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Last month, I started telling the story of how I got involved in plumbing design and how it was a matter of plumbing design choosing me. This is a continuation of that story
From Mentoring to Marketin
In the mid- to late-1980s, there was a marketing shift that led to architectural/engineering (A/E) firms shifting from having engineering and architecture departments to having design studios based on building types with market sector groups or studios for specialized building types like healthcare, commercial, educational, laboratories, etc.
In this marketing strategy, some firms thought if they created studios with workers specializing in different types of buildings, they would have a marketing advantage over other firms. It was a wholesale change in engineering philosophy and mentoring where many large companies were reorganized for marketing purposes — but, in the end, it hindered the mentoring process.
The studio concept broke up the A/E firms’ engineering departments into what seemed like lots of little firms or studios, and that concept did not lend itself well to mentoring the younger generation.
Prior to this concept, an A/E firm had all the people from a discipline sit together (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, civil, architects, etc.) in departments. The senior workers mentored the junior workers when they sat together.
Department members are assigned to a project team under the studio concept. The project teams would meet for a given project. There were project team lists, and you could call or meet with team members as needed.
When the market team sector was developed, they split up the departments and, just like dealing cards in a card game, engineers and architects were dealt to market sector groups or studios where the studio sat together. This split up the mechanical engineers and significantly reduced the ability to mentor a person. Senior engineers had to sit with the assigned studio, so I could no longer pass on knowledge to a younger engineer. There was less mentoring and more isolation of disciplines with the studio concept.
I had learned from all these brilliant engineers and now, when it was time to give back, the opportunity faded. But soon, they learned that plumbing didn’t fit well into their market sector groups because when they dealt out engineers, there were enough HVAC and electrical engineers to go around.
However, there were not enough plumbing and fire protection designers to go around. So, plumbing engineers and designers were assigned to several marketing groups and sometimes had more than one desk: health care, industrial, commercial, military, corporate headquarters and transportation.
Early Contract Engineering Jobs
Around the same time, I took a job working for Stone & Webster Engineering in Glen Rose, Texas, where I designed pipe supports for a nearby nuclear power plant. While working there, I learned about the world of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its retroactive requirements that caused utilities to retroactively redesign their piping and pipe supports in power plants numerous times.
I also met a lot of people who traveled the country as contract engineering employees. They called themselves “Nuclear Nomads,” and they talked about moving to various big projects around the country. Jobs were posted in a newsletter; the listing gave the location and duration of the assignment, the skills needed, the pay rate, and how much money they would pay per diem for daily living expenses.
I asked to borrow a copy of the newsletter. As I skimmed through it, I saw a plumbing designer position posted for a prison project. The Peoria, Ill., A/E firm was seeking someone with CAD skills for the project, with a duration of 6 months to a year.
• Peoria, Ill. I decided I would try contract engineering work for a while, which was easy to do as a single guy. I started out living in a hotel until I found an apartment that would allow a six-month lease; I was soon familiar with the area, which allowed weekend trips to Chicago and St. Louis.
I joined the Central Illinois chapter of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) and attended their meetings for a little more than a year — and took a few fishing trips. I was working on plumbing design for federal prisons and industrial projects for a heavy equipment manufacturing facility.
• Greenville, S.C. When the assignment in Peoria was complete, I took another contract engineering assignment in South Carolina, working with CRS-Sirrine Engineers Inc. I worked on industrial and pulp and paper mill projects. While there, I joined the Palmetto State Chapter of ASPE.
I also worked second shift for a while doing CAD plumbing design a few blocks away at the design/construction firm of Fluor-Daniel engineers and constructors working on a medical products research lab and some other industrial projects. I dropped back to one job and continued my studies at Greenville Technical College.
• Indianapolis. When the assignment in South Carolina was finished, I took an assignment in Indianapolis with United Consulting Engineers working on a jail building. Later, I took another job with the A/E firm of Everett I. Brown Architects/Engineers working on various commercial and institutional projects.
While in Indianapolis, I joined the Central Indiana Chapter of ASPE and became active. When they were looking at ways to plan a fundraiser for the chapter, I suggested a plumbing education program similar to what we did in the DFW chapter. This was a way for me to mentor the next generation.
I took the plumbing design training materials from the DFW chapter and upgraded them to help develop and organize a plumbing design class at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
Before the program started, I was offered a job in Michigan, so I gave a copy of the syllabus and all the training materials to Bob Boulware, PE, a member of the Central Indiana Chapter; he agreed to go through with teaching the course as it was scheduled.
• Michigan. I moved to Michigan in 1990 to work with Wolf Wineman Engineers Inc. in Farmington Hills. There I met Tony Wolf, Sam Wineman, Esteban Cabello, Mike Dehart and many others. I joined the Eastern Michigan Chapter of ASPE and met many great people in southeast Michigan.
While at Wolf Wineman, I worked on many hospital and commercial projects in southeast Michigan while becoming very active in ASPE and serving as an officer in the chapter.
CIPE and CPD
In the early 1990s, while at Wolf Wineman, I organized a Certified in Plumbing Engineering (CIPE) exam review seminar. Through ASPE, I ordered dozens of CIPE exam review books written by Dr. Al Steele.
My goal was to help several coworkers and Eastern Michigan Chapter members obtain the CIPE certification. The review seminar was held at a hotel in Lansing, Mich., and we advertised it with ASPE Region 2 chapters. We had dozens of attendees from the Midwest states, and some came from as far away as the Washington, D.C., area.
During the seminar, I noticed some mathematical and typographical errors in the first edition of the CIPE Exam review book as we worked through the sample problems. So, I sent copies and a list of the corrections to the CIPE exam review committee that was now responsible for administering the exam and maintaining the review book. After they received the corrections, the CIPE exam committee sent a note of appreciation, and I was invited to serve on the committee.
Esteban Cabello took over as instructor of the CIPE exam review classes.
I served on the CIPE exam committee for several years through the period when the exam was changed from the CIPE exam to the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) exam, where the requirements for being eligible to sit for the exam were increased from five years of experience to eight years. Some new questions were developed to address the increased level of experience required to sit for the exam.
The new CPD credential would require continuing education for renewal. ASPE issued a letter advising all CIPEs to no longer use the CIPE credential as ASPE switched to the CPD credential.
ASPE Eastern Michigan Chapter
During the early- to mid-1990s, I served as newsletter editor, corresponding secretary, vice president-legislative, vice president-technical and president for the Eastern Michigan Chapter of ASPE.
I had been participating with the ASPE education committee with Steele. Throughout the years, I had many discussions with him about education; he would always go into how there needed to be more importance placed on education in ASPE. Steele once said, “If you create educational offerings for members, young designers and engineers will join for the knowledge and ASPE membership will grow.”
Steele had served on the society board in the past, and while he was retired and no longer active with the society, he wrote his concerns down in a letter and read it to the ASPE delegates at the Washington, D.C., ASPE Convention in 1992. He outlined the need for education in ASPE and for the group to consider merging the offices of society secretary and society treasurer (from his experience on the board, these officers had minimal responsibilities) and create a new office of vice president of education.
It was just a suggestion at that point, but Steele knew ASPE needed to put more focus on education. His proposal set into motion future bylaws changes to allow the office of vice president of education with assistance from John Matthews, a former society secretary and bylaws committee member from the Michigan chapter.
They presented the bylaws proposals for the delegates to consider at the 1994 convention. However, changes did not take effect until the convention was over, so it would not be until the 1996 convention in Phoenix when there was a vote for education vice president.
Plumbing Design and Code Review Class
In 1992, I gathered all the training materials from the many plumbing design classes and the plumbing apprentice class I had attended in the past and put together a comprehensive plumbing design class for the Eastern Michigan Chapter of ASPE. I contacted a local college and gave them a syllabus for the class. I marketed the class to ASPE chapters in the region, to ASHRAE members, to contractor organizations and to inspectors’ organizations.
The classes were held on Saturdays at Oakland Community College in the fall/winter of 1992/1993. We included the cost for the printing of handouts and expenses, and we included ASPE membership in the price of the class. There was a discount for ASPE members equal to the cost of ASPE membership. Sixty-six people signed up for that class with 55 new ASPE members.
This class boosted the treasury and membership of the Eastern Michigan chapter; many of the students continued their membership for years and are still members. I would encourage other chapters to consider doing the same thing with a class or a seminar. Let me know if you need help. I have helped several ASPE chapters and engineering firms conduct semester-long, weekend, weekday, all-day or half-day seminars and classes.
In 1994, I organized an Advanced Plumbing Design class at Oakland Community College that included design training of many specialty plumbing systems that were not part of the first design class.
The Advanced Plumbing Design Class included ASPE membership and, again, the Eastern Michigan Chapter membership grew with just under 50 people participating. There was another boost for the Eastern Michigan chapter membership.
I also taught plumbing design and code review and fire protection classes for the University of Wisconsin, College of Professional Development, The University of Minnesota, Michigan State University professional development center and Lawrence Technological University.
Writing for Plumbing Engineer
In the early 1990s, I worked at SSOE Architects and Engineers in Troy, Mich., designing plumbing, piping and fire protection systems. While at SSOE, the marketing group encouraged employees to submit articles to trade publications so the company would get exposure in national trade publications.
I submitted an article on hot water system design and mixing valves in 1994. The editor of Plumbing Engineer at the time was Art Klein. He called me and said he liked the article and asked if I could submit another. I wrote more articles for the magazine. Then Art called and said that the columnist for the Designers Guide column could not continue for health reasons; would I be interested in taking it over?
I joined Smith Hinchman and Grylls in the mid-1990s, which later became SH&G and then SmithGroup over the almost 10 years I was there. I worked on numerous hospitals, research labs, industrial projects, the Detroit Lions and the Tigers stadium, and Detroit airport projects. I continued to write technical articles and columns for several trade publications including Plumbing Engineer magazine in my spare time and I was trained on the most recent version of AutoCAD.
And I increased my involvement with plumbing codes and plumbing and mechanical product standard committees.
During this time, I continued writing the monthly Designers Guide columns; soon I suggested to the editor that we change the title back to the Classroom column, which was the name of the column when Al Steele wrote it. When I was a young designer, I soaked up knowledge from Al’s articles and my mentors. I was ready to squeeze my sponge and let the creative juices flow to a new generation.
When I started writing, I thought it would only last a year or two and I continued writing every month. During this time, the Code Column changed authors from Julius Ballanco to Pat Higgins. Julius and Pat were great guys. Pat was good friends with John Nussbaum and John Matthews, who were key figures in the Code Study and Development Committee of Southeast Michigan, of which I was a member.
In the early 1990s, while at the code hearings in Cincinnati, I had dinner with Higgins, who was the new code columnist for Plumbing Engineer. He encouraged me to get involved with the plumbing product standards committees at the American Society of Sanitary Engineering (ASSE) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
“Ron, these product standards committees need design engineers like you because they are loaded up with manufacturers that know their product but don’t always understand the system it’s going in,” he said. “There should be a balance of other interests on these standards committees.”
I joined many committees at Pat’s urging and later, I took my vacation time to attend code and standard meetings with him.
A few years later, I received a phone call that Pat had passed away. It was devastating news and a shock to the code and standard industry. Shortly after that, I got a call from the editor of Plumbing Engineer, who was in a bit of a panic. He was trying to find someone to take Pat’s place writing the code column in the magazine.
I suggested that the editor contact the different model code organizations and have their technical person submit a column, then rotate the column between the different organizations. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until they started writing. Each code organization used the column as a bully pulpit to promote themselves and bash the competing organizations in a public version of the code wars.
After months of the code and standards organizations bashing each other, the editor called me asked if I would write the code column, and the magazine would find someone else to write the column that I had been writing for years.
I reluctantly agreed to write the code column that Pat had done so well for several years. This meant that I would need to join even more code and standard committees so that I could report on the activities in the column. Since around 1994, I have been writing for this magazine in different capacities, passing along mentoring information to the next generation.
While at SmithGroup, I designed plumbing, fire protection and HVAC process piping systems for various projects; I also provided construction administration and field engineering on a few projects. I continued to write technical articles and columns for several trade publications including Plumbing Engineer in my spare time. I also continued my involvement with plumbing codes and various product standard committees.
In addition to my design duties, I started performing forensic investigations through the special projects group at SmithGroup. I had written an article in Plumbing Engineer about the design of fuel oil piping systems and then I received a call asking if I could investigate a problem with a fuel piping system at a large government agency.
I told him I didn’t do forensic investigations and gave him a couple of names. A few days later, the agency called back and said that the people I had mentioned were not able to help and pleaded with me to look at his systems. I contacted some people with my company; a vice president agreed to open a job number to assist this client with investigating its fuel systems. We would then write a report with recommendations for corrective actions because we were in the process of submitting a proposal for a lab building with this government client.
After that first forensic project, every time someone called asking for an expert, we opened up a new job number through the special projects group. I worked on forensic cases in the evenings and on the weekends while performing my design duties during the day. After a while, I was providing forensic investigations as an expert witness for several attorneys in a litigation support role for plumbing, mechanical and fire protection systems failures that included many injuries, deaths and property damage.
When the slowdown of the economy occurred a year or two after 9/11, I was part of a large downsizing and was assigned to a marketing studio that no longer had active projects. I called the attorneys that I had been working with to let them know I was no longer going to be working for SmithSroup and they each said, “We didn’t hire a company, we hired you!”
Every one of them asked me to send a proposal to contract directly with them, so getting laid off turned out to be the beginning of my own design and consulting company, Ron George Design & Consulting Services, which was later changed to Plumb-Tech Design & Consulting Services.
So, the answer to how I got started in this field was when I took my first job, I was assigned to work with a plumbing design engineer and that set into motion a chain of events that led to where I am today. Thank-you to Larry Akers and the folks at FAI Engineers for tipping over the first domino down the mechanical/plumbing design path.