Building a strong foundation

Editors Note: The following was taken from a recent interview by H. Kent Craig with Les Seigle, P.E., who is a senior-level mechanical project manager, estimator and problem-solver.

Editors Note: The following was taken from a recent interview by H. Kent Craig with Les Seigle, P.E., who is a senior-level mechanical project manager, estimator and problem-solver.

"Damn," I muttered as the razor-sharp edge of a duct I was unloading from the stake-bed truck sliced into the very tip of my right index finger, blood immediately flowing to wash out the fresh wound as my foreman tossed me a couple of band-aids saying, “"No time for lolly-gagging, greenhorn, we need to get this truck unloaded and the metal hauled up to the third floor, now!"

Sweat dripped from every pore of my body as I struggled up the narrow stairs to help haul the very duct I had spent last Wednesday fabbing and the Wednesday before that indexing and pulling the templates from the shop's files for the duct fittings I had to get up the stairs. I knew they would probably await my return next Wednesday to help the mechanics hang.

At the second floor landing I risked a bit of a cussing from the foreman to go grab a cup of ice water and take a five minute break in the shade of the rising building's steel skeleton. I sat, contemplating how I got here and if I really wanted to finish out the remaining six months of my signed-and-sealed year's contract with "Building Tomorrow A&E," who had hired me right out of college (my EIT and four-year engineering degree in hand).

Oh sure, they, Mr. Mutt and Mr. Jeff who were the firm's two P. E. principals, had made it very clear to me that they did things a little different at their company, which included what they said was a "real" apprenticeship program that would teach me not just the engineering side of HVAC/piping/plumbing/mechanical, but the practical/field side of things as well. That way when I was in the office and assigned to actually design a building's total mechanical package there wouldn't be any chicken scratches on paper put there by some newbie right out of academia, but by someone who had been there, took off the plans and then had to both shop and field fab it, making things work in the field.

Oh, I admit when they mentioned they also owned a full-service, all-trades mechanical contracting firm that did everything from residential service, large commercial jobs and retrofits to plant millwright and shutdown work, and that every single Wednesday for the first year I would be assigned to get out in the field and actually do some hands-on work, well, I didn't think they actually would have me digging ditches or helping set a gas pack on a roof. Yeah right, of course they wouldn't do that … I'm shaking my head now at my own then-youthful naiveté.

After the second month, when on a particular Wednesday I had to help clear a sewer line main outfall in the morning and then add a couple of barrels of refrigerant to some giant dinosaur of a chiller did it become clear to me that I had signed up not for a job but for an adventure.

An adventure much like the very first day when I showed up for work… I did my initial paperwork and was then shown my new office by Mr. Jeff. There was a very thick set of specifications for a new job and an equally large roll of new plans sitting atop my new desk in my new office.

"Good to have you on board, Les, we know things will work out well for you with us, we have all the confidence in the world in you. Now here's your first assignment, here are the plans for a large hospital addition, you have to take-off all the HVAC, plumbing and medical gas, and we need it done by the end of this week."

If he'd have asked me to do open heart surgery on an elephant, I doubt if my face would have reflected any more puzzlement then was showing at that moment.

"Is there a problem with something, Les?"

"Well, Mr. Jeff, I’ve never done a take-off of any kind before, that's all. I honestly don't know what to do.” And the reality was … shoot … I didn’t even know how to barely unroll the baseball-bat thick set of plans.

“Les, didn’t you take drafting classes as part of your curriculum?” Mr. Jeff’s large and well-calloused but time-healed hands rolled the plans out on the drafting board next to my office desk, as I nodded in the affirmative.

“And you do know, look, see this line with three dashes along its length, and then you go to the index sheet and see that’s a hot water return line and this fitting that’s a square duct elbow with turning vanes according to the same table, and then look in the specs…” Mr. Jeff plopped the pounds-heavy second volume of specifications atop the plans.

“To see what kind of pipe the return line is, and the next section after that, to see what gauge of metal that elbow and duct to and from it is, and you do remember how to use a scaling rule, don’t you?”

I nodded my head in almost furious agreement because I really, really wanted to make this job work.

“Then all you have to do is, is do the job we hired you to do, to become the most well-trained and well-rounded eventual professional engineer and eventually project manager and estimator you can possible be.” Mr. Jeff shook my hand and lightly slapped me on the back with a “don’t be afraid to ask questions, that’s how you learn, but now it’s time for you to get to work” look on his face.

Mr. Mutt, one of the two owners of the firm that gave me this totally unique opportunity at the very beginning of my career passed on several years ago, but Mr. Jeff is still alive and well. He is running a much smaller firm in south Florida and giving young and promising engineers truly the absolute best foundation possible.

Les Seigle’s memories are all his own, not mine, and I am truly honored that he chose to share them with me and you, the reader, as well. After a distinguished career serving the mechanical contracting industry he is now is actively looking for new employment. If you are a company or recruiter and wish to speak to him regarding the same, please send your inquiry to him via my e-mail address below, I’ll promptly forward it to him and thank you!

Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via e-mail at: [email protected]