Alpine's Brakeman Inducted Into Rural Builder's Hall of Fame

Originally published by: Construction MagazineMarch 26, 2016

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Rural Builder magazine inducted three new members to the Rural Builder Hall of Fame at the Frame Building Expo in Indianapolis on March 11. Named to the Hall of Fame for 2016 were David Brakeman, Alpine / ITW Company; Michael Brugger, Ohio State University; and Jim Simon, Tailored Building Systems, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

David Brakeman
Engineering Director/Vice President, 
Alpine, an ITW Company

Physics and architecture captured the interest of Ohio native David Brakeman as a young man, but it was construction and engineering that ultimately captured his soul.

Originally from the Central Ohio community of Granville, Brakeman moved to Lawrence University, Wisconsin to study physics. “My first undergraduate degree was in physics, but I figured out that I didn’t want to go to graduate school for physics because I knew the employment opportunities were scarce,” he said. Instead he gravitated towards architecture.

“I was always interested in buildings, construction. I thought maybe I wanted to be an architect, so I explored that when I was a student at Lawrence University. I spent my junior year in New York City at an architectural institute, but I met a structural engineer there … I figured out right then that, no I was more interested in the engineering side of building than I was the architectural side.”

Armed with a physics degree but a new mission, Brakeman moved on to Washington University at St. Louis to study civil engineering. He also started working part-time for Lumbermate Company, a manufacturer of metal connector plates for wood trusses.

His work with Lumbermate—designing and testing wood trusses—was a good fit, so good that he essentially remains at the same company today.

“Alpine acquired Lumbermate in 1989,” he explained. The Lumbermate name disappeared, but his work continued under the Alpine Engineered Products brand. Today Alpine is owned by ITW Building Components Group.

Part of what Brakeman enjoys is being part of a niche business. “You need to get pretty good in some area to do well in the industry, whether it’s steel or concrete or wood… and engineering with wood is a bit of a niche. It’s rare even to find civil engineering graduates who’ve had a course in wood engineering so I liked being able to be an expert in something that most weren’t.”

His expertise was in demand at Washington University, his alma mater, and for 23 years he was an adjunct professor there teaching classes in design of timber structures. “I was a little leery at first because everybody in the course was older than I was. They were graduate students and evening students, engineers who were coming back to take this course.”

Looking back over his career, Brakeman said he is proud to have been part of the standards that govern truss plates in the construction industry. “The Truss Plate Institute is the organization that writes the design standards for wood truss construction. So if you want to engineer a wood truss, then you have to follow the standard. It’s referenced in the Building Codes as TPI-1.”

Brakeman has chaired the TPI committee through three cycles.

During his tenure, the organization also established the HIB-98 Post Frame Summary Sheet, a warning guide governing the handling, installing and bracing of metal plate connected wood trusses used in post-frame construction, the forerunner of today’s BCSI-B10.

Brakeman also served as a member of the Technology and Research Committee for the National Frame Building Association, and during that time authored or coauthored a number of papers.

Even on the job, Brakeman’s work has helped to advance the post-frame industry as a whole.

“My company and myself have intersected a lot with the post-frame industry in the testing that we’ve done, testing some of those big trusses,” he noted. “Very few people have the equipment to do that, testing 50- and 60-foot roof trusses.”

While much of the work is proprietary, the knowledge gained “has worked its way into the standards,” helping to push the industry from conventional 2 foot on center to 8 foot on center construction.

“What I think our biggest contribution has been is in keeping [post frame] on a solid technical foundation to where now you see post frame used for virtually any kind of building, any kind of purpose: commercial, residential, institutional, not just ag,” he said.

Though still heavily involved in his career, Brakeman enjoys spending time with his wife, Nancy, their four kids and two grandchildren, and when time allows noncompetitive, endurance cycling.


Michael Brugger
Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University, Wooster, Ohio

You never know what might inspire a kid. For Michael Brugger it was his dad and a printed flyer from his high school guidance counselor.

“I was raised on a small dairy farm outside of Westfield, Pennsylvania, and had a dad who was very good with construction,” he said. “My high school guidance counselor introduced me to the agricultural engineering profession when she received a flyer on a New Holland Scholarship for Agricultural Engineering. That started me down the road of an agricultural engineer who focused on structures and environment.”

Awarded one of those New Holland scholarships, he pursued bachelor and master degrees in agricultural engineering at Pennsylvania State University then moved to the University of Wisconsin – Madison for his doctorate.

“While an Extension Specialist at the University of Wisconsin, I worked with Robert Graves (Rural Builder Hall of Fame – 2000) on starting educational programs for rural builders and equipment suppliers,” he said. “The meetings led to the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Frame Building Association.”

Brugger also helped to establish the Ohio Chapter of the NFBA. Both chapters are among the most vibrant yet today.

Brugger moved to Ohio in 1979 to work in the Agricultural Engineering Department at the Ohio State University. “I taught the agricultural structures course which included facilities design and wood structural design and spent the balance of my time in extension,” he said.

Education for rural builders has remained paramount for Brugger. Readers may recognize him as a former Frame Building Expo speaker, but Brugger considers education a two-way street. It was by working together with builders and farmers that he identifies one of the greatest achievements of his career.

“The biggest achievement was going to the curtains for dairy freestall barns,” he explained. “This happened when working with a dairy farmer to design a replacement for a barn that burned. I and others had been looking at economical ways to improve the openings in the sidewalls and still close them up in winter.”

While on a drive to the farmer’s property, Brugger and the builder discussed the idea of curtains, which were being used for poultry barns in the South. “We discussed a 4-foot high opening with curtains … and [the farmer] agreed to it. He was very happy and the cows were very healthy. The second curtain that was installed was 6 foot. It was not long before the entire sidewalls were curtains.

“I worked with many farmers following an approach that I can say is conscious compromise,” Brugger said, suggesting for anyone entering the industry today it pays to “work with your clients.”

He continued: “I like to start with defining what the building objectives are and what is required to achieve them. Once this has been fully defined, then we look at what they have and how it fits into the plan and how future plans will fit into the initial plans,” he explained.

It can have some peculiar but effective results.

“An interesting example was when I worked with a farmer who wanted to start milking. He had an old tie stall barn. His main question was how to put an upright silo [beside] the barn. After discussion and planning, he put the silo in the middle of a field. All his neighbors thought him crazy. A couple of years later, he had the money to build the freestall barn and milking center around the silo. Neighbors wonder how he did that.”

Although Brugger is now retired from the Ohio State University, he continues to work part-time for two Ohio engineering firms and serves as needed for an Arkansas engineering firm. The future of post-frame is important to him. “I am working with a young engineer at one firm to assure that there continues to be engineers who can do post-frame design,” he said.

He plans to fully retire in a couple years but in the meantime still enjoys helping others make informed decisions for their building plans.

In his spare time Brugger enjoys photography and amateur radio. He is currently the Wayne County Emergency Coordinator for the Wayne County Amateur Radio Emergency Service in Ohio.

He and his wife, Jean, have three grown children: a daughter and two sons.


Jim Simon
President, Tailored Building Systems
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Interested in putting things together, Jim Simon started down the road to his future career in construction while in high school. At every opportunity he learned about the trade, and discovered his greatest talent was for architectural drafting. He worked part time in all areas of construction, however, from wielding a hammer to wielding carpet and tile tools. He tried his hand at college, but soon discovered that he preferred to learn on the job from the inside out. His path led him to work for a small contractor that did everything from renovation to concrete work.

In 1973, coming home from work frustrated, he answered an ad for a draftsman/estimator for Borkholder Buildings of Michigan. “I’ve been here ever since,” Simon said, noting that the company would become Tailored Building Systems two years after his arrival, and become a division of Pioneer Construction in 1996. Simon worked his way into his current position as president of Tailored in 2005.

Raised in the suburbs, Simon had a lot to learn about post frame, that included his aversion to the term ‘pole barn.’

“When people say pole barn, I cringe,” he said. “There’s nothing round about them and most of them don’t have animals in them, that’s what I tell people.”

Simon has good reason to cringe. The company was building the typical ag post frame when Simon arrived, but it soon evolved into commercial post-frame long before it became the rallying cry of the industry.

“Most of our work is commercial. We still do a good deal of big dairy complexes. We have one guy in our office that does focus only on that, but we’ve evolved from when I started,” he said.

The company added other types of construction, now offering full turnkey projects from conventional wood or steel stud, to brick and block, to pre-engineered steel, to post frame. “Whatever it takes,” Simon noted.

He believes the post-frame industry itself has made significant progress over the years, even while the term ‘pole barn’ remains ingrained in the consumer’s mind. “We’re always trying to raise the bar to be recognized as a comparable tier in construction groups, that we can build anything,” said Simon. “Educating the public is a big thing. By the same token it’s such an ingrained phrase, the old pole barn phrase. Like Kleenex or Crescent Wrench, it stuck.”

Simon never considered changing jobs or careers since arriving at Tailored. “I look forward every day to coming to work,” he said. “I never had a job or position where I’ve dreaded going to work. I’ve enjoyed having that.”

The construction industry has moved away from manual drafting, of course, but Simon still manages his own projects and enjoys the creative aspects of initial project sketching. Much of his time is spent overseeing the drafting engineers, project managers, superintendents and work crews that make up Tailored Building Systems. Over the years, Tailored has garnered at least a half dozen Building of the Year awards from the National Frame Building Association.

Simon has been active in the NFBA for more than 40 years. He is a former chairman of the board and has served several terms on its board of directors. 2016 marks what he says will be his final retirement from the board.

In his spare time, he and his wife, Kendra, the parents of two daughters, enjoy spending time with their five grand kids, all under the age of 3-½ years. “They keep us hopping,” he said. He also enjoys traveling and boating.

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