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Virginia Western Alumni Spotlight: John Brock

John Brock used to watch his two sons play video games where they ran in and out of buildings “shooting it up.”

“I kept thinking, ‘I just want to walk through a house before it’s built,’ ” said Brock, who is well-known in the Roanoke Valley for designing and building high-end, custom homes.

When Brock discovered SketchUp, a 3D modeling software, about a decade ago, he found he could do just that. He learned everything he could about the program. “I became a real SketchUp junky,” Brock said.

Soon, he was creating 3D models for his clients before breaking ground on their homes. If clients didn’t like some finishing or aspect of the home after seeing the model, Brock could come up with a new plan. That was a lot easier than what he did before modeling: tearing down and rebuilding something the client didn’t like after it had already been built.

“It can prolong the process up front, but it saves on change orders later,” said Brock.

As a teen growing up in Roanoke, Brock had expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and study engineering at Virginia Tech. When the time came to apply to schools, though, he didn’t have the grades.

“I was a musician then and cared more about my guitar than I did school,” he said.

His father wasn’t thrilled when Brock told him he’d enrolled at Virginia Western Community College. Brock remembers him saying, “The only difference between Cave Spring High School and Virginia Western is you take a left when you go out of the neighborhood instead of a right.”

Brock proved his father wrong. Many of his friends from high school who’d gone straight to Virginia Tech were weeded out of engineering. “The first two years at Virginia Tech are definitely a weed-out period,” he said. “I was able to get all the necessary classes at Western and then everything transferred.”

After earning an associate of science degree at Virginia Western in 1985, Brock majored in civil  engineering at Virginia Tech with a minor in construction management.

He had planned to go into commercial construction and had a job offer in Northern Virginia. But when his mother became ill, he decided to stay in Roanoke working for a residential builder. That was the start to his three-decade-long career as a home builder.

Not long into Brock’s obsession with SketchUp, his detailed models of client homes caught the industry’s attention. SketchUp executives invited Brock to speak at conferences all over the country. His book “SketchUp for Builders” is being published by Wiley Publishing in early 2019.

As much as he loved the software, Brock felt SketchUp had untapped potential. He wanted it to be able to compute for builders what amount of materials and labor they would need to build a given home. When the SketchUp executives didn’t jump at his idea, Brock hired programmers and built the extension himself.

His software extension, called Estimator for SketchUp, is now available for purchase, along with several other SketchUp extensions he’s created. In 2017, Brock founded a new company, called Constructability 3D, where he takes 2D drawings from builders all over the country and turns them into 3D models that allow clients to tour the homes on their computers and mobile devices or by using virtual reality headsets. More importantly, he provides Constructability Reviews which identify any issues detected, preventing or eliminating costly mistakes and delays.

“I know there’s an interest in it,” Brock said. “It’s just a matter of getting it out there.”

Giving 100 percent to Constructability 3D meant taking a break from his successful home construction business, BrockWorks. “I had to put a hold on building so I could focus on building the new business,” Brock said.

He applied to be a member of the 2018 cohort at Roanoke’s Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP) without knowing much about the program. Thinking all of the spots would go to younger, hipper tech companies, Brock was surprised to hear Constructability 3D had won a spot in the yearlong program. Participation included entrepreneurship training provided through Virginia Western, mentorship and networking opportunities, as well as free office space in RAMP’s building downtown.

Brock is now looking to hire a technician or two and has met with Daniel Horine, automated manufacturing instructor at Virginia Western, to find the right candidates with computer-aided drafting and design experience from his alma mater. “I want employees here where I can look over their shoulder,” he said. “I’m putting my name on this stuff, I don’t want to just get somebody out of the Philippines for $10 bucks an hour.”

While he hadn’t lost his passion for real-life building, Brock is excited to wade into new territory.

“After 30 years of dealing with the weather,” he said, “it’s nice to try this out.”

-Written by Beth JoJack


Area cooks earn scholarships to Al Pollard Culinary Art Program through cooking competition

When Hotel Roanoke lead cook Michael Whitaker faced off against six other competitors at the 2018 Al Pollard Memorial Gala, he naturally felt a bit nervous. At the end of the night, however, his notable kitchen skills earned him a full scholarship to the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program at Virginia Western Community College.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Whitaker said. “The competition itself was really exhilarating.”

Whitaker was one of seven area culinarians to take home scholarship prizes during the 13th annual Al Pollard Gala, which was held Sept. 22 at the newly expanded Claude Moore Educational Complex. The 29-year-old cook was awarded an $8,000 scholarship that will cover tuition for a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree at Virginia Western’s nationally accredited culinary school. He’ll begin his instruction in spring 2019.

The other six competitors were each awarded scholarships worth $4,000, which will cover one year of instruction and awards a career studies certificate upon completion. Some have already started their instruction, while others will begin next year.

“You could only walk out a winner, you know,” Whitaker said. “It was very exciting.”

Now in its 13th year, the Al Pollard Gala and Golf Tournament has always included a cooking competition, along with delicious dishes meant to delight attending patrons. This year’s competition, however, was the first to be sanctioned by the American Culinary Foundation and award scholarships through the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation. The gala was also hosted at the culinary program’s new facilities, which include more than 8,000 square feet of state-of-the-art kitchen and academic space.

John Schopp, an faculty chef at Virginia Western’s Al Pollard Culinary Program, said this year’s competition targeted cooks who were already employed in Roanoke’s fine dining institutions but had not attended culinary school previously.

Program instructors and area restaurant owners hope that the competition and subsequent schooling will help participants develop kitchen and management skills, as well as further improve hospitality in the Roanoke dining scene. Competitors were sponsored by several notable local institutions, including The Palisades, 419 West and Fortunato.

“By getting those new seven culinarians into these properties, we’re hoping they’re going to set an example,” Schopp said. “The line cooks to the left and right of them are going to look at them and go, ‘Man, you look a little bit neater. I notice you’re wearing a chef coat and not a dirty T-shirt. I notice you got the good schedule, you got a little bit of a raise. I want to do that.'”

CJ King, a board member of the Al Pollard Memorial Foundation, said the scholarships awarded at this year’s competition honored Pollard’s desire to see Roanoke’s downtown scene grow and thrive. Pollard, a talented restaurateur who founded Corned Beef & Co., is often credited with revitalizing downtown Roanoke by introducing an entertaining dining experience, King said. Before he died in 2006, he was ecstatic to hear that a culinary school was coming to the area.

“When the culinary school started, we thought that would be the perfect place for the money we were raising in his honor,” he said. “So far, we’ve raised and given over $500,000 to the culinary school in the form of scholarships and other needs they may have.”

As the recipient of the $8,000 scholarship, Whitaker will be able to choose between two instruction tracks — one that focuses on more savory dishes and one that emphasizes baking and pastries. The other participants will receive a rounded, one-year education that will further cement their skills in the kitchen and introduce them to cooking concepts that they may not have already learned.

By choosing recipients who are already working in restaurants, Schopp said that incoming students will be able to learn new techniques while also putting their skills into practice. That marriage of further training and real-life experience will lead to better employees for restaurants in the Roanoke Valley, he said.

“Our craft is complete muscle memory,” Schopp said. “It’s being able to work in chaos, multi-task, be dynamic and flexible.”

Performing well in this year’s competition required that same ability to combine skill and knowledge in a high-stress environment. Although he faced fierce competition during the event, Whitaker said the abilities he’s gained throughout his career allowed him to perform calmly under pressure.

“Obviously, all the competitors themselves were of merit. They represented the best restaurants downtown,” Whitaker said. “But once the competition kicked off and everything was full swing around cooking, that was just another day at work, really.”

During the event, contestants were given an hour to break down a whole chicken, as well as prepare a starch, vegetable and complimentary sauce. The chefs then had to present four identical dishes to experienced judges. Whitaker said his winning plate was comprised of pistachio-encrusted chicken, which was stuffed with black garlic and brandy-infused liver mousse.

“I decided for my butchering method to do a ballotine, which is a little bit different than your standard breakdown of a chicken, leaving pretty much the entirety of the carcass intact, yet with all the bones out,” Whitaker said.

Since each participant was awarded at least a year of schooling, instructors hope that those cooks will form bonds with each other that will lead to future innovations in the downtown dining scene. Virginia Western’s ability to foster those potential friendships, as well as its mission to enhance Roanoke’s restaurants, would be impossible without the support of the Al Pollard Memorial Foundation, Schopp said.

“The short mission is changing people’s lives,” he said. “The bigger picture is raising the level of professionalism and hospitality in the entire service region.”

Virginia Western to host introduction workshop about collaborative robots (cobots)

Virginia Western Community College has partnered with Hartfiel Automation to provide a collaborative robot (cobot) workshop on Oct. 9. Participants will how cobots impact our lives past, present and future. This workshop will include hands-on activities, lunch and a networking event.

Topics that we will be covering at the workshop:
• The history of cobots – past, present & future
• The value & benefits of universal robots
• Possible applications – 3 D’s: The dull, the dirty & the dangerous
• Supportive tools/end of arm tooling (EOAT)
• Hands on activities & introductions to top industry experts

When: 8:30 a.m. – noon, Oct. 9

Where: Virginia Western Community College, 3094 Colonial Ave. SW, Roanoke, VA 24015

Cost: $99.00 refundable deposit

Register: See Virginia Western’s Facebook event page or register at http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/regform…