Feature Stories Campus Events

From Words to Windows: Elizabeth O'Byrne ’00

For more than two centuries, students, professors and staff have watched the comings and goings of their colleagues from the windows of the Colonnade. With the historic structures now under renovation, one of those students is helping preserve those windows. Liz O’Byrne ’00 and her two-year-old company, O’Byrne Contracting Inc., restored the windows of Payne Hall, which re-opened this fall after a year of construction. She’s on tap to work on other buildings around campus, including the rest of the Colonnade.

O’Byrne, who grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., developed an interest in construction and how things work as a child. When she was 12, she bought lumber with her babysitting money and built her own room in the basement. With guidance from her dad and from books, O’Byrne put up stud walls and hung the drywall. “I was surprised when she took on that project. She’s a very motivated lady, but I didn’t extrapolate that into a future career,” said her father, Michael O’Byrne. “I thought she just wanted a space away from her sister.”

Despite that early start in the construction business, O’Byrne came to W&L to be a reporter, graduating with a major in journalism and mass communications. “The academic side of it appealed to me,” she said. “You stand up and hold government accountable and stand up for the little guys, and I loved that. I thought that journalism would really be like that, and it wasn’t.”

It was only after buying and remodeling her house in Lexington, a project she took on herself, that O’Byrne considered construction as a career. She started digging ditches for a company in town, moving through the ranks until she became a project manager. As for her formal qualifications, O’Byrne said, “Most of construction is really hands-on and learning it that way.”

W&L hired O’Byrne to handle the windows for the Colonnade project due to her professional experience in the preservation of glass. “She has a unique process for refurbishment and restoration of historical elements of the buildings,” said Tom Kalasky, director of design and construction at W&L.

O’Byrne first restored windows as a project manager for another contracting company. Doing so without breaking the glass can be tricky. The window sashes are removed from the building and transported to a shop, where someone must remove the putty that attaches the glass to the wood, restore the windows and then transport them back to the building. In this process, there are five opportunities to break the glass. Steam is often used to soften the putty and allow the glass to be removed. Afraid of raising the grain of the wood with steam, however, O’Byrne’s previous employer cut the putty out of the sashes, breaking around 80 percent of the glass in the process.

After reading about steam and talking to people who had used it, O’Byrne had a steam cabinet built and began to experiment on window sashes she purchased from an antique mall. She developed a process that worked beautifully, so when she started her own company in 2009, she took it with her.

O’Byrne Contracting is based in Fairfield, north of Lexington. “I wanted to do my own thing,” she said. “There is a lot of risk and there’s a lot of reward, too. I decided that eventually I want to be the one make the decisions.”

Walking onto her company’s first job, O’Byrne said, “I had been thinking of my company as an experiment. I was very intimidated at first and then it got better. Now that I have a shop, tools, more infrastructure and everything else, it’s not my little thing that I do out of the back out of my house. Now it’s a real job.”

Besides window restoration, the company focuses on commercial construction for businesses and universities. Often companies hire her to fulfill punch lists by seeing to the final details of a project, such as retouching paint and realigning ceiling tiles.

O’Byrne plans to grow her business, starting with getting a bond. The state requires a bond on jobs over $100,000 to cover the financial risk. She can see herself taking a break from commercial construction and using her creativity and design skills to remodel homes.

Don’t think she has left her journalism major behind. “It was good, because it lets me write good proposals in order to get work, and it taught me to do research,” she said. She also finds it beneficial knowing how to do “the more pragmatic research, which is more, ‘where do I find this,’ and clever ways of thinking and approaching problems.” She can also speak Spanish, which comes in handy on a construction site. “She’s a real go-getter,” Kalasky said.

Of O’Byrne’s status as a graduate who is helping to renovate the Colonnade, he added, “There’s a sense of stewardship.”

— Story by Campbell Massie
— Photographs by Kevin Remington