Two words keep coming up when Glenn Parvin, owner of Custom Architectural Sheetmetal Specialists Inc., talks about Detroit’s new Little Caesars Arena: “passion project.”

It’s shown on the shirts his employees wear to the job site imprinted with “Arena Team 2017” and “25-year Detroit-based original.” It’s shown on the Detroit Red Wings stickers on their toolboxes and hard hats. These sheet metal workers are proud to build the new home of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons.

Colm Foley, a third-year apprentice at Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 in Detroit, has been a Red Wings fan his entire life. And this year, he’s installing the custom panels on the many angles of the arena’s exterior. He says his work is a job the city and the nation will see. This is work his grandchildren will see.

“It’s a pride thing, for sure, because of the team and how it looks,” Foley says. “It’s just a really cool project to be a part of. Everyone is pretty proud of it.”

Typically as an apprentice, Foley and his fellow students are the only ones learning on a job site. But because the $863 million new Little Caesars Arena is unique in design for the area, experienced veterans are learning right beside the students.

More than 800 versa wall panels, made of structural steel and laminated foam panel by Centria and fabricated by Crown Corr, were interlocked and installed by use of a rail system in a left grid pattern.

The jewel-shaped, 650,000-square-foot building has many inverted and angled surfaces, making for creative, yet safe, uses of aerial lifts, man lifts and scaffolding, Parvin says.

“It’s a cool thing to work where everyone has a clean slate, so everyone’s ideas are welcome,” Foley adds. Panels are labeled with letters and numbers, so they have a specific position on the exterior. 


“I like that you get to see what you’re doing,” he says. “I wouldn’t like putting HVAC duct up just to cover it with drywall. It’s good to make people ooh and aah when you’re done with it.”

Parvin says he knew this was a special project from the beginning, creating custom T-shirts and giving  pep talks to the crew. More than 1,000 tradespeople are working on the site daily, Parvin said.

Fun aside, there is a deadline to meet, as he acknowledged in an interview last summer.

“The Red Wings (played) hockey (here) in September, and everybody has to bring their ‘A’ game. There is no saying, ‘We didn’t quite make it.’ There is no delay,” Parvin says in an interview a few months before the arena’s opening. “This is an extremely specialized job, and you will have to do what is necessary, work the hours necessary.”

He doesn’t have to push hard, he adds.

“We are putting people out there who want to excel,” he says. “Everyone in the company thinks it’s cool to be working on the arena.”

The Little Caesars Arena is one of a handful of professional athletic stadiums or arenas currently under construction or recently completed by sheet metal workers, including new stadiums for the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Bucks and renovations of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, and the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, home to the Miami Dolphins. Work also is on the horizon in Las Vegas for the NFL Raiders practice facilities and a new stadium.

In demand

“These stadiums and arenas are passion projects for sure, but they’re also part of a surge in architectural sheet metal across the country,” said Dan McCallum, architectural sheet metal specialist for the International Training Institute, the education arm of SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. “With the economy improving, more projects like these, including commercial buildings, high-rises and the like, are coming online, which is good for workers and contractors as well as their communities.” 

More than 14,000 apprentices are registered at over 150 training facilities across the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by SMART, formerly the Sheet Metal Workers union, and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.

The Virginia-based institute supports apprenticeship and career training for union workers in the sheet metal, HVAC, and testing, adjusting and balancing industry throughout North America. The ITI develops and produces the union’s sheet metal curriculum. 

Architectural work in demand as training, contractors rush to keep up   

With sports arenas, parks and stadiums — along with traditional high-rises, medical facilities and industrial campuses — currently in development or under construction across the country, architectural sheet metal contractors are busy.

From new projects to renovations and historical restorations, many architectural contractors need skilled workers to complete projects. A focus on training and an inner push to educate sheet metal workers about one of the earliest specialties of their craft, is fueling a rush to keep up with demand.

“Overall, the architectural sheet metal industry is very strong,” said Dan McCallum, architectural specialist for the International Training Institute, the education arm of the union sheet metal and HVAC industry. “What is driving the industry is performance-based product systems that deal with energy and fire codes.”

Major cities are seeing an uptick in work using exterior cladding systems, metal roofing, insulated metal panels and wall cladding systems that use aluminum composite materials, McCallum said.

A recently published study notes these trends. “United States Insulated Metal Panels Market 2016 Industry, Analysis, Research, Share, Growth, Sales, Trends, Supply, Forecast to 2021” provides a basic overview of the insulated metal panels industry and focuses on 11 manufacturers in the United States. The report states the market is expected to reach about $1.1 billion by 2021, up from $850 million in 2016.

A separate study published on www.Marketsand, “Aluminum Composite Panels Market by Coating Base, Type, Application, Composition and Region — Global Forecast to 2021,” found the aluminum composite panels market size is estimated to grow globally from $1.22 billion in 2015 to $177 billion by 2021.

Although these studies illustrate the growth of aluminum composite panels and insulated wall panels, they’re not the only cause. There is a need for this work in an already growing specialty.

“With a large departure of retirees, there are more skilled workers leaving the industry than coming in,” McCallum said. “Contractors and manufacturers are looking for a skilled work force not to just replenish, but to add workers.”

To meet the demand, the ITI is enhancing the architectural curriculum currently taught at more than 150 schools across the country by bringing instructors up to date on new systems and technologies, so they can pass it onto to members at their home locals. This year, instructors participated in metal roofing . In spring 2018, instructors will learn about metal composite material wall panels in Philadelphia.

As one of the most visual aspects of the trade, architectural sheet metal allows workers to point it out to their children and their grandchildren and say, “I did that.” 


This article and its images were supplied by the International Training Institute. For reprints, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email