The exterior "skin" of the $1 billion Vikings stadium starts going up next month.
That reality had forklifts darting across Viracon's sprawling factory in Owatonna on a recent Thursday as workers hustled to finish the 10,000 or so glass panels needed to complete the facade.
The windows — each 5 feet by 9 feet — begin arriving at the stadium's downtown Minneapolis construction site in just two weeks. A 30-person crew from Plymouth-based InterClad will then start bolting the glass onto the stadium structure.
"The property should be fully enclosed by November," said Allen Troshinsky, vice president of operations for Mortenson Construction, the general contractor building the stadium.
"Everything is firing on all cylinders as far as the fabrication and imminent delivery of the glass. And that is important," he said. "It is occurring as it was originally scheduled more than a year ago. So are we happy? Absolutely. This is another milestone."
The fast-growing Viracon, whose parent company is Bloomington-based Apogee Enterprises Inc., is known for making the glass used in such behemoths as Taipei 101 and the One World Trade Center.
While the Vikings project will generate less than $5 million in revenue for the company, it is still a point of pride and "a nice, big, high-profile project and it's in our back yard," said Apogee CEO Joe Puishys. "We are proud that the architects chose to use our glass. Without question, it has added to our growth and our workforce increases here in Owatonna."
Viracon's annual revenue is on pace to grow 12 percent to $930 million for the fiscal 2015 year that ends in March. The company should reach $1 billion in sales for the first time next year, officials said.
It's a strong comeback from the depressing days of the Great Recession, when construction projects largely halted around the globe.
Viracon built its business and reputation on the mirrored, colored and energy-efficient glass covering skyscrapers, the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium and the San Francisco 49ers' stadium, but there were years when its architectural glass business dragged.
But that's yesterday.
"Right now, we have tail winds for the first time since the recession," Puishys said. "This is really the first year where we have had end-market help. By the time the dust settles for calendar 2014, we are looking at 10 percent growth in our end [construction] markets."
New contracts call for Viracon glass in the new Atlanta Falcons stadium in Georgia, the Mall of America addition in Bloomington, 3M's new lab in Maplewood and the new Wells Fargo towers rising next to the Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
The new projects are some of the first to roll out of Viracon's newly expanded factory in Owatonna. With help from the state of Minnesota and the city of Owatonna, Viracon built a $40 million addition last year. It includes a new state-of-the-art machine that applies energy-efficient solar-coating to the glass so it can block UV and infrared rays and keep a structure cool. That new machine stretches the length of the new addition and is getting a workout.
"We now have 1 million square feet of glass — or 300 different buildings worth of glass fabrication — going through here at any one time," said Garret Henson, Viracon's vice president of sales and marketing, as he and Puishys walked through the factory checking on the progress of their high-profile order. "The scale of this particular [Vikings] job is within the top one-third of projects going through here in terms of scale."
When construction is complete, the exterior of the Vikings stadium won't be mirrored. And it won't sport the green or blue tints made popular in the past 20 years.
Instead, it will showcase Viracon's "high-visibility glass, which is clear and neutral so fans can look outside. And when you walk by the stadium, you can see the fans and the scoreboard," Puishys said. "It won't have that highly reflective glare."
It's the latest in building design trends, even if it is "challenging." Mirrored glass more easily blocks summer heat, he said.
Still, the company found a way to make the new glass both energy-efficient and perfectly clear, Puishys said as nearby workers were coating each 200-pound sheet of glass and hauling them in forklifts to the other end of the factory.
There, 12 men were using cranes, rolling conveyors and steering-wheel sized suction cups to shuttle each sheet along an assembly line.
"We are happy to be part of this. We're excited," said Gerardo Fernandez, while he and other workers framed panels, then handed them off for robots to inject argon gas and a silicone seal. Yet more workers smoothed putty on the edges of what was now a glass box and left them to cure for hours.
Fernandez joined Viracon just eight months ago and is one of 300 workers added since the end of 2013.
"At first we added a handful of workers [because of] our new glass coaster. But then with the growth in the construction industry, more people have been added," said Viracon spokeswoman Mary Ann Jackson.
Employment has swelled to 1,500 workers in Owatonna.
That pleases Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA). "The glass has been coming off Viracon's production lines for a couple of weeks now. … Clearly Minnesota companies and Minnesota jobs is what this stadium is all about."
It was the MSFA that decided not to alter the project's glass specifications to accommodate bird lovers who worry that unsuspecting birds will fly right into Viracon's clear windows. Kelm-Helgen ruled in January that changing the glass specifications would cause delays and jack up construction costs — a scenario the state can ill afford. The state is now working with 3M to develop a possible adhesive film that might signal to airborne birds that a structure is present.
Owatonna Mayor Thomas Kuntz isn't mourning the birds just yet, because Viracon's glass has meant job gains and production improvements that greatly benefited his town.
"That Vikings stadium is a big job," Kuntz said. "With the [country's] overall construction gains, they even had to bring their Utah plant back online so they could start meeting demand. They now have a lead time of 18 months, so they do have a lot of things going on. It's great for Owatonna."