Although we received a number of highly qualified entries, Metro Design was chosen as the firm that best epitomized the six criteria established for the Engineering Firm of the Year award.

Issue: 11/02

PM Engineer is proud to announce that Metro Design Associates, Inc. has been named PME's Engineering Firm of the Year for 2002. Metro Design, located in Schaumburg, has been providing Illinois with plumbing, mechanical, electrical, fire protection and civil engineering design services for 14 years. Metro Design's staff of 40 is comprised of registered professional engineers and technicians, and its principals draw on many years of experience in the design of educational, criminal justice (jails and prisons), health care, commercial, municipal, county and state facilities.

Although we received a number of highly qualified entries, Metro Design was chosen as the firm that best epitomized the six criteria established for this award: innovation in design, ability to meet schedules, completeness and thoroughness, industry involvement, community involvement and customer satisfaction.

The fire and domestic water service system designed by Metro's engineers for one of the schools in the Schaumburg, IL, District 54 project.

Company History

Keith O'Higgins, P.E., president of Metro Design Associates, Inc., Larry Arnold, P.E., vice president, and Tim Smith, C.P.D., vice president, started the company together in 1988 with three other partners, all of whom had been working together for a large engineering firm in the area. Taking one of their architect clients with them, the six partners of Metro Design struck out on their own, quickly nabbing a $60 million project involving the McHenry County Jail. Two of the partners have since passed away, and one left the company, but the three remaining founding partners strive to maintain the integrity and reputation that Metro has garnered over the years.

"When we started the firm over 14 years ago, there were two important things we wanted to accomplish," Keith O'Higgins said. "To provide excellence in engineering services and to make Metro Design Associates a place where people enjoyed working together as contributors to the success of the firm. This philosophy is reflected in the quality of our work and the dedication of our staff. This combination has allowed us to achieve the Engineering Firm of the Year award," he added.

O'Higgins' views are reflected in the company's mission statement: "To provide quality engineering/design services and counseling to contribute to the continuing success of our clients, through experienced leadership committed to the development of talented design professionals, working as a coordinated and responsive team in a satisfying environment."

To achieve these goals, Tim Smith said the firm's strategy has been to maintain its focus on general engineering, rather than becoming classified as a "boutique" firm that specializes only in penitentiaries, for instance. Smith said that Metro Design's engineers choose to work on a variety of projects, including churches, schools, institutional facilities, multi-unit residential buildings and manufacturing facilities. This well-rounded suite of services keeps Metro Design at the forefront of the engineering community.

Metro Design provided this water heater system design for one of the schools in the Schaumburg, IL, District 54 project.

Innovation in Design

According to Smith, innovation is difficult in the design engineering field. "Working on code-driven projects means it is hard to diverge from the road map," he said. "Any new plans or specs have to be proven to comply with the codes," he said, and that can delay the outcome--a luxury most engineering firms can't afford. "We have to turn $40 million jobs over in six to seven months, so you can't get too creative," Smith said. "Especially in schools, where you have severe timelines, and you only have three months to complete a job before the doors open in the fall."

One of the biggest innovation hurdles the firm faces is the inspector. "They all have their own way of seeing things done over the years," Smith said, "and they will come out to a job site and try to make it fit their ideas. Even if a new design is in the codes, they will attack it."

Metro Design has taken on some innovative projects over the years, though, Smith said. He mentioned one project involving the redesign of an air conditioning system at Lake Zurich High School. The company designed an ice storage facility that could run the building's chillers at night when energy costs are lower and then store the cool water in an ice storage unit to use to cool the air throughout the school during the day. This innovative system design helped lower the operating cost and allowed downsizing of the air conditioning equipment, saving the school money and winning Metro Design a loyal client and an excellent reputation.

Another interesting project that Smith recalled was the renovation of an existing pool for the Park District in Morton Grove, IL. The Park District had hired an architect to do an analysis of the existing pool, and his report said the entire pool needed to be demolished and rebuilt to the tune of $6 million. Metro Design's engineers took a different approach. Via a study, they came up with a renovation that could save the pool, allowing it to be constructed in phases rather than all at once. Metro Design's plans involved restoring the concrete around the pool, as well as the installation of new plumbing, piping, and filters. Due to the phasing schedule, the renovation project was planned out over five years, and came to a final cost of $2 million, a big difference compared to the first estimate of $6 million that the Park District had received. The Park District staff was so impressed by Metro Design that they have continued to use the company's services and recommend them for projects in other towns any time the opportunity arises.

One of the company's largest projects was a seven-year phased renovation of the schools in Schaumburg, IL, District 54, O'Higgins said. The project included renovating and designing additional building space for every school in the district--27 schools in all. The majority of the construction work had to be done within the three months of summer when the schools would be closed. The work included gutting the existing schools and then putting in all new hvac, electrical and plumbing systems, as well as adding a fire protection system, which none of the schools had before, and in all cases, installing air conditioning systems. O'Higgins said that Metro Design and its clients would do a group of schools in a phase, gutting the schools in the first week after the doors closed for the summer, then putting all the new systems in over the summer months so that the doors could open on time in the fall. The new systems included wet pipe sprinkler systems, modular boiler systems and liquid-cooled chillers with indoor cooling towers. The design also called for the replacement of the lavs with washfountains featuring sensor-operated controls and replacement of urinals and waterclosets with models that had automatic flush valves to eliminate odors and offer continuous flushing to keep the water flow active through the dormant summer months. Hands-free control was used on all the plumbing fixtures for sanitation and energy efficiency. The plans also called for the installation of high-efficiency water heaters, all controlled by the building automation system for maximum efficiency, as the system would not need to run during the evening hours. The project boasted a final total cost of over $160-170 million.

Another notable project for Smith and Metro Design was the remodeling of the toilet rooms for several suburban Illinois community colleges. After the project had been completed at one of the colleges, Smith said, Metro Design received a number of calls regarding a recurring odor in the newly finished toilet rooms. Smith said the company's engineers thought it might be a result of broken piping, so they conducted several leak tests, including smoke testing and a video inspection of the piping system, only to find the system completely sealed. Finding himself stumped, Smith said he decided to visit several of the remodeled toilet rooms, which had also been redesigned for ADA compliance. While on one of these visits, Smith noticed a disabled student in a wheelchair enter the men's room and wheel himself to the floor drain, where he proceeded to empty his catheter bag. Smith noted that the floor drains were not equipped with any kind of flushing system, and the cause of the recurring odor suddenly became clear to him. Smith asked the student why he didn't use the ADA-accessible urinal, and he replied that it was installed too high on the wall to make it possible to drain his catheter bag completely, so he used the floor drain instead. Smith took this information back to Metro Design, and he and his fellow engineers came up with the idea to install a flushing floor drain with a hinged grate that attached to a flush valve in the ADA-accessible stalls in all of the college toilet rooms. This design has since become the standard at the colleges that Metro has done subsequent remodeling or new construction work.

Ability to Meet Schedules

Meeting schedules, Arnold said, is a hurdle that Metro Design's engineers face on each project. The original deadlines that the client and Metro's engineers set at the proposal stage are rarely ever met. "Our schedules float because we have to depend on others to get us the information we need to put our product together," he said. "We make a list up front of our needs and requirements from the client with dates and milestones that are the latest we need them by, and that usually starts slipping right away." Getting the information they need from their clients, the architects and contractors, Arnold said, is one of the firm's biggest challenges, but they do eventually work out a solution. "We agree on an extension, and then we meet that deadline for sure."

One step that Metro Design's engineers take to meet the final deadlines is onsite project supervision. To ensure that the tight schedule for the District 54 project was met, Metro Design was retained to administrate the construction of this project full time. "We obtained full-time supervision services from the owner, and provided two people onsite full time to answer questions, field coordinate, and get revised plans approved right there on the spot. That really kept things moving," Arnold said.

Another way to address project scheduling difficulties, O'Higgins said, is to work on several projects at once. "Successful engineers are able to juggle several timelines at once on different projects," he noted. Metro's engineers are flexible, O'Higgins noted, and they can switch projects as necessary, an approach he attributes in part to encouragement by the company's management. "Our management philosophy is 'There is no job we ask you to do that we haven't done or wouldn't do ourselves,'" he said, adding that Metro's principals prefer to lead by example. "We don't just offer to take on the easy jobs; we let the employees input where help is needed."

Metro Design's principals also encourage the employees to establish a better working relationship by providing activities that bring the staff together in a more relaxed setting. For instance, Metro sponsors a staff golf outing each year, as well as several barbecues and holiday activities throughout the year that give its employees the opportunity to get to know each other outside of the office. As a result, Smith said, "We have an excellent staff that is willing to pitch in and help each other, and work on projects that they may not even be assigned to when a deadline has to be met."

As another benefit for its employees, O'Higgins said, the company was turned into an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) last year. Metro contributed shares of stock to the plan as a bonus to its employees to start the ESOP off, and the plan has been very successful so far.

Here is the final result of Metro's renovation plan on the Harrer Park Pool.

Completeness and Thoroughness

According to Arnold, Metro Design's engineers strive to provide very thorough and complete project documents by including all the necessary specs, diagram details and designs. In fact, many contractors will choose to work on a Metro project, he said, because they know it will be complete, clear and concise. "We've built our reputation on being complete and thorough, and have refused to reduce the quality of our work in order to lower our fee."

One of the ways that Metro Design's management ensures this completeness is by providing its engineers with all the details they need for a project. "We make sure the engineers have a thorough understanding of the project and complete system outlines that describe the systems that will be used," Smith said.

An ice storage system similar to the one Metro Design provided for Lake Zurich High School.

Industry Involvement

In order to stay current with the latest in specification writing, Metro Design's engineers subscribe to and are professional members of the Construction Specification Institute (CSI). Metro's staff also holds memberships in several industry organizations, including the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), Consulting Electrical Engineers Association (CEEA), American Consulting Engineers Council (ACEC) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA). Metro Design's president, Keith O'Higgins, is also very involved with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), having served as director for two terms, as well as other committee activities. Smith is an active participant in the Illinois State Plumbing Code, the International Plumbing Code, and is on the legislative and technical committee of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE), where he has also served in the past as president of the Chicago Chapter.

The firm also encourages its employees to take part in industry associations by paying membership dues, as well as picking up additional costs for joining an association that may be required on a certain project, or providing the time off and covering the fees for attending conventions, seminars and continuing education courses. "The firm pays the dues for a minimum of one association membership for each employee, to encourage them to stay involved with the industry," Smith said.

Metro Design headed the renovation of the toilet rooms in several suburban Illinois community colleges like this one, Morraine Valley College.

Community Involvement

Each year at Christmas, Metro Design takes part in the Adopt-A-Family program organized by the Schaumburg Township. Through this program, the company provides support for one or two needy families during the holidays, contributing as a firm from between $750 and $1,000 per family. Metro's employees also contribute individually to the program, adding another $1,000 to the contribution, and then using some of the money to buy food, clothing and toys for the families. "We enjoy being a part of the program, and even throw a big wrapping party here in the office to get everything ready," O'Higgins said.

For the last three years now, Metro Design has also been involved with the Architect-Contractor-Engineer (ACE) program for high school students in the Fox Valley region. Juniors and seniors interested in engineering sign up for the program and are invited to visit Metro Design once a week for eight weeks to get a taste of what consulting engineering is about and some hands-on training in design. "The students start out learning about fact-finding and building code requirements; then they decide what area to work in, either plumbing, fire protection, electrical or mechanical systems," Smith said. "They are then shown the basic calculations, and we put them on the computers and let them draw their own project and present it." A number of Metro's students have gone on to major universities to study in engineering, Smith noted.

The staff at Metro Design Associates, Inc.

Customer Satisfaction

O'Higgins attributes Metro Design's successful customer relationships and the amount of repeat business to the firm's excellent response time and to providing a complete and quality product. According to the company's Statement of Qualifications, the staff of Metro Design earns its reputation by responding quickly to the client's needs and by designing projects that are on time, within the budget, and which operate efficiently.

And, while Metro Design primarily works with the architects and contractors on a project, the company does inspire loyalty among the owners as well, Arnold reported. There are even occasions, he said, when the architect on the project may be dismissed, and the owner will ask the next architect to work with Metro Design, a show of support Smith feels the company has earned. "Our clients remember us and keep coming back. We feel our reputation is our best marketing tool," Smith said.

Jeff Fougerousse, executive director of the Morton Grove Park District, explained why he continued to work with the engineering firm: "We have utilized Metro Design Associates' services for the past 10 years and have developed a professional relationship second to none. I have found the staff to be knowledgeable, committed and progessive thinkers."

Neal Rossdeutscher, former director of building and grounds for Schaumburg, IL, School District 54, added his own impressions of the firm and its staff. "For the Schaumburg school project, Metro Design did all the engineering, and they did an excellent job," Rossdeutscher said. "They responded to all our needs and our concerns. And they were timely, which was crucial for schools because we only had a 10-week window to get them up and running in time for school to start in August. That couldn't have been done without the help of Metro Design," he said.

"They really did pay attention to customer service, and they had people available anytime there was a problem and offered solutions to those problems," he said.

Skip Lubenow, facility director of Lake Zurich School District #95, echoed Rossdeutscher. "The district has used Metro Design for years, and the firm has been extremely responsive, not only on jobs they have done for us, but also as consultants on projects they didn't work on," he said.

"We also appreciate the thorough investigation they provide prior to specifying a manufacturer's product, looking not only at the efficiency, but for the long-term cost savings as well," he added.