Staff Profile One of a ten-part series.
Read the Intro here with links to the entire series. Read Act One here. Read Interlude One here. Read Act Two here. Read Interlude Two here. Read Act Three here. Read Interlude Three here. Read Act Four here.
Members of the International Union of Operating Engineers can be found in tower cranes and drill rigs, working things that push, pull, pump and lift in locations ranging from construction sites to nuclear power plants. They also operate the boilers at the Fine Arts Building.
Engineer Marcin Krol credits school holidays for his interest in hands-on work. Sent by his mother to spend holidays at his grandparents’ farm outside his hometown of Lublin, Poland, Krol watched in awe as his grandfather, a farrier and “a proper blacksmith,” drilled, welded, heated and hammered metal.
“Don’t tell Grandma,” said Grandpa, as young Marcin entertained himself by plunging white-hot scrap metal into the water bucket for the thrilling hiss and billow of steam.
After coming to America in 2002 at age twenty-four, Krol first worked construction, “like every Polish guy,” then went to a specialty lighting company but found the desk job boring. Things got better when the company put him to work in the field, installing devices that cleaned and disinfected 3D glasses in movie theaters—he once worked on the USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi—but there was still too much desk work.
Fortunately, his father-in-law worked for Berger Realty as a building engineer at 40 East Oak Street and was friendly with Bob Berger, who encouraged Krol to interview at the Fine Arts Building.
Krol got the job and a new name when the hiring manager struggled to pronounce Marcin (Mar CHEEN) and called him “Martin.” In the eleven years since, he’s been Martin or Marty at work.
Taken under the wing of head engineer Rick Zambuto, Krol joined IUOE Local 399 and began balancing work and school as he learned his new trade, starting with classes in boiler operations, electrical work, commercial heating and cooling, plumbing, and energy conservation at the union hall on the west side of Chinatown. He’s since taken nearly thirty classes and seminars (he is a state-licensed swimming-pool operator, among other things) and is only a few credit hours short of earning his Facilities Engineering Technology Associate of Applied Science degree. He plans to pursue a master’s degree at IIT, “if my brain still works.”
“It’s a long road, there’s lots of learning,” he says appreciatively.
On a typical day, Zambuto arrives at 6am, followed at hour intervals by apprentice Mario Simic and then Krol. The team examines the equipment in the basement and on the roof, taking readings, checking filters, and performing predictive maintenance. Then they walk the building.
“All the senses are working,” says Krol. “You pay attention not only with your eyes, but listen, smell, and see if something is up.”
There’s always something to do: work orders, repairs, equipment upgrades. Working mostly out of sight, they rarely see tenants. In the cooling season, they repair the heating system; heating season is the busy time of the year, and the heating system is where the operating engineers of the Fine Arts Building really earn their pay. It may not be a nuclear reactor, but the boilers are dangerous if not properly handled. When water hits a hot, dry boiler, it expands so rapidly that it explodes.
“You could say that we operate two bombs in the basement that are accidentally cooking water,” Krol says with a laugh.
Krol knows his history, explaining that the term “stationary engineer” goes back to the days when sawmills, power plants, and factories were powered by steam engines mounted to the floor. In the 1800s, before safety was standard, a boiler blew up somewhere in the United States every thirty-six hours. He cites the explosion of the steamboat “Sultana” on the Mississippi river in 1865, which remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history with 1,167 fatalities.
Fortunately, modern training has made such calamities largely a thing of the past. (The boilers themselves are not historic; the old Kewanees were taken out in 2007 and replaced with cast-iron Smiths.)
Keeping an 1885 building in working order requires not only dedication but detective work. Some old gas lines in the walls have been used to pull electrical wiring, leading Krol to believe the building was first lit by gas lamps.
After digging up an original patent (#971070) and other materials, he deduced that the building once had a Paul Steam System, an innovative application whose efficiency had been hampered by years of misguided repairs. When it’s working properly, vacuum pumps in the basement suck air out of the pipes, drawing steam from the boilers to the radiators with astonishing speed. Krol and his colleagues are working to restore the system as much as missing parts and buried pipes allow.
“I don’t think it’s just a job for me,” he muses. “It’s time travel, too. I come in and look at these things, some hands in the late 1800s put it together. They didn’t have the awesome tools we have now, so it’s even more impressive. I marvel at it. It’s beautiful.”
Engineers in most Chicago high-rises sit in control rooms and monitor banks of video screens, only putting their hands on computer mice. When something goes wrong, they call an outside mechanical company.
Krol shudders at the thought. He prefers to have the tools to repair things himself—it’s quicker and easier, after all.
He fixes little things. The glass globes labeled “Up” and “Down” above the elevators? None are original, victims of ladders and broomsticks. Krol ordered replacements and frosted the glass himself in a sandblasting cabinet.
He also fixes big things. In February 2014, a fan venting carbon dioxide failed and the boiler shut down. With temperatures dropping, the biggest danger to the Fine Arts Building was flooding: if the tenth-floor sprinkler lines froze, the pipes would burst, and the leaks would activate the system, pumping 650 gallons per minute into studios filled with priceless violins and art. The engineers worked thirty-seven hours straight through conditions so miserable and dangerous they had to salt the rooftop to ensure safe footing while they disassembled and rewired the motor.
“I love it when there’s something difficult to do,” Krol says. “And when you take a step back, you’re tired, you’re dirty—but when you put something together and it works it’s a fantastic feeling.”
During the filming of the infamous “Chicago Fire” episode, Krol, Zambuto and Simic were standing by as the handsome actor playing a building engineer—“a young guy in a wonderful uniform,” notes Krol—did a couple of pushups to get pumped up before the director said, “Action!” When the actor playing an engineer delivered his line to the actors playing firefighters—“I’ve never seen the system acting up like this!”—the real engineers laughed so loud they ruined the take. They were politely asked to leave the set.
The reason the men laughed? The manually operated elevators are the oldest working machinery in the building. When they act up in real life, the engineers move the electrical contacts on the motors with a pair of wooden broomsticks.
“That’s ‘the system,’” says Krol. “It was kind of funny but they didn’t approve of our sense of humor. Guys, please.”