Engineering Expertise Evolving to Thrive in Silicon Valley

Critchfield Mechanical Incorporated (CMI)

CMI

California exists as a beacon of opportunity, innovation and lifestyle, and just as much as Hollywood made that a reality in the twentieth century, Silicon Valley is shaping the twenty-first century. In the midst of that ever-expanding landscape of high-tech offices and warehouses are people who create the future, and Critchfield Mechanical, Incorporated (CMI) has been keeping them comfortable since 1977.
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As a design build mechanical contractor, CMI focuses on two types of commercial clients: the ones that are building a brand-new facility and the ones that are remodeling or moving into an existing one. The Tenant Improvement department engineers specialized systems for clients as they create new floor plans in recently acquired but existing spaces. Michele Bilich is a project executive in this department, leading teams in both designing and building HVAC systems in the Bay Area. She spoke to me from her office in San Jose.

CMI just finished working with Principal Builders on a tenant improvement office project for Dropbox in San Francisco, which exceeded the schedule demands that are typical of Silicon Valley. “Dropbox involved working with a lot of exposed ductwork, which means there’s no ceiling to hide what we install. So, it has to look nice in addition to being functional,” she explained.

“When you see it, it becomes like artwork, and the architect has to have a say on how it will look. The labor and time it takes to work like that triples, and we only had a five-month schedule to do two buildings simultaneously – totaling 300,000 square feet.”

Making it beautiful, making it functional and making it fast are just three of the demands placed on CMI. “Not only did we finish on time, but one of the architects won an award for that project. We were able to work with the design team and deal with that tight schedule and get it done well.”

The primary competitive advantage that CMI enjoys is having its designers and engineers on the same site as the shops where it builds what the drawings show. “We have a union sheet metal and pipe fabrication shop that has 150,000 square feet connected to our office, so that all of our engineers and field personnel are in the same building. That is one of the elements that helps us to be such good designers on fast paced projects. We have an integrated system with our field and office all in one space.”

Facilitating an environment that encourages cooperation is second nature in a family-owned and operated business like CMI. “Our culture is very different from our competitors. The late Joe Critchfield started the company in 1977 with his two sons and he always treated the company like a family; it’s very family-oriented.” The unique environment is the reason many employees stay throughout their careers, like the Board of Directors who have each been with the company more than 30 years.

CMI operates in a less formal way than many of its corporate counterparts. “There are plusses and minuses to that. It can keep employees really happy because they have lots of freedom and lots of trust. However, some people need structure to succeed. So, we’re trying to balance that in our company now, and for the new generation coming up especially, we are trying to figure out the right balance.”

CMI’s next generation includes new grads from schools like California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo which has a one of a kind mechanical engineering program specifically for HVAC. “We hire graduate engineers and commit to training them with the team in-house, on the job.”

The result is a group of specialized experts cooperating instead of competing. “We have about twenty certified Professional Engineers that are on staff in our office. We have LEED Accredited Professionals in-house. The people that we train here are capable across the board. There has never been a job that we’ve taken on that we couldn’t handle.”

As the company grows and CMI faces the challenge of maintaining their family feel, the emergence of social media in business is significant. Many companies are just waking up to this new cyber frontier, and CMI is no exception. “We’re new to that. We’ve got a LinkedIn page, and we’ve opened a Facebook page and a Twitter account. We’re having fun with it. This is a transitional year where we’re getting up to date with all of our social media.”

The ability to stay on the cutting edge of technology has been key for CMI, particularly in the areas of sustainability and building virtualization. In the twenty-first century, most customers want their buildings green, whether to save money or save the planet. “We have a lot of the LEED (Leaders in Energy Efficient Design) designers on staff, so energy efficiency has just become second nature. We know what it takes to get the accreditation for sustainability, which is a benefit to our clients.”

Building Informational Modeling (BIM) is a structural and functional digital representation of a facility that all the different trades can access. “It’s been around a while for the bigger projects like hospitals, where there are so many code requirements and so much infrastructure. However, now even tenant improvement projects are starting to use BIM in the last year or two.”

CMI has an in-house team working on BIM, enabling the company to perform its own coordination without outsourcing. The BIM team works hand-in-hand with the engineers, creating a smooth flow from the mechanical design to design team coordination. “With BIM, we can collaborate without having to get in a room together, even if the design team is spread across the country. We can coordinate with a bigger group easily. BIM gets about 95 percent of the issues taken care of remotely.”

Cutting edge technology like BIM assists in boosting productivity, but the advances are parallel to the expectations of high tech clients. “The constant challenge in construction is the extremely compressed schedules. Every time that you get a new project you think, ‘this is the most challenging schedule that I’ve ever seen; it’s absolutely impossible to meet these dates,” but we pull a team together and we make it happen!”

Construction in the booming technology sector has CMI working with some of the largest companies in the world. “We are doing big pieces for Google and Facebook. We’re working on a SalesForce project in San Francisco, and we’ve been able to stay on track and on board with their team. All of these companies are known for having a lot of work, high expectations, and fast-paced schedules.”

Moore’s Law in Information Technology (IT) states that one year in the civilian world is four years in computers, so technology companies move and grow at breakneck speeds. “It’s rewarding, but on the next job they push you even further! So, to not compromise on quality, while meeting those schedules, is probably one of the biggest challenges.”

Surfing the rising waves of the American economy has been a lucrative enterprise, especially in the years since the Great Recession. “The economy is booming right now in terms of tech companies. They are just building and building and building, and fortunately, because of our location in the Bay Area, we’re able to take part in a lot of those opportunities.”

Serving the paragons of technology in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area requires constant evolution, and CMI has carved out a niche and developed a platinum reputation for quality and speed. “We really strive to do good design build work. We specialize in fast-paced projects with progressive schedules and unknown design parameters. For our clients that are on tightly scheduled projects that are very design heavy we are their number one choice,” says Bilich.

“There’s no design or timeframe challenge that we can’t handle. As a result of not having separate departments for estimating, purchasing or project management, every person in our company here has the ability to design and to manage any aspect of the job, and that’s something unique in our industry.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 14, 2019, 10:25 AM EST