new entrance to the visitors’ center and museum.
Though Seele has several museums to its name, it did not seek those clients. Its projects run the gamut from institutional to commercial, and even include the occasional private residence.
“It is the project that drives us, not a market or country,” Steinhuelb says. “It is the individual project, and there are no two ones alike.”
The company even completes some residential projects, if the client and complexity is right. In those cases, clients are often building their dream home.
“If someone comes to us to build a private residence, we look at it and try to find what we can contribute, what are the client’s expectations,” Steinhuelb says. “The combination of being able to look at projects and being able to say, ‘Yes, Dear Mr. and Mrs. Owner, we can contribute something. We have the skills to make this a unique project,’ that is how we approach every project.”
Choosing clients carefully
Though Seele has had a footprint in the U.S. since 2001—and its parent company has been operating out of Germany since 1984—the past two years have been exceptional for reasons of growth and the complexity of projects. In North America alone, Seele brought in roughly $80 million in sales. In 2017, it expects that number to jump to over $100 million.
Leaders attribute that success to the careful selection of projects, talented staff and their ongoing training, and the company’s dedication to quality above all else.
“A project always needs to “suit to us,” says Antonio Monserrat, sales engineer for Seele, Inc. “That means there should be a special kind of design, maybe a design which hasn’t been realized yet anywhere else, or there are other special requirements concerning logistics, climate on-site, structural engineering, etc. There is always something special about our projects.”
Project teams must be aligned, as well.
“Focusing on the right project, where you know every project participant, is our magic formula to avoid compromises all along the line on quality or on time, the combination of both, [or running] into something you can’t control,” Steinhuelb says.
That formula has paved the way for Seele’s next few years, and Steinhuelb says Seele will continue on the path it’s been walking, while keeping an eye out for the next right fit. He has an air of gracious optimism.
“We can’t unlink ourselves from the economy, and we all know that 2008, 2009, 2010 have been difficult years,” he says. “At the same time, we are blessed that we have good clients. We are blessed that there are architects out there, general contractors out there that want to work with us, with or without the economy.”
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