When Thomas Lancaster poured the concrete countertop in his home 10 years ago, he didn’t really know what he was doing. In the course of building a home for himself and wife Belle Pena, he decided to learn something new.
He bought a book, looked up DIY tips online and set to work. Though the end result is a daily reminder of how little he understood about the complexities of concrete, the process set in motion a winding journey that’s taken the couple all the way to Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s West Texas space venture.
A Fort Worth native, Thomas first came to West Texas 20 years ago, when he and Belle were dating. She grew up in El Paso, Pecos and Fort Stockton. Her mother hails from Boquillas del Carmen and her grandmother from Copper Canyon, a member of the Tarahumara tribe. The couple moved to Alpine full-time about 12 years ago, leaving behind various careers in the oil business, graphic design and education, including teaching in Korea.
Thomas set about building their home, a process that took three years. After pouring the countertop, he realized he wanted to explore a career in concrete fabrication. He attended the Concrete Countertop Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina, and began Lancaster Designs in Alpine, a name he recently changed to Marfa Cement Works.
The Big Bend’s small population makes any business a challenge. There is limited demand in the region for functional concrete art, so Thomas reached out to designers in Santa Fe to broaden his market. As his style and skillset evolved over the past decade, the demand for his work grew, until Covid-19 closed New Mexico’s economy like a tight fist.
Belle, meanwhile, often helped Thomas in his shop when he needed a hand. Initially he built a large garage workshop at their home but later expanded to a more functional workspace on their property at the south edge of town. Though Belle has been familiar with the complex requirements of forming and casting concrete, she hasn’t been deeply involved in Tom’s business until last year, when Covid forced a change in her career path as well. She left her job at the Gage during the pandemic to focus on their son, Ellis, and found herself at loose ends. Having earned her undergraduate in marketing and an MBA before achieving her teaching certificate at Cambridge University in England, she decided to take her career in an entirely new direction.
“Thomas jokingly asked if I wanted to become the family welder,” she said. “He was tired of paying the high cost for the quality of welding his work requires. I thought about it and decided to give it a try.” Belle contacted Frank Lopez, a local Alpine welder, and asked to apprentice in his shop. “I went every day, and I think Frank was surprised. I just kept showing up.” After a week, she told Thomas that she wanted to pursue welding. “I realized how much I loved it,” she said. “I bought a little Hobart welder and just kept at it. I knew absolutely nothing about even the basics—cutting, measuring. It was intimidating to try to learn so much, but I also think it was best to start from scratch.”
As she progressed in her welding skills, Belle was able to start fabricating bases for Thomas’s work. “It’s the first time in 23 years I’ve really seen her be passionate about her work,” Thomas said.
Earlier this year, Thomas received an email from Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s space exploration company. They were inviting him to bid on the large entrance sign they were planning for their facility on Highway 54 outside Van Horn. “There were a number of locals bidding on it,” Thomas remembered. “They already had a bid they found acceptable, but we wanted to give it a try.”
“I got ambitious,” said Belle. “Their original idea was to have the whole thing made out of concrete, but the time frame was very short. It would have been almost impossible to execute. So I suggested welding the feather out of stainless steel.”
Belle’s ambition paid off, and the couple’s bid was accepted. They had only 32 days to complete the project, which included the foundations, a large concrete planter and the massive Blue Origin feather. Belle contacted a friend in Dallas, Bubba Bergeaux, an expert in stainless steel welding. “Stainless steel is massively complex,” she explained. “Everything about stainless is hard. You have to change out every tool, every grinding wheel. If there’s any mild steel, even dust particles, that come in contact with the stainless, it’ll rust.” Belle spent a week fabricating the feather, made from half-inch 304 stainless steel and weighing 2,200 pounds. She decided to sandblast the piece to give it a matte finish, so the sunlight wouldn’t glare off the metal. “I’m the only person on this project that was intimately involved with every aspect of it,” she said. “The design, the planter, the feather, the landscaping, the foundations—my hands and ideas were in everything.”
Once the feather was completed, the casting of the concrete base and planter was immediately begun. Belle returned to Alpine to assist with the project, which Tom said maxed out all his hoists and equipment due to its size and weight. The couple chose a blue tint for the concrete, which they cast in glass fiber reinforced concrete or GFRC, a normally lightweight and extra-strong material. Even so, the scope of the project meant that the shop was at capacity.
“I love that we chose blue for the concrete,” Belle said. “It not only fits with the Blue Origin logo, but it also blends into the sky. I wanted the piece to be unobtrusive to the landscape, and I think we accomplished that.” Belle also submitted a bid for the landscaping in and around the piece, which she won. “I wanted to use all native desert plants for the design, to make it a part of the landscape instead of something apart from it.”
Once fabrication was complete, the planter and feather were transported by trailer to the site for installation.
“The foundations were the hardest part,” Thomas noted. “The most work went into the part no one sees.” The soil at the site is sandy and unstable, necessitating deep piers to support the feather and the concrete work, which itself weighed in at 2,000 pounds. Additionally, everything necessary for the installation had to be brought to the site—generators, shade, tools, food and water—due to its remote location. “It was something out of our wheelhouse, so it was stressful. We tried to think of everything we could possibly need, because we were under such a short deadline,” Thomas said. “We only had one chance to get everything right ahead of the launch date.”
“It was hard, but enjoyable,” Belle said of the installation. “We all had to support each other to keep going. We had such an incredible crew of people, and that’s what made it possible.” Belle and Thomas used the expertise of Victor Carrasco from Vision Construction and Colin Kelley to complete the installation, the same crew that also worked on the concrete casting in Thomas’s Alpine shop. The four put in just over 40 hours in three days out in the desert heat, with temperatures hovering just above the 100-degree mark. Because of the challenges of the foundation and the size of the project, the engineering had to be specified and inspected by an engineering firm out of Fort Worth.
The piece was completed and installed two days ahead of schedule, in time for the world to watch the historic July 20 launch from West Texas that carried founder Jeff Bezos and three other private astronauts into space. Unfortunately, Thomas and Belle weren’t able to brag about their accomplishments.
“The non-disclosure agreement meant we couldn’t talk about the project at all,” Belle said. “This is a huge project for a young portfolio. It was heartbreaking that we couldn’t say anything about it.” The company recently granted the couple permission to use the installation in promotional materials and talk about its fabrication, however. “Now I get to claim all the hard work I’ve done,” Belle said.
The couple were so busy catching up on other projects that had been delayed due to the short deadline for Blue Origin that they missed the launch. “All day, people were contacting us, mentioning us on social media. It was a good feeling, but it was fitting to be back at work, doing what we do. It’s great to be so busy with contracts.”
Belle added, “Blue Origin was a great company to work with. They sent us hand-written thank-you notes for the timeliness and value of the project. They really went above and beyond what you’d expect from such a huge, important company.”
Now that the project is completed, Thomas and Belle are back at work. They recently returned from delivering his-and-hers custom desks to Austin for a married couple who are CEO and CFO of a company there. Belle is exploring more designs in stainless steel, though she has other ambitions as she settles into her new career. “Stainless is wonderful, but it’s very expensive,” she noted. “I want to learn about corten next. I love the way it rusts. It’s designed to rust on the outside, and it’s very beautiful. I’m also planning to get cast iron experience, which needs nickel rods. It’s nice to get a range of experience with different materials.”
Thomas, meanwhile, is playing with a casting of a dinosaur track from Glenrose, Texas. He’s perfecting a rubber casting technique to copy the ancient impression and intends to turn it into a custom sink.
Belle said, “Steel is forgiving. It’s a pliable material, while concrete is very exacting. Concrete requires a trained professional, like Tom.” The couple are expanding their workshop to include the space Belle needs to expand her welding in the business.
With a storefront now open in Marfa, outer space is only the first step for Marfa Cement Works.