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September 25, 2014
Specialty: Environmental remediation and engineering, geotechnical engineering, permitting, compliance services
Management: Jerry Ninteman, principal and remediation services director; Chip Halbert, principal and environmental permitting director; Calvin McCaughan, senior associate engineer and geotechnical services director
Headquarters: Edmonds; offices in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Spokane, Portland
2013 revenues: $14 million
Project: Environmental due diligence, regulatory agency and cleanup action support for development of Stadium Place in Seattle
Jay P. Bower, CEO of Landau Associates, responded to questions from the DJC about his firm and trends and issues in the industry. Here is what he said:
Q: What’s the most exciting innovation you’re recently come across?
A: One of the recent innovations we’re excited about is a technological development in the pulping industry and it’s impressed us enough that we’ve taken an equity position in the project.
We’ve been working with Columbia Pulp to build a new straw-based pulping facility in Eastern Washington.
Columbia Pulp’s proposed manufacturing process produces a pulp that directly competes with hardwood pulp on a product-quality basis. John Begley, Columbia Pulp’s president, plans on developing a full-scale mill that could mark the beginning of some exciting changes for the pulp industry as a whole.
Wheat straw availability and its sustainability as a short-growth-cycle crop make the business model attractive in other wheat-growing regions of the country. And with an environmental footprint that is a fraction of that produced by other pulping processes, the straw-based pulping process is gathering fans from within the industry, from local communities, and from regulatory agencies.
Q: How did the recession change your industry and your firm?
A: From an industry perspective, the number of projects with private funding declined while the competition for those same projects increased substantially. Prior to the recession, we had a number of privately financed development projects in Eastern Washington (data centers and other large capital projects) and we saw that money move to the sidelines.
As a small firm, we also noticed a change in the competitive landscape we found ourselves competing more often with very large firms who were driven to go after smaller projects. We were fortunate to have a number of clients that weathered the recession very well and continued to fund project work.
Additionally, only a very small part of our business was tied to the residential construction market, so we were spared the downturn in that sector. The recession provided a great opportunity to retool and decide how we wanted to grow as the economy improved.
Q: What are some of the biggest trends for geotechnical engineers?
A: A significant challenge for our geotechnical practice has been the increasing use of design-build bids for large transportation projects.
We were fortunate to be on very good teams for two of the three spans of the new 520 bridge. For these projects, WSDOT paid the design-build teams a fee that covered some of the expenses to develop the bid to construct the project in reality the engineering firms are losing money while completing a substantial part of the design and they need to be on the successful team to avoid an overall loss.
Because the geotechnical engineering fees represent an insignificant part of the total project cost (we could work for free and not materially affect the total bid), it is difficult for firms like ours to affect the outcome of the bid process. In the case of the projects mentioned, we were not on the winning teams.
Q: Is there too much regulation or not enough?
A: In general, business hates uncertainty, so perhaps it’s not so much a question of too much or too little regulation as it is of how regulations will change, how they will be implemented, and whether they make sense.
An example of regulatory uncertainty is the ongoing debate on fish consumption rates that drive regulatory decisions for establishing water quality criteria.
An example of regulations that may not make sense is the low criterion for zinc concentration discharged in stormwater from industrial facilities. The discharge criterion may drive businesses to spend resources on facility modifications or the installation of treatment systems to control trace levels of zinc; however, homeowners continue to purchase bags of zinc sulfate to spread on their roofs as a moss inhibitor and the cars and trucks that we drive release large amounts of zinc through tire dust.
Q: What are the top environmental considerations when planning a project?
A: It may sound obvious, but the most important consideration is making sure you understand the objectives and the entire scope required to meet those objectives. Clients want their projects on the ground as efficiently and economically as possible.
If we understand a project will require complex permitting, time spent mapping out the proper sequencing for those permits can shave weeks or months from the final schedule. With an environmental site investigation, a full understanding of the ultimate goals helps you plan for efficient data collection.
If you don’t focus on the ultimate goals, it can result in not scoping the project properly. This happened to us on a recent project where the scope of the project phases were laid out in an agreement between our client and a regulatory agency the initial phase was too narrow in scope, which resulted in some inefficiencies in the data collection process.