When architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) were sitting down to work on design development for the Sears Tower in the late 1960s, they collaborated with another, smaller operation that has been largely lost to the history books. In a temporary drafting studio in the corner of the corporate offices of the United States Gypsum Co., two staff engineers, two architects from som, and four contractors sat, churning out stacks of drawings of all of the building's partition details, making careful calculations to account for building drift--calculated as 1 foot at the summit. Those were the early days of what was to become a full division of the company now known as USG: architectural and technical solutions, currently headed by Robert Grupe, Jr. A self-proclaimed "generational anomaly," Grupe has worked at usg for 35 of his 54 years. He started with the company as a researcher in 1972, right after graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a B.S. in civil engineering. He became involved with new products as they were developed, then sent out the door, and was "really impressed with the process, from a technical standpoint."
So impressed that he has stayed with USG for more than three decades, holding a series of positions on the technical-support side of the business. The team that he now oversees is made up of registered architects and engineers who specialize in the building science of walls and ceilings. Grupe explains: "I manage an in-house consulting firm, and our clients are architects, contractors, building officials, and even other people at USG." Together, they still serve largely the same purpose those two USG engineers did on the Sears Tower: to help architects navigate the problems that come up in the course of a design as they use various USG products.
That is no small feat, given the ubiquity of those products. The Chicago-based ceiling, floor, and gypsum-wallboard manufacturer--founded in 1902 by a group of 30 independent gypsum rock and plaster manufacturing companies--had 2006 revenue of $5.81 billion, making it one of the largest building-product manufacturers in the world. Drywall may be background material, but it's everywhere. Grupe is as close as most architects will ever get to the source.