The Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in Wisconsin is a well-respected university that’s located in the downtown area. When school officials wanted highly visible identity signage featuring their square logo (white M-S-O-E letters over a red background) built and installed onto two sides of a high-rise apartment building on campus, it required “engineering” a relationship with the right sign company.
The school had already used a few sign manufacturers for prior projects, but for this one, officials wanted to find a sign contractor that better understood their specific design intent: a durable, illuminated cabinet complementing the campus and its surrounding area (theater district, Lake Michigan, etc.) with a “crisp” and “clean” appearance around the perimeter of the cabinet.
Upon learning about this project, custom sign manufacturer Sign Effectz, Inc. (www.signeffectz.com), recognized that their skill sets would be perfect and placed a bid.
The full-service company prides itself on “blending creativity with technology” for its range of visually effective and highly durable interior and exterior signage (identity, channel letters, monuments, etc.) “In the process of research for this then-potential project, [we] specifically offered a frameless design approach to their proposed illuminated logo cabinets,” says Adam Brown, president of Sign Effectz.
Brown explains the frameless approach they devised as there being no opaque retainer on the face of the sign itself. “It’s actually bordered by the building,” he says.
With the frameless cabinet solution matching well with their design intent—as well as understanding that Sign Effectz was familiar with projects of this size and scale—the MSOE made the offer to proceed with shop designs, and the project continued to grow from there.
Two complete sign packages were constructed in a period of roughly sixty days. The signs are two separate pieces: (1.) White M-S-O-E letters on a red background, and (2.) white “University” letters on a black background.
Every piece of this sign was built in-shop by Sign Effectz at the same time—the letters, the panels, the cabinet, etc. This required the company to allocate resources to run parallel workflow processes simultaneously (such as painting channel letters while wiring LEDs).
The cabinet and channel letters are both internally illuminated. “We used Sylvania LEDs in both applications,” says Brown, “as well as thirty-two remote location Advance power supplies for both the channel letters and cabinet LEDs.” Brown (Note: The population of the LEDs within the letters and the cabinet was done in-house via an AutoCAD program.)
A fair amount of the assembly had to be done on-site, due to the logistics of the shipping and the sizes of the sign.
The faces for the signs were built first, then the two-piece flex face frames were assembled. Sylvania LEDs were mounted to a grid on the face frame, and the flex face was installed onto a 16-by-16-foot cabinet with Sign Comp extrusions.
Sign Effectz applied Matthews Acrylic Polyurethane Paint to the inside and outside of the channel letters.
The welded fourteen-foot-tall channel letters were then mounted over Cooley-Brite® flex face pre-colored eradicable material using support brackets that Sign Effectz custom-made. These brackets supported the channel letters where they mate with the flex face material and create mounting plates. “The flex face material has no structural support,” says Brown, “and the brackets served as a mount structure for the letters.”
The mounting plates were attached to the reinforced flex frame. They were then placed on the backside of the fabric and the letters mounted to the first surface (front side of the fabric), sandwiching the fabric between the mounting plate and the letter backs.
Next LEDs were placed inside the channel letters via a peel-and-stick method, along with a mechanical screw fastener (where needed).
All LEDs were pre-wired and compiled into a fifty-foot umbilical-style power feed. “Ten-gauge wires feed the LEDs from the power supplies, to deter voltage loss,” says Brown, noting this was recommended by the LED manufacturer.
The polycarbonate faces were then installed onto channel letters using two-inch trimcap glued with LORD adhesives designed for polycarbonate material. “They were also screwed to the aluminum return every six inches for a mechanical attachment,” says Brown.
The complete face hinge was mounted onto the cabinet, and then the power umbilical was fed through the cabinet.
The cabinets were hoisted into position, and the umbilical was fed further through a pre-drilled hole in the building. “The building’s electrician handled the pre-drilling,” says Brown. “He basically gave us the enclosures and the ports to get the cabling to the remote location for the power supplies.”
Each 16-by-16-foot cabinet and flex face was fabricated in two parts for delivery to the site and modular assembly in the field. The modular sections were delivered via three 8-1/2-by-20-foot flatbed trailers to the site.
Meanwhile channel letters were fabricated in four parts (also for modular assembly reasons).
The sign lift was scheduled to take place between 3am and 9am. To accomplish this, Sign Effectz had to draw up
a detailed installation plan, which included:
Developing a lift plan and calculations for load and set-up location;
Hiring and coordinating two 100-ton mobile crane units;
Devising a street closure plan for downtown Milwaukee, which would allow for traffic to still be active during install (“We included a flag man for traffic direction,” says Brown);
Figuring out plans for a night shift install to accommodate safety requirements and code, especially if the lift was being done over an operating business;
Making sure no person was allowed in the building/business location while the lift was in process; and
Pre-drilling the building for the umbilical power wire to be fed into a remote location.
Brown says that, when planning the install to make sure everything would be finished on time, they gave themselves a two-hour cushion. “We had it all scheduled internally to be installed by seven o’clock in the morning,” he says, “and added built-in time to handle any delays for any one of the steps—crane set-up, sign assembly, rigging, etc.—if the target timeframe wasn’t matched.
“The steps also served as milestones for checkpoints, where one could explain to the crew what the next steps were and when they would need to have the sign assembled, rigged, and hanging.”
Of course, Sign Effectz worked on a similar sign install during daylight hours for a different wall about two days earlier. Being able to do this allowed them to put together a better installation for the nighttime hours portion.
“Each project has somewhat of a learning curve. We wanted our [first go-round] to take place during daylight and without any tight time constraints,” says Brown. “Doing so, we found out how long certain steps took and planned accordingly. That was a big advantage. Those types of freedoms don’t happen on every project.”
Even with the prior experience, there was still a slight difficulty working on the high-rise installation during nighttime hours. “We had high-intensity discharge lights attached to each crane for lighting the install area that were very bright,” says Brown, “yet they made for an effective work zone and a safer area.”
Getting the install crew moving at around two o’clock in the morning was equally challenging, as well. “But once the coffee was in their systems, they were all pumped to get the job done,” says Brown.
According to Brown, coordination was probably the biggest challenge working on this project. It was important that each step of the process—from mechanical design to modular fabrication to shipping logistics—was cohesive.
He credits Mark Lemke, project manager at Sign Effectz, for doing an “awesome” job here. “He really loves this type of work,” says Brown. “He was on-site two hours before anyone else, going over final details and double-checking materials, equipment, etc.”
Sign Effectz took somewhat unique and additional safety measures to comply with requirements to keep their installers and neighbors safe.
“We used radio communications with crane operators and ground personnel for clarity,” says Brown. “We also did a dry run, test flight of the basket with preloaded weights, simulating installer body weights and tools, to ensure that reach, visibility, and load capacity all matched our calculations. Tag lines were attached to the man basket and operated by ground crew to stabilize the basket from erratic movement from winds, etc.
“Each installer was equipped with a body harness, hardhat, safety vest, and safety glasses.”
By Jeff Wooten
All photos: Sign Effectz, Inc.