Five RWU Alumni Collaborate to Build and Design the Steel Yard Super Studio
RWU Construction Management and Architecture alumni played key roles in renovating and restoring a historic steel fabrication building to meet modern safety and accessibility standards for The Steel Yard, a Providence industrial arts nonprofit organization
Providence, R.I. A shower of red sparks fly behind the welding curtain. Ceramics artists blast Modest Mouse songs as they work. A young woman uses ancient techniques to complete her blacksmithing project.
It’s a November Tuesday at the Steel Yard, a Providence nonprofit industrial arts center. Just one year ago at this time the Steel Yard would have been quiet and still. Now, for the first time since opening their doors in 2010, the Steel Yard is operational year-round thanks to an extensive restoration project.
A functional and accessible renovation of a historic steel fabrication building on a nonprofit budget presented unique challenges. Local businesses Building Enclosure Science, KITE Architects and Trac Builders took on the task. One day, as professionals from each business gathered to collaborate, they realized they had more in common than just their work.
“We were sitting around the table and Brigida said she was a recent RWU graduate and then half the table said, ‘I’m an RWU grad too!’ It was a very Rhode Island moment,” said Howie Sneider, Executive Director of the Steel Yard.
Robert Carlson ’08, Director of Operations at Building Enclosure Science, Kyle Bamrick ’03 and Brigida Capicotto ’18, Associates at KITE Architects, Bill Tracy ’00, President and Owner of Trac Builders, and Jason Vautour ’99, Project Manager at Trac Builders are all Roger Williams University Alumni.
“I was surprised and not surprised,” said Tracy, remembering the moment the team realized their RWU connections. “It just seems like so many people in construction management, architecture or preservation in this area are from Roger Williams. I think the programs do a good job at really preparing the students for real-world challenges. They get them out in the field quite a bit and you can see it in the caliber of the students that Roger Williams is producing.”
The Steel Yard Super Studio project did, indeed, present a real-world challenge. The Steel Yard, which provides artist space, education, workforce training programs and functional public arts projects to the Rhode Island community, had reached its capacity. All of their programs were full throughout the spring, summer, and fall, yet they had to shut down operations each winter due to a lack of heat in the building. On top of this major issue, the building needed structural reinforcement and accessibility upgrades.
“It was a 100-year-old building that was starting to look and feel like a 100-year-old building. We wanted to bring utilities, safety, and programming up to contemporary standards,” said Sneider.
The Steel Yard operates a steel fabrication studio out of a historic steel fabrication building. This unique history offers charm and community resonance but made construction difficult.
“When the contractors started doing a lot of the excavation they found a hodge-podge of structures that had been modified along the way. It’s an old steel yard so the people who used to work here had the equipment and knowledge to modify the building as they went. There were a lot of one-off or atypical conditions,” explained Bamrick.
Communication, creativity and collaboration were essential for the team to work with these conditions. Carlson recalled the push to complete the project on time, with a class of high school students scheduled to learn jewelry making, ceramics, and welding in August of 2019.
“If the building wasn’t complete and they had to cancel the program, that affects the Steel Yard’s bottom line. We cared about their budget, and we thought, ‘Here is a group of young women that want to learn these skills.’ We had to finish on time,” said Carlson.
With a great push of effort from all involved, the Super Studio was ready for action just days before the scheduled high school programming.
The team applied principles of sustainability, design, accessibility, functionality and historic preservation to creating the finished product. Working together, they were able to work with the Steel Yard’s unique conditions to finish on time and on budget.
“All of the team brought a lot of organizational and meeting facilitation skills and were able to talk through stuff. I realized that must be part of the curriculum at Roger Williams and it’s super helpful to us,” said Sneider.
Bamrick credited the project’s success to the team’s collaboration and the thorough training involved in RWU’s programs.
“I think what prepared me, and what I see in a lot of myself and some of my other colleagues and alumni, is that Roger Williams provides a really great well-rounded and balanced education,” Bamrick said. “You get to experience design, history and theory of architecture. There are really great programs for the technical aspects, for detailing, materials and methods. I think I was able to come out of school and really hit the ground running. I felt like I had an advantage because I had such a well-balanced understanding of the profession when I graduated.”
Now, the Steel Yard Super Studio is open and thriving. The building is weather-tight, ADA accessible, and ready to stand for another 100 years. Sneider reports that programming continues to be in high demand, and that the Steel Yard is grateful to all who worked on the Super Studio project.
The building and design teams are also grateful to have been involved with an organization dedicated to serving industrial arts and artists in the community.
“I think it’s a great community asset and we were thrilled to have been selected and to be able to contribute to it. That is what we feel best about,” said Tracy.