Sheet metal guru
Sheet metal worker Rachael Kofahl's job is more a mental puzzle than a back breaker, but it involves some man management as well.
Large buildings have to breathe, and since the mass adoption of air conditioning after the Second World War, the technology hasn't changed much: Install heaters and chillers in the basement or the on the roof, and then hundreds of yards of metal ductwork.
"Sheet metal is origami with iron," Rachael Kofahl told me recently over a post-work tea at the Porter Hotel. "We take this flat stock and we create all these complex shapes."
Her knees were dusty from sheetrock debris, and her eye-catching arm tattoo depicted, with nerdy precision, a series of metal fasteners (screws and bolts) used in the job.
People in construction orange might not typically drop into this fancy slice of new Portland, but she seemed comfortable — probably because she was talking about a job she loves.
Kofahl's current job site is just around the corner: the new Multnomah County courthouse, which is rising at the west end the Hawthorne Bridge. We couldn't go inside, but she says that many floors now have carpet and look almost finished. Her crew is making its way upwards, installing ductwork behind walls and above ceilings.
It's a complex job because as just as little money has been spared on wood finishes to make the courtrooms look august and solid, so the air needs to be perfectly conditioned. That means fresh air rising beneath judges' podiums or coming discretely out of the walls of the high-ceilinged rooms — and that's all done with ductwork.
Her team unloads the units from a truck and brings them in the freight elevator on rolling carts to the right floor, lays them out like a puzzle and fits them together. Each part has a sticker identifying it, and workers match it to the plans. When there are missing parts, or there is a clash with another trade (say a sprinkler hose or data cable racer is blocking the way) they have to problem solve and build workarounds. That can mean designing a piece on the spot, having it fabricated and installing it the next day.
Kofahl gained her sheet metal journeyman status in June of 2019 after a five-year apprenticeship. She took a two-year detour into the elevator trade, thinking it would be interesting to build and install elevators. Big mistake.
"Part of the reason I left is about every week someone was getting injured or killed (nationwide)," she told me of the elevator trade. She blames service workers taking short cuts.
"It was excessively dangerous doing the install. And the service work too."
The significant risk for workers is being struck by an elevator or counterweight. Elevators run silently and can strike without warning because people fail to lock them out properly.
"And, there are 1,000 ways to lock it out. They make it easy to lock it out and very complicated to run." However, workers would take too many short cuts for her liking.
Sheet metal is safer
"If we're doing our job right, it's not that dangerous. That's a fact of gravity. You just have to be mindful and don't go dropping things, and lockout your equipment if you're going to be under it."
She appreciates that in her trade you can choose the workshop at General Sheet Metal in Clackamas, folding the zinc-covered steel into parts, or work in the field, installing the ductwork.
Her day starts early, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to get her food and coffee ready. She drives from Gladstone and parks in the public parking structure. There she eats her breakfast in her vehicle.
"If I'm not early, I'm late," she says, meaning "on time" is often not enough. "I like to have a good buffer of time. Because of traffic and site conditions, I like my breakfast to before starting work, to get some sustenance."
The workday starts at 6:30 a.m. with 10 minutes of stretching to classic rock tunes or country – the people's choice – and quick planning meetings.
On Mondays, there's a site-wide safety meeting for the 300 or 400 workers on site, on the third floor of the building. It's a big empty floor, and they use an intercom. One day this will be a seat of power, but for now, it's a huddle of workers.
After dispersing into their trade groups, they go over more safety issues, the needs of the day, and what order in which things must be installed.
"That's an opportunity to request things like what might you need, 'We're running low on screws. We're running low on sealant. This part's missing. We need to reorder it,' that kind of thing."
Right now, there are a dozen workers on the HVAC and mechanical systems. There are another eight doing architectural work on the roof. Other trades install the metalwork from which the stone panels hang. That's a huge responsibility because they must never fall off. They weigh several hundred pounds each — and they're not cheap. Should a stone panel get damaged, finding a perfect match in color and texture proves a headache and caused delays.
She says they could put together a whole semi truck's worth of ductwork in a couple of days. It helps when some of the parts are preassembled at the shop.
The ductwork hangs from a system called Blue Banger. The hangers are set into the concrete when each floor is poured. The system is seismically secure, like everything about this public courthouse, which will have to keep dispensing justice even after a massive earthquake.
It's tiring physical work, but not destructive. There are plenty of jacks and carts for lifting and moving heavy and bulky objects. There's no reason for anyone to injure themselves working, or even get swole.
Kofahl arrived at the new Multnomah County courthouse building when it was at six floors. However, sheet metal work began when they were still digging out the footing of the building and installing underground radon ventilation pipe. She started with the duct install in the basement, where a lot of the large equipment is: air handling units for heating, cooling and filtration. Each floor has its own air handling unit.
As part of her apprenticeship with Local 16, she learned not just assembly, operation and maintenance, but also how to partially design a system.
"I can read the specs of a unit and see what its output will be, and take the square footage of the room and the comfort requirements. And I can go through all those steps to design a system."
She says everyone else learns the theory too, but most don't pursue it.
"Some people love the shop, and they stay in the shop, and some guys are installers…Even though my education is technically over, I am pursuing more certificates with the Fire Life Safety systems for smoke mitigation. In places like hospitals and retirement homes, those systems have to be tested annually or every five years. That takes a special certification test."
There's also commissioning work. That is firing up a new system and calibrating everything, including adjusting dampers and balancing the ductwork to run as designed. With hundreds of dampers per floor, balancing can take weeks. Kofahl is in the running to help on this for the courthouse, and hopes she'll be there until the "bitter end."
It's a slightly higher order of work than installation, but Kofahl is ambitious. She'd also like to be a foreman one day, running the team and making decisions about who should do what jobs.
"I love the construction site. I don't really see myself sitting behind a desk as a manager but being out in the field and solving those problems that we run into, is what I thrive on."
This type of work is not a part of construction where you need to be the big and burly stereotype. In fact, she says, it's useful to have some small people who can squeeze into tight spaces to get things done.
She also dismisses with a laugh the Hollywood idea that you could ever escape from a building by crawling through the ductwork.
"It's a lie. There are screws, and you would be a bloody mess. Sharp, sharp screws." Also, the ducts get smaller and smaller the further they are from the source. You might be able to kick out a screen near the air handling unit, but that's about it.
She gets off at 3 p.m. "I go home and take a shower because construction's dirty." She likes being home by 4 p.m. in Gladstone with her boyfriend. He's a tower crane operator, and they are in high demand in the northwest. For short spells in between jobs at Nike and Intel, they keep him busy driving a forklift or operating an exterior elevator.
The pair are saving up for a house deposit, but they are both loathe to pay $300,000 for a basic bungalow in Gladstone — a property that would have been worth a tenth of that when they were children.
Kofahl got into construction partly for the money. With her botany degree from Oregon State University, she worked for the Forest Service at three different ranger stations and loved the outdoors. The work was scarce though, so she took a job in agribusiness. She found herself at 29 making $17 an hour analyzing plants at genetic engineering company with a grow site (not cannabis) in the Willamette Valley. When Dow Chemical bought the company, her job became more cubicle-based and less attractive.
"I don't like the big chemical corporations and their patents, that's not my thing."
When some told her she could make $18.50 the next day as an apprentice, she went down to the union hall and signed up. She looked at pipefitting but chose sheet metal because she liked that they are a rare trade that manufactures everything they install. Also, she had been talking to the techs at the grow site who were always coming in to fix the hodgepodge of ventilation ducts.
A new Journeymen makes $40.50 an hour "on the books," that is not counting the generous benefits. She had always been relatively handy, helping her dad, a woodworker, around the house fixing light fixtures and toilets and putting siding on the house. Her mother just retired from nursing, and they are both proud of her that she has a job with benefits and a pension. She plans to see out her next 30 years in the sheet metal trade.
Fathers be good to your daughters
Kofahl is alert to sexism and active in some groups that encourage women to get into the trades. However, she doesn't get much trouble at work from men.
"I personally haven't had much (hassle). I think that's a lot to do with my attitude. I'm just not going to take your (hassle). I think I have an air of confidence about me that commands respect. And I also really love what I do. So, I gained the respect of many of my colleagues because they know I'm serious. There is still, sadly, a culture where a woman is a unicorn on site. Everyone freaks out, and it's like, 'We're just here to work. That's all we want to do.' I can do things, and I don't need their help.'"
She said she has been both patronized and sexualized, but it stops pretty quickly.
As for the former, she sees it as just some men's character that they have to offer to help and doesn't take offense. "And you know, some days it's like 'Please, I don't want to carry that heavy thing, be my guest!'" But I am perfectly capable of picking that up you know."
When she was working in elevators, she often had to carry the 300-pound rail pieces. She likes that her manager never says things like "OK guys…and Rachael."
When it comes to sexism, she tries to shut it down with the daughter strategy.
"I love dirty jokes. I love inappropriate jokes, you know, so I'm easy to get along with as far as the crudeness of a job site. But I will help educate when something's not dangerous but detrimental. You know, like, if I hear a group calling each other names that indicate you're a p---y or you're a woman, a sissy girl. I remind them that they're continuing a culture where their daughters are going to have to grow up in as second-class citizens just like I did. Let's not do that, let's not use being female, which is my entire existence, as the most derogatory thing you can call it, you know? I'm not here to change the culture. I like the rough and tumble and the dirty and the attitude. But just elevate the consciousness."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Subscribe to our E-News
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.