Even before terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into the Pentagon building outside Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, Bybee Stone Company had already worked on several projects atthe headquarters of the US military. When efforts to rebuild the Pentagon were put on a fast track, Bybee’s existing relationships and its unique skill set helped it become the cut-limestone supplier for the project.
“We were right there, already on site, and Masonry Arts knew we could do the work and recommended us for the project,” says Will Bybee, president of the Ellettsville, Indiana–based company. As it turned out, Bybee also happened to be one of very few stone-cutting companies that could replicate the kind of finish found on the original Pentagon stone work.
To Will Bybee, whose great-grandfather started the family tradition of working in the stone business and whose father purchased the mill and surrounding property—once known as Matthew’s Mill—that formed Bybee Stone in 1979, the Pentagon project is just one of many in a portfolio of high-profile projects in a host of construction settings, from government and institutional to high-end residential.
“We’re capable of doing the largest projects in terms of volume and of doing very intricate carving and fine detail work,” he says. “We utilize very traditional equipment and highly skilled labor to do what we’ve been doing for a lot of years.”
Bybee operates a mill capable of producing more than10,000 cubic feet of stone per month in a 50,000-square-foot enclosed facility that allows for year-round work. Traditional machinery includes 80-year-old gang saws dating from the mill’s early years.
Today, Bybee’s work can be found on performing arts centers in Las Vegas, Nashville and Carmel, Indiana; college campuses from the University of Denver and Duke to Harvard and Princeton; and on national landmark buildings such as the US Capitol and the Washington Cathedral. “These are all projects that are very long-lasting in terms of how many years they are going to be around, and our clients expect very high-quality work,” Bybee says. A growing amount of work involves historic restoration—Bybee’s own headquarters building is beingredone and has beennominated for a national historic preservation award—such as the Iowa State Capital, the company’s largest such project to date.
The work reflects a trend that has taken hold in recent years, as the company has benefitted from a rediscovery of sorts among architects and construction firms of the quality and other benefits of Indiana limestone. As a construction material, it is all-natural, a strong natural insulator, and emits no chemicals, helping projects that use it to gain points toward Green Building status through the US Green Building Council’s LEED program. “We’ve got quite a few Gold and Silver projects to our credit over the years,” Bybee notes.
Gold-certified projects Bybee helped make possible include the Prindle Institute for Ethics Building at DePauw University and the Ricketson Law Building at the University of Denver. “Limestone is a product that has a lot of opportunities for reuse and lasts a long, long time.”
While technology at Bybee has been and continues to be aggressively updated, Bybee still uses mainly traditional cutting equipment and highly skilled labor. Bybee has examined the option of automating more of the actual stone-cutting process with CNC machines but has not yet found the technology to be a suitable substitute for manual work done by its workers, though he acknowledges that gains are being made. “For now, we still feel it takes craftsmen; it doesn’t take a computer,” Bybee says. The milling still gets a heavy assist from computer drafting tools and other enhancements, but with as much as eight full truckloads of material leaving the plant weekly, manual work is still a key to the process.
The area near its plant has long been a limestone quarrying and cutting hotbed, and Bybee draws its workforce from that population, with most taking full advantage of the firm’s apprenticeship program to learn the trade. “It’s very rare to have the opportunity to have a trained craftsman walk in and apply for a job,” Bybee says. Part of the reason is the history of the industry, which had its historic peak in the years before and after World War II, when booming cities on the East Coast demanded massive quantities of cut limestone.
New architectural trends and materials innovations in the 1960s and ‘70s began to change that, and with demand down, the once-bustling limestone business shrunk considerably. As demand has picked up again more recently, capacity is not as robust as it once was, helping to create a strong market for highly skilled firms with strong reputations. “Now we’ve come back to a place where there are only so many companies that can deal with big projects,” Bybee says.“We’re among those large firms that can handle high-volume detail work, and we’re very competitive.”
At one point in its history, Bybee quarried its own stone from approximately 50 acres of property at the mill site. “Over time we found the stone to be unacceptable in terms of quality, and we shut down the quarry,” says Bybee. “Now we end up buying our stone, which enables us to get the best quality and the best stone to match whatever project that comes up.”
Bybee also performs circle planing with unlimitedradius,as well as 16-foot panel planing and lathe workcapable of 17-foot lengths and 8-foot diameters. While finished materials used to leave the plant by rail—a siding remains in place—most hauling is now done by truck. Bybee has done work in most of the United States, with a heavy concentration of its product heading to large metropolitan areas east of the Mississippi River.
With each block of limestone weighing in at 145 pounds per cubic foot, safety is a primary concern at the mill, where stone is moved with forklifts and overhead cranes. The workforce of 76 people—down slightly from a recent high of 90—follows OSHA training guidelines as well as additional Bybee training. “This is heavy material traveling on overhead cranes, and if a mishap were to occur, it could be disastrous. These guys have it instilled into them from the day they first walk onto the property and every day thereafter that they have to be safety-conscious.” The plant has operated its entire 31-year history as Bybee Stone without a major accident or workplace death, the company president notes.
“We’re capable of doing the largest projects in terms of volume and of doing very intricate carving and fine detail work. We utilize very traditional equipment and highly skilled labor to do what we’ve been doing for a lot of years”
Alongside safety is an equal emphasis on quality, which Bybee believes is in large part a reflection of the work done to improve communication and coordination among all levels of the company, from the way design and specification drawings are handled by the Bybee Stone Company’s drafting department andall the way through the plant. “Each area has foremen that are responsible for quality control, and at the end of the whole process, when stone is said to be finished, there are someone’s initials on the end to show that it has been checked and complies with our standards.”
Bybee has a small number of local quarries that it works most extensively with, though it has the capacity to handle stone from anywhere, including specialty sources that a customer might bring to a project. While the price of limestone continues to escalate, there is little doubt that there is plenty of supply in the ground. “It has beenestimated that we have 500 to 700 years of raw material to work with at current use rates,” says Bybee.
The Bybee family legacy is already a stone-solid one in the limestone and stone-building industries. The Building Stone Institute now awards the Bybee Prize each year in honor of former company president Dan Bybee, Will’s brother, who died in 2000. The award goes to an individual architect for his or her achievements in designing with limestone. The company also has won its own prizes—beyond the LEED awards mentioned earlier—including Tucker, Prism, and Golden Trowel awards, as well as “body of work” awards such as Classical America’s Arthur Ross Award.