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Engineering Design

Using expertise and communication to solve problems


R&M Consultants provided engineering services for the Seward Marine Industrial Harbor Improvements (including the breakwater, seen here); Phase I was slated for completion in September and Phase II is currently in design with construction anticipated to begin in November. 

Image courtesy of R&M Consultants

Engineering is a simple word for a huge, complex process. At its core, engineering is functional design; how will a thing be built, how will it operate, and how will it interact with the environment and people that use it? In Alaska, engineering is often associated with natural resource extraction (oil, natural gas, minerals) or public projects (roads, runways, parks, or marine infrastructure). No matter the project, there are similarities to the design process—before a shovel ever touches ground or a single board is nailed in place, Alaska’s engineers are hard at work making sure that Alaska’s entire infrastructure is well-built, reliable, and safe. 


Engineers Don’t ‘Bid’

In 1972, the United States adopted the Brooks Act, also known as the Selection of Architects and Engineers statute, which requires that the US Federal Government select engineers and architects based entirely on their competency, qualifications, and experience, rather than price. Traditionally in a bidding scenario, a specific scope of work is evaluated by contractors, who then offer their best price to complete the scope of work. R&M Consultants CEO Len Story says, “We work on qualification-based selection projects pretty much exclusively. For qualifications-based [work] we put together project proposals and submit those to our clients, and they select us based on our intellectual value and our experience. There’s no price involved at all. For us, the word ‘bidding’ is a no-go.” He explains that in this way, the public gets the greatest value for their public projects. “It provides the most value to the public by getting the most qualified individual or team to do them.” Story continues, “Our team is very qualified for a lot of projects, but we’re not the most qualified for every project, and it’s good to have that variety of individuals and expertise out there to select from.”

Tom Looney, PE, is the managing principal and vice president at Coffman Engineers; he says, “[Selecting an engineer] is kind of like selecting a doctor. It’s not just about the money. You need to rely on somebody who’s got the experience and qualifications to get the work done the way you want it to get done, and then you talk about price.” About half of Coffman’s work is on private industry projects, which are not regulated by the same laws, and government or public projects make up the other half. He says, “There are times when the number one issue for a client is dollars, and we may or may not be the least expensive firm, if you look at that upfront; if you look at the overall cost of using our company for a project, because of our efficiencies and production of work, we believe that we’re very competitive when you look at the total cost of using us.”

Michael Baker International Anchorage Office Executive and Vice President Shawn Snisarenko, PE, says the company likes participating in qualifications-based selection “because we think we can compete with anybody.” He continues that currently Michael Baker’s workload is approximately a 50/50 split between private and public work, which is a shift from the company’s previous business model. “We were almost solely focused on oil and gas clients.” Snisarenko says part of the reason he was invited to join Michael Baker was to help diversify into transportation projects in Alaska, an area in which he has specialized. 

HDL Engineering Consultants Principal Civil Engineer Mark Swenson, PE, says HDL’s bread and butter is providing services to state and municipal clients, so the majority of their projects stem from qualifications-based selection. “We do a little bit of private development work, but not as much as we do on the government side.” Swenson himself specializes in aviation and has performed a lot of work for airports for the North Slope Borough, “mostly rehabilitating existing runways and taxiways,” he says. 

R&M also provided engineering services for the Valdez New Harbor Development, including the Uplands Facilities, slated for completion in 2017.

Image courtesy of R&M Consultants

There’s No Engineering without Communication

Once a project is secured, the next step is always communication. Swenson says, “Usually the first thing that happens is the client has a concept of what they want to do, they know a problem that they have—whether it’s their runway’s surfacing is failing or they don’t have enough room on an apron or something like that—they know they have to fix something. So we generally do either a concept design report, or design study report, or engineering design report—they’re essentially all the same thing—which is a preliminary study that evaluates the current situation, the need the client has, and presents alternatives to help solve it with preliminary costs for construction.” From there, HDL works with their client to identify a 

preferred alternative among their design options (which usually includes a no-build option that identifies the cost and risks of not moving forward with the project). 

Tim Grier, PE, group manager of surface transportation for R&M, says, “Once we get the design contract we’ll negotiate the scope of work with the owner. That really describes what you think the project is going to be, and then you start working on it. Day one the scope changes,” he laughs. “It’s immediate. The schedule changes, the level of work changes, all that. So communication becomes absolutely critical for the project’s success. You talk back and forth with the owner and you have your experts interface with the owner’s experts and just work through it.” Grier uses that communication to put together what is essentially a 35 percent plan, also called a local review. Addressing challenges is just part of communicating, and no project is without challenges. “If you don’t know of any challenges, you just don’t know much about the project,” he says. 

He gives the example of an Alaska Department of Transportation project in Ketchikan, the Water Street Trestle #2 Replacement, for which R&M is providing their engineering expertise, as particularly challenging. “It’s a very narrow bridge and it’s basically on a cliff. A portion of it has normal bridge girders, some of it is on earthen fill with walls, and some of it is on a hybrid trestle with a wall and trestle; it’s super complex.” One significant complication was that it was necessary to collect geotechnical data to move forward with the design, but “a lot of the geotech we couldn’t collect because we couldn’t get equipment under the bridge. We couldn’t demo the bridge; the bridge was so rotten that you couldn’t put a drill rig on it, as it would shake it apart and you’d fall in, so some of that data collection we’re doing now during the design.” As of September general contractor Dawson was onsite working on the bridge rehabilitation, and R&M was able to collect the needed geotechnical data. Grier summarizes, “I’ve been doing this for a long time; I’ve never done the same project twice, ever. The same process applies, but the challenges are different.”

Looney of Coffman says, “The design process is best when it’s a team approach. That’s when it’s a win-win situation, and when that doesn’t happen, that’s when somebody’s not going to be happy. So we fight hard to try and make it an open discussion, a transparent discussion, with the owner, the other consultants, and the contractor, so we all become a team.” That approach can lead to innovative projects in which all parties walk away happy. Recently Coffman provided engineering services for a biomass project, owned by the City of Galena. In Galena there was an outdated steam plant, originally constructed by the military, which distributed heat to school campus buildings. The city needed to significantly cut heating costs for this system. They had the option of completely updating the oil-fired system to improve efficiency slightly, but that would not have reduced fuel cost significantly or increased energy security. “Instead they put in a biomass [system] fueled with wood, and converted the outdated steam system to hot water,” Looney says. “The fuel is not pellets, it’s wood chips and things like that that they can produce locally. It operates at a fraction of the cost and is using somewhat new technology to heat these old buildings. The original plant used oil-based boilers, steam boilers, and now they’re using about one tenth the amount of diesel fuel, so it’s a huge cost savings for them. It’s old technology that’s kind of being repackaged and redesigned with something they could use reliably up here in Alaska. Since Galena has a significant amount of local wood supply resources, the new wood chip boilers and hot water-based heating system made a lot of sense.”

“As an engineer, communication is one of the biggest things that you do, so you’re always involving the client,” says Michael Baker’s Snisarenko. “Engineering is problem solving, and you have to understand what the client is looking for.” He says that many of Michael Baker’s Alaska projects are linear, such as roads, pipelines, or runways, and often the first step is to find out what data is available and what needs to be collected, typically through a data-gap analysis. Sometimes the client can provide data and sometimes it’s available through federal or state agencies, but often it’s necessary for data to be sourced onsite. 


Image courtesy of R&M Consultants

Construction at the Water Street Viaduct, for which R&M Consultants provided engineering services. 

Data Collection Onsite and Inhouse

Snisarenko says one of the significant changes he’s seen in the field of engineering in recent years is the availability of data and the ways in which data is gathered. “We can get data so fast now where we couldn’t before, so we’re able to go forward on projects much more quickly. We’re able to get at least to a 35 percent design very quickly, compared to waiting for aerial mapping or whatever data. That’s a big change in the last five years—the amount of data that we can get quickly has gone up exponentially.” Michael Baker recently won a term agreement with the State of Alaska Department of Transportation Northern Region for unmanned aerial vehicle data collection. “We actually have the drones in the office here; we have a big drone with a seven foot wingspan [with which] we can collect data and we can make terrain maps.” The company already had a term agreement in place with the Alaska Department of Transportation Northern Region for wetlands delineation projects and constructability and constructability assistance, as well as a term for construction management general contracting, which is a procurement method for the Northern Region. “It’s kind of an innovative term—you actually will procure the engineer and you will hire a contractor at the same time, and then they’ll work together on the project… It gets the contractor in early and gets them involved, and they can suggest money savings, cost savings, that sort of thing.”

Robert Pintner, PE, senior geotechnical engineer for R&M, says typically the design team will communicate with the design engineers to inform their geotechnical investigations. For example, if it’s a large worksite they may need specific information on which part of the site to investigate, or “if we’re looking for any particular types of materials for construction, we’d be talking to the designers to know what we need.” He says that once onsite there can be surprises, but it’s not often that a project simply cannot be done. In one rare case, R&M was investigating a site that was intended to become a Veterans’ Cemetery but discovered the site sat right on top of forty feet of ice. “This site could be used for something else possibly, more easily than burying vaults in the ground, and with our investigation they decided it wasn’t worth trying to make it work and they picked a new site,” Pintner says. When the R&M team has collected soil or material samples, the company is able to analyze them at their in-house lab, located in Anchorage. 

HDL also has an in-house lab, which is located by their Palmer office. Samples from the field may be tested for their geotechnical properties, including their suitability as a building material. Swenson says he particularly enjoys the challenge of working in rural communities: “The logistics of working in the arctic and sub-arctic environment [are] particularly challenging. There’s only certain times and certain methods of getting equipment and materials into a community,” and often suitable materials cannot be found onsite. “For example, when building a gravel road or airport in a rural community, there’s a discussion that needs to happen, an analysis needs to happen—is there a local material source there that can produce the material you need, or does this material need to come in from somewhere else and be barged in? So there are two levels of magnitude usually associated with that kind of work. You usually evaluate local material sources first, try and satisfy the needs of the contract or the project from that side; if there are no local material sources and the material needs to come in from somewhere else, a lot of complicating factors that go into all of that,” Swenson explains. 

The Water Street Viaduct is under constrution in Ketchikan and scheduled for completion in the summer of 2018.

Image courtesy of R&M Consultants

Solving Problems

A love of problem solving is a common attribute expressed by many Alaskan engineers. “It’s challenging work, and it’s interesting to me, and it’s rewarding to see infrastructure constructed in rural communities that have a definite effect and improvement on the daily lives of the residents out there,” Swenson says. 

Looney, who is an electrical engineer, says, “I enjoy working with my hands, I enjoy problem solving, and engineering is all about problem solving. I was drawn into the engineering field and have enjoyed it since.”

Michael Baker’s Snisarenko says, “I like looking at plans that other people have done, because I think I have the expertise that I can make them better. When somebody gives me something to review, I like getting my calculator out and calculating out grades of highways, making sure that the elevation—if you do the math—is correct as labelled and stuff like that. I think it’s a good teaching opportunity for our young engineers, and it’s important to me to make sure that the younger engineers coming up have the training, because we take this work seriously. I had a professor in college, he said, ‘If you want to cheat, go be a doctor, because you only kill ‘em one at a time,’ but engineering can kill hundreds or thousands of people at a time. We take that seriously, and we take our duty to the public seriously.”

This article first appeared in the October 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.  

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