Missoula iron workers celebrate project completion by hoisting tiny tree

After the last precast concrete beam was hoisted into place, members of Iron Workers Local 14 raised the American flag and placed a small tree atop the structure as part of their topping out ceremony. The tree will be planted on site. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

By the time Friday morning rolled around, the last precast concrete beam had been hoisted into place atop the new parking structure taking shape in downtown Missoula.

Crews then hoisted an American flag, unfurled the Iron Workers Local 14 banner, and set a small evergreen tree atop the structure. At some point in the future, the tree will be planted on location.

For Lou Labe, owner of Professional Precast Erectors, the topping out ceremony represents another job safely completed.

“It’s folklore that you’re giving back to the earth the materials you used to build this building,” Labe said, seated behind the wheel of his truck. “We signify that by putting a live tree up on the building, and the tree will be planted on the property.”

The practice of topping out, which takes place when the last piece of material is set into place, traces back to the ancient Scandinavian rite of placing a tree atop a new structure to appease those spirits displaced by construction.

Labe has practiced the ceremony for the 40-plus years he’s been in the construction trade, though he believes the ceremony arrived in the U.S. a century ago.

“The flag is something the American iron workers have put forth and added to the ceremony,” Labe said. “Topping off also wards off evil spirits. In today’s world, I really take hold of it myself because we’re giving back to Mother Nature. It’s all stuff that’s been mined and made for our purpose.”

The parking structure, built by Professional Precast Erectors, marks the first phase of a new student housing project unfolding on Front Street in downtown Missoula.

The concrete garage containing two levels will offer 308 parking stalls, part of which will be managed as public parking by the Missoula Parking Commission. Atop the structure will stand four floors of student housing offering 488 beds.

The project, launched Farran Realty Partners of Missoula, is slated for completion this time next year.

For Labe, the downtown project is something of a coming home. He graduated from the University of Montana in 1974 as a forestry technician and applied for several jobs with the Forest Service, along with Weyerhaeuser.

Back then, the pay amounted to around $13,000 a year. It wasn’t bad for the early 1970s, though Labe wanted to earn more. He asked his uncle, an iron worker, to get him in the trade. He made $25,000 his first year as an apprentice in the industry.

Aided with his skills from UM’s forestry program – transits, yodalights and levels – he then moved up the industry ladder.

“Within a year or two, I was running crews, and within four or five years, I was running jobs,” Labe said. “One day I just decided that I make these guys a lot of money and should just go and do it on my own. I put forth the time and here we are. I have a large family business and it’s built for a legacy.”

Professional Precast Erectors is a member of the Precast Concrete Institute. The company bids on national projects, including football stadiums, basketball arenas, prisons, parking garages and data centers.

The workers on the Missoula job are local, Labe said.

“The Iron Workers are who I get all my workers from,” he said. “Instead of hiring out of the newspaper, I get these kids through the Union Hall. We’re a union contractor and we’re blessed to get this kind of quality hand.”

Labe expects his crew to be on the Front Street site for another two weeks before moving across Missoula to West Broadway, where they’ll begin work on the parking structure at Stockman Bank.

“The economy is good right now, not just in Missoula but the whole U.S.,” said Labe. “We follow a lot of data centers like Facebook and Google, and they’re all building gung ho. There’s a lot of new football stadiums happening, and there’s a lot of new prisons.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com