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Universal Wallboard is big player in commercial structures

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Posted: Friday, December 14, 2012 6:00 am

If walls could talk, many of them inside Southern Arizona’s biggest and most notable commercial buildings would be whispering the same name — Universal Wallboard Corp.

Those whispering walls include the University of Arizona’s football stadium, the U.S. General Services Administration’s Mariposa Port of Entry at Nogales, the UA’s Stevie Eller Dance Theater at the School of Dance, the Unisource Energy headquarters building in downtown Tucson, the original Biosphere 2 near Oracle and an assortment of hospital, medical, military, college, church, government, casino and hotel facilities.

Universal Wallboard Corp., with its 100-plus employees, is a full-service commercial and residential drywall and metal framing contractor, but the lion’s share of its business these days comes from commercial contracts.

Universal Wallboard was incorporated in 1972 when Joe Wittman Sr. and Robert Hall bought the company and began primarily as a residential drywall contractor. Hall died about 15 years ago and Wittman Sr. became the sole owner of the firm.

“We did a lot of work for Fairfield Green Valley for 22 consecutive years at a time when residential work was 70 percent of our business. But with the latent work defect litigation running through California at that time, our insurance underwriter suggested we concentrate on commercial work and we ended up solely in that area,” Wittman Sr. said.

After starting in rented space, where the company was for 14 years, it is now at 1.5-acre site on 44th Street near the Palo Verde overpass.

“We have a 10,000-square foot building with about 3,500-square feet of office space and the rest warehouse space,” he said. “We also have a fleet of 24 pickup trucks with all our necessary working equipment on them.”

Joe Wittman Jr., operations chief of the firm, said Universal Wallboard has been involved in a number of high-visibility jobs.

“We’ve worked from the New Mexico border to Yuma, and from the Mexican border up to Casa Grande,” he said. “Anything you can imagine in the commercial world — industrial, retail, hospitals, schools, government, even barracks at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, we’ve done them.”

Wittman Jr. noted that Universal Wallboard currently is working on the north end zone expansion at the UA’s Arizona Stadium, as well as at the Mariposa Port of Entry where he said they are “dramatically expanding the entryway from four cars and two truck lanes to 12 cars and eight truck lanes.”

On the north end zone project, he said his company is installing metal stud framing both on the interior and exterior walls, followed by drywall on the interior. The exterior is a glass-mat board sheathing, a fiberglass-type product, which will be overlaid with the exterior finish of the building. The Mariposa Port of Entry will have similar interior and exterior finishes, Wittman Jr. said.

The Stevie Eller Dance Theater on the east mall on the UA campus is “an exotic-looking building with a metal exterior that’s won numerous awards, and has architectural and acoustic crags on the wall that was an interesting and fun project to work on. It was very conceptual and has a very nice finish inside,” Wittman Sr. said.

One of the things that made it unusual was the height of the interior walls, he said.

“Usually there’s a steel superstructure that we attach our steel studs to,” Wittman Sr. said. “In this case we built walls 70 vertical feet into the air in a truss system of double walls, reinforced back and front with our materials to create a vertical truss. It is very unusual in that there is no structural steel supporting the wall.”

Universal Wallboard also worked on the interior living spaces at the Biosphere 2, which was built between 1987 and 1990.

“We were relatively new on the commercial market then and they asked us for interior living spaces four stories high that could not be attached to the existing superstructure of the Biosphere,” Wittman St. said. “We couldn’t attach to it because the stress on the outer skin might have broken the bio seal, so we came up with our own unique solution to build the structure without outside attachments.”

Wittman Jr. noted that Universal Wallboard recently completed the 9-story high Unisource Energy headquarters, where it framed all the interior and exterior of the project. Another project the company just completed were dual student residence halls on the UA campus.

Wittman Jr. said working with various commercial clients means his firm is faced with different forms of complexity with each job.

“But ultimately, a wall is a wall, and we have the experience to put them up,” he said. “We look at the challenges we face with each job, take what we’ve learned in the past and apply it so that we can do the job safely and with our usual quality.”

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