by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue.
When some look at a historic building, it is with appreciation for its craftsmanship or with visions of the events its walls have witnessed.
When Jeff Erdly views such a building, it is with keen knowledge of how it was constructed, how it breathes and how it ages. He sees the intimate details of its architecture, the traits of its materials and the effects of time.
His work mixes history, craftsmanship and a great deal of science.
"Everything that man constructs – everything that is organic – degrades with time,"explains Erdly, CEO and co-founder of Masonry Preservation Services Inc.
The concept is simple. Not as simple is Erdly’s work to stall nature’s relentless advances.
"It is amazing how much we focus on how much things cost versus how well they perform over the long term."
With technical expertise, he has helped to preserve the faces of some of the East Coast’s most stately buildings.
His portfolio includes Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater, where his company performed repairs and restoration; the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro, N.C., one of the nation’s early skyscrapers; the Pennsylvania Capitol building, where the company determined where water – observed since 1950 – was entering the building and restored the deck below its dome; and, among his favorites, restoration of the iconic smokestack tower at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg – work that he calls "a world-class project"and that was named 2010 Historic Restoration Project of the Year by Masonry Construction magazine.
At Wyoming Seminary Preparatory School, Masonry Preservation Services restored buildings that have been used as dormitories since before the Civil War and are recorded in the National Register of Historic Places.
"The structures are nearly 170 years old,"Erdly said. "The work we did will take them well into the third century."
Following the extensive restoration – which garnered numerous awards – the buildings not only are testaments to the campus’s long history, but are also warm and comfortable spaces for the school’s stories to continue unfolding.
"That architecture becomes the essence of the institution,"Erdly said. "It makes me happy to think we had a part in that."
Erdly’s company also provides inspection and maintenance for younger facades, and his work grows more challenging as the "state of the art"advances.
Some of the world’s most glorious constructions – Egyptian pyramids or Greek temples, for example – stood their ground for centuries. But those, Erdly points out, were built of massive blocks.
"Today, you take limited resources and try to make buildings lighter and thinner,"he said. "You add heating and cooling, and you put people inside.
"Not only do you have the rain outside, but you have human beings inside, and they give off a lot of moisture. Humidity travels in both directions. Brick absorbs a lot of moisture, and if it comes in, you have to take it back out."
When you don’t, materials deteriorate, even crack. When brick and mortar crack, further damage threatens.
Few have Erdly’s intimate knowledge of how these processes work and how, like a physician, to diagnose and repair the damage. Those who do are, with Erdly, at the top of the field – renowned architects and engineers with advanced degrees and with whom Erdly has edited three compilation books on the field’s latest advances.
Yet, he says, "My total education is a two-year certificate – not even an associate degree from WACC. Which is the deal of the century when you consider what I paid."
Erdly knows well that humble beginnings are just that: beginnings. Growing up, he watched his father, Carl, make the best of his sixth-grade education while supporting a wife and five children.
A lineman for Pennsylvania Power & Light (now PPL Electric Utilities), Carl Erdly eventually earned a managerial position.
"He was a well-read, self-educated man,"said Erdly, who endowed a Penn College scholarship in his parents’ memory in 2008, helping students for generations to come to receive the higher education his parents could not.
In 1970, ingrained with his father’s initiative, 18-year-old Erdly enrolled in WACC’s engineering drafting major and took a full-time, evening job with Turbotville Block Co. to pay his tuition.
"I did that because I wanted a chance to be more successful in my life,"Erdly explained.
"I had one instructor who knew how many hours I was working and graded me on projects I was doing for work instead of class projects,"he said. At work, he designed structural concrete members for large buildings.
At graduation, many of his classmates moved to Rochester, N.Y., to work for Eastman Kodak, or to Virginia to work for Newport News Shipbuilding (which still recruits Penn College students). But Erdly chose to remain with Turbotville Block Co., where he eventually became plant manager for the pre-stress division.
Craving room to grow, Erdly left the block company in 1978, sold cars for nine months to support his "two babies at home,"and in November 1979, he was hired by a Buffalo, N.Y.-based firm that had an office in Berwick. The company worked in preserving building envelopes.
There, he absorbed the workings of building preservation, observing technical advances and picturing how he could help the company improve its practices.
Striking out on his own
"I went to my manager and said, ’We could do so much better,’"Erdly recalled.
He was told, in short, that the company was already better than its competitors, that the management was happy with the level of his work, and that he should stop making waves.
On his way home from that Buffalo meeting, in a shop at the old Pittsburgh Airport terminal, Erdly spotted a book: "How to Start, Build and Finance Your Own Business."
The price tag was $19.
"That was about two weeks’ worth of walking-around money for me,"said Erdly, who was raising his children as a single father.
"And I bought it. I still have it – it has hundreds of sticky notes, and it’s dog-eared."
He wrote a business plan, shared it with two of his colleagues who said, "Me, too,"and incorporated Masonry Preservation Services in 1985. He later bought the partners out.
Cost versus value
Erdly’s business philosophy doesn’t typically mesh well with the competitive, "low-bid"environment he works in.
"It is amazing how much we focus on how much things cost versus how well they perform over the long term,"Erdly said.
He explains his business approach: "First, do excellent work. Second, bring the best technical knowledge of the day to the table. … Our focus has always been to be the very best technically and ethically. I am always conscious about whether our employees have health care and whether they make enough to send their kids to college. If you live in a low-bid world, that’s not going to give you the lowest price."
He acknowledges that many would say it’s reasonable to sacrifice quality or employee benefits to ensure a competitive price.
"I just can’t be part of that,"he said
A man whose business is preserving a prior generation’s workmanship, its tangible mark on the world, for future generations, he has a different perspective on "value."
"It doesn’t matter how good it looks the day after it’s done,"Erdly said. "How does it look 10 years later?"
In conjunction with the college’s Centennial, Pennsylvania College of Technology is in the midst of a campaign to raise money for student scholarships.
To support the Penn College Scholarship Campaign, donors are invited to establish a new, named scholarship or contribute to an existing scholarship fund or the Penn College General Scholarship Fund. Call toll-free 1-866-GIVE-2-PC or visit oca.pct.edu/giving.
Your gift to an existing scholarship fund will be a tribute to the individual, family or business that originally established the scholarship. In addition, your gift will help that scholarship fund grow and ensure that it will continue to help students pursue "degrees that work."