By Eric Peterson | May 09, 2022
Salt Lake City, Utah
Metal fabrication services and kinetic architecture elements
Growing up in New York, Lewis had a good background for metal fabrication. "Dad and grandfather were both good craftsmen," he says. "Grandpa had the old-guy woodshop in the basement, tools all perfectly organized. It was kind of a 'wow' moment when you'd go hang out with grandpa in the basement."
Building homes in Park City in the 1990s segued into metal fabrication with Meta Designs, at first out of his 400-square-foot garage. "I was rolling sushi at night and then welding during the day," says Lewis.
Projects at Red Rock Brewery in Park City and the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City earned the company a reputation, then an opportunity presented itself in a kinetic project for the Wasatch House, designed by Seattle-based Olson Kundig. Design Principal Tom Kundig is a leader in kinetic architecture and one of its pioneers.
"There had never been any kinetic architecture in Utah," says Lewis. "Through past work and relationships, the contractor that got the job called me up and said, 'Can you build this?' When you see these plans, it's a machine."
Lewis successfully took on the challenge of fabricating a crank-powered window in the family room that lowers to guardrail height, and that led to about 20 subsequent kinetic projects with Olson Kundig and other architects. About half are hand-cranked or counterweight-powered and half are electric.
"They're all one-of-a-kind inventions that are machines," says Lewis. "Our guys in the shop, we've got fabricators and we've got some machinists, and then you kind of have to be a mechanic to get some of these things built as well."
"It takes a unique individual and a unique skill set, because we're doing architectural metalwork at a finish metalwork level while turning it into a machine."
Meta Designs fabricates at its 12,000-square-foot facility in Salt Lake City using a CNC plasma table, bandsaws, rollers, benders, and other machines, while outsourcing laser cutting, powder coating, and painting.
The company relies on Albina Co. for roll forming, and Kingdon Sheet Metal is a trusted partner for sheet metal and laser cutting. "He turns our laser cutting in a day," says Lewis. "He's our right-hand sheet metal fab shop, a great shop in Salt Lake."
The model is paying off as Meta Designs supplies railings, stairways, and other metalwork to high-end residential builds as well as large commercial projects. "We had a ton of work during COVID," says Lewis. "We're forecasting another 20 to 25 percent growth this year. We've gone from 15 employees a couple of years ago up to 20."
Challenges: "Finding qualified fabricators," says Lewis. "Finding new guys that are qualified in this world, meaning you not only have to be a welder, but your grinds have to be as good as your welds."
Finding certain materials has also been problematic. "We can't get aluminum and we can't get brass," says Lewis, noting that lead times for many raw materials and components had tripled to 18 to 24 weeks.
Opportunities: Most of Meta Designs' projects are in Park City and the Wasatch Front, and the market is booking. "Finding work's not an issue," says Lewis. "Salt Lake is just exploding with building."
Kinetics are a big part of the mix in Utah as well as projects in locales like Jackson Hole and Sun Valley. Kinetic projects represented about 25 percent of the business in 2021, and Lewis sees that number rising to 30 or 40 percent in coming years. "We've got five or six in the funnel coming into design next year," he says. "Kinetics are where we want to grow."
Needs: Employees and space. "At the building we purchased three years ago, we've outgrown the shop," says Lewis, citing plans to build 8,000 more square feet. "We need an addition on the shop. An addition on the shop gives us room for four or five more fabricators."