Driving home one evening after a Saturday shift as a facilities mechanic on the Hill — where UCLA’s on-campus student residential community lives — Sam Houston Huffman had locks on the brain.
It was move-in weekend for thousands of students, and the mother of a student found herself locked in her daughter’s room for more than an hour as Huffman scrambled to disassemble a faulty card key lock on the door.
“Periodically they will fail, and we have ways of overriding the electrical portion and getting the door to open up,” said Huffman. “But once in a while, it will have something I call a catastrophic failure, a mechanical failure inside the lock mortise itself. It only happens about a dozen times a year, and the Hill has maybe 9,000 such locks. It’s a rare occurrence, but when it happens, it is a nuisance.”
This was, unfortunately, one of those cases.
Huffman used a hammer and chisel to tear the lock away from the heavy wooden door, damaging it and causing frustration for the family.
“I knew there had to be a better way,’” said Huffman, who joined UCLA in 2011 after being laid off at a furniture factory as a manager. “I drive home on the 405 freeway every day, so I had a lot of time to think about how I could make this better.”
Using knowledge gained during his 35-year career in high-end furniture manufacturing, Huffman custom-designed an easy-to-use device that allows a single worker to safely disable and remove the lock within five minutes without damaging the door. The device is now used to handle all such situations.
Huffman’s expertise doesn’t stop at locksmithing. As facilities mechanics, he and his coworkers must respond to a variety of maintenance issues in residence halls.
“We’re kind of like jacks-of-all-trades — super handymen on steroids,” he said, laughing. “If there’s a flood, a leak or a power outage, they don’t call the electrician or the plumber; they call the building facilities mechanic. We go and assess the issue and either handle it ourselves or notify our superiors so they can contact whoever needs to come in.”
Huffman’s ingenuity has saved him and his coworkers a lot of frustration and UCLA money. After spending three tiring weekends in a row fixing shower drain clogs from inside the walls of Acadia and Birch halls, he went into problem-solving mode.
The building design positions 160 rooms with back-to-back bathrooms so that both facilities share a common drain line that backs up when it becomes clogged. Clearing the clog used to be an enormous undertaking because of the way the pipes were configured, with two individual shower drains connecting with a vertical main drain from directly opposite directions. To remove a clog, a worker would insert the snake in one shower drain and have it pass straight across to come up in the opposite shower. Workers would spend hours attempting to curve the snake downward to reach the clogged portion of the drain, which was next to impossible, said Huffman.
Housing administration knew this was a problem and even explored the possibility of hiring a contractor to find a solution. But bids came in as high as $400,000, too steep a cost to consider.
The only alternative for the mechanics was to remove the medicine cabinet, cut a hole in the drywall and climb into a small, confined space in the wall behind the shower. From there, a worker would cut the wall open to expose the drain pipe, locate the drain pipe connection, remove the connection fittings and separate the pipes, and then feed the snake cable into the drain pipe. Once completed, workers had to reconnect the drain pipes, then climb back out of the wall, cover the hole and reinstall the medicine cabinet.
“It took two guys four to six hours to do it,” recalled Huffman. “It was a nightmare. I remember being in the wall and saying ‘There’s gotta be a better way.’ Then it dawned on me that there was an easier way.”
Huffman presented a plan to his supervisor, Jesse Alberti, which called for the creation of new access panels and clean-out pipes under the sinks at 80 locations throughout Acacia and Birch.
“Instead of going in the wall and snaking the pipe, you can now open the little access panel under the sink, open the plug and snake the drain,” said Huffman. “And it only takes 30 minutes.”
Huffman’s solution, including parts and labor, cost just over $40,000, representing less than 10 percent of what outside companies had estimated it would cost them to solve the problem. The retrofit was done during the 2012 winter break. Huffman even pre-cut the parts and standardized the procedure for the teams performing the work.
Alberti said what impresses him most about Huffman is that he cares enough not only to identify issues, but also to present smart and reasonable solutions. “He has really helped us a lot because his ideas have improved some of our processes and made the environment safer for the workers,” said Alberti. “It makes everyone’s life easier.”
Other contributions that Huffman has made include producing a binder-style manual filled with building-specific information, including trouble-shooting guidelines; details about key water and electric shut-off locations, replacement parts and scheduled maintenance; and sections on plumbing, electricity and hardware. The manual, which was first developed for Gardenia and Holly, has now been replicated for several other residential buildings.
Huffman also proposed a ladder service room where workers can find ladders of different heights without having to spend an hour or more trying to track one down. “You want to make sure that employees have the tools they need when they need them,” he said. “It improves safety, saves time and money, and improves customer service.”
This year alone, Huffman has received several “Hats Off!” awards from Housing and Hospitality Services for individual and group projects, as well as an award presented by the True Bruin Chapter of the National Residence Hall Honorary at UCLA.
Huffman said that working as a manager in his previous job taught him to think outside the box and devise solutions to problems, a professional trait that you just can’t turn off, he said. Working in a factory also taught him teamwork, regardless of anyone’s job title.
“On-Campus Housing Maintenance has some great managers because they listen to us ‘gray shirts,’ as I call us, which is nice,” he said. Huffman also credits many others for helping make his ideas a reality. “I was the one who initiated and pushed these things, but there were a lot of guys who helped make these things happen and who supported the work. It’s all about all of us; it’s not about me.”
Huffman said it takes an entire team on the Hill to keep things functioning smoothly. “We have a real close-knit group of guys in building maintenance — a good bunch of guys,” he said with genuine appreciation.