Patrick Bermingham gets emotional when he talks about his transition from being the 4th generation of his family to head Bermingham Construction to his new role aschairman and marketing advisor. He is proud of the rich history of the company started by his great-grandfather William Bermingham, son of an Irish immigrant who settled in Kingston. The elder Bermingham received engineering training at the Royal Military College (“the only place one could get engineering training then was the military,” Patrick points out.) and went to work on some of the major infrastructure projects of a booming new country. One of his first jobs was engineering the building of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie. “The locks at the Soo predate the building of the Panama Canal,” says Patrick. “The Panama canal is built exactly on the concept of the Soo. The whole technology of the Panama came from the Soo.”
Soon after the Sault Ste.Marie experience Bermingham started his own company. From the beginning the company concentrated on marine construction, building the harbours at Goderich, Port Stanley and Leamington. His son, Cornelius John Bermingham, “Spike,” born in 1900 joined the firm. Spike became something of a legend in the construction business when he built housing for thousands of soldiers at Camp Borden during World War II in a record 6 weeks. Later in the war Spike headed engineering projects during the Holland campaign, providing creative solutions to the task of trying to bridge the network of canals that impeded troop movements. “Spike was a tremendous people person” remembers Patrick. “He would do anything for people and people would do anything for him. No one could refuse him”. After the war Spike moved the company to Hamilton where it was instrumental in marine construction on Hamilton’s industrial north end. By now Patrick’s dad had joined the firm. “(The company) built many of the docks at Stelco and Dofasco,” says Patrick, putting the development of the company in the context of the development of Canada. “We built the foundations of infrastructure—that’s the simplest way to tell the story…water transport, roads, airports, cellphone towers. Everything we do is invisible—it’s all below ground.”
In the 1960s, along came Patrick– the 4th generation Bermingham, who started skipping school to accompany his father and grandfather to construction sites. “We did the foundations for Hamilton’s century 21 building. I worked there as a kid when I was 13. From the time I was 7 I would get the day off school to go with my father or grandfather to a job. . I would sit in the crane operator’s seat and see what was going on. It was immersion… I was at Nanticoke (Ontario Hydro Generating Station) when they built it My grandfather would say you can learn more in a day at a jobsite than you can learn in a day at school…so it make me ambivalent about school.”
Which may explain why Patrick dropped out of engineering school after a year and obtained a fine arts degree. A sculptor since he was 14, Patrick enrolled in the prestigious St. Martin School of Fine Arts in London in order to study at the feet of Sir Anthony Caro, (1924-2013) lauded as the greatest sculptor of his generation. “Not only was he my teacher but I got a job with him as his personal assistant.” Later Patrick was invited to show at the Beckett gallery with Robert Bateman. “I had an early career doing wildlife sculpture. I haven’t found my métier yet but I’m quite handy in stone or steel or bronze”, says Patrick.
Patrick sees no contradiction whatever in reconciling his artistic side with the business of pile driving and pouring foundations. He points to an artist like the medieval Italian master Giotto who was the first great Italian Renaissance painter but also the designer and construction boss of the iconic campanile (bell tower) at Florence Cathedral. “They weren’t separate then–artists and construction,” said Patrick. In engineering school they took away all the things where I could excel—drafting , drawing visualizing. If you can’t draw your idea you sure as hell can’t build it. You have to see it in your head. Architecture preserved it (the meld of art and engineering) …and engineering lost it. I am an artist, and engineer and in my mind they are inextricably locked together.” Pointing to another Florentine example, Patrick expanded on his theme of visualization. “Filippo Brunelleschi ‘s dome in Florence…he started out with a wooden model. You could look at the model and immediately it could be translated into action for carpenters and masons. They all spoke different languages but understood the model. The Brooklyn Bridge was also done with coloured diagrams. There were no words…Words are the enemy of construction. Today we have a gradual disease that is coming into construction which is written procedures that are there for safety. Nobody in construction likes to read or write– they want to go outside and make things with their hands. Construction people learn like hockey players—by doing. They are look-see-do people.”
Two recent Bermingham projects demonstrate the linkage between art and engineering that exists in Patrick’s mind. The first was a road project in North Carolina where the challenge was to build an elevated highway across a sensitive wetland. For environmental reasons it was impossible to build a causeway, so the task was to “ reach out 120 feet and drive a 40 ton pile, says Patrick picking up the story. “A German company was on the job and they were floundering…and a foreman on the job was a Canadian and he said have you talked to Bermingham? I went down to see them and he told me what he wanted to do. I called my secretary and asked her to send me a picture from my grandfather’s book from WWII because I knew it had been done before in 1944. I showed him the picture (of a scissors bridge used to help tanks cross waterways) and I said is this what you want to do?… and he said yeah. We went to Italy and met with the people who eventually designed the truss and using 3d CAD modelling, in a matter of 48 hours we resolved all of the issues in the Italian company’s office…they had never seen anything like that done.” He notes that the equipment failed many times before it finally succeeded. And for Patrick the North Carolina project demonstrates the value of bringing an artistic perspective to engineering. “I did the right thing—I left engineering school and went to art school where it is all about visualizing. Engineers are programmed to avoid failure at all costs. To be cautious to be careful to never let failure to occur. Artists are hardwired to try things to experiment to fail and fail and fail; so artists have an enormously high tolerance for failure. Failure is ingrained in the artistic process and failure is the enemy of engineering. In order to be able to do innovative things you have to be prepared for failure. And gradually you will get less failure.”
The second project is a monument Patrick designed to commemorate construction workers who were killed on the job. It sits at the offices of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Oakville.” I wanted to depict something that was archetypal of construction in Canada,” says Patrick. The monument uses three layers of materials—stone, concrete and steel representing the three historical phases of infrastructure in Canada.
“The columns are replicas of the Burlington Skyway, “said Patrick. “And then I wanted the theme of a garden in the sky and so it will be covered with wisteria. Wisteria represents rebirth, nobility…it is appropriate for honoring people. Construction workers die—if a policeman dies it’s a state funeral…but not an immigrant worker—it’s not even in the paper.” In addition, the monument will align perfectly with the solstice twice a year”. The names of those who died are carved inside the pylons.
Patrick Bermingham took over the company 20 years ago and almost immediately took steps to divest the ownership. “The chances of a company surviving into the 5th generation are one in a thousand,” he said. He started by selling shares in the company to employees, and more recently the company was purchased by the French holding company,Vinci. “I chose them because they are very well run, very profitable and because they are the best chance to continue going forward in the future. So I’ve tried to set the company up for success in the long term”, Patrick explained.
Will Vinci move the company? “Hamilton still provides an enormous advantage to us…a talented skilled labour pool that we need to work in the company…its well located—halfway between Paris and Tokyo. We work in a 1000 miles radius everywhere between Halifax and Calgary. And we work in the Arctic. And Internationally New York is the shortest trip I make, I get there in under an hour.” To illustrate how beautifully situated Hamilton is, in 2014 Patrick invited then mayor Bob Bratina to breakfast on the high level bridge against the backdrop of Cootes Paradise, the Bay and the escarpment. He would like to see a sort of street party where the bridge would be closed and people be invited to picnic in the natural setting. A similar approach could be used in other Hamilton Neighbourhoods, he said.
What does the future hold for Patrick Bermingham? “I like cycling, painting, horseback riding… to quote Winston Churchill… ‘no hour of life is lost if its spent in the saddle’. Right now I am at a stage in life where I want to help people do what they are doing so I am assisting at the McMaster innovation centre a little bit. I like to help other people realize their dreams.”
Written by: John Best