It has been quite the past 18 months for Mike Witkowskiand McHugh Engineering.

After 15 years with the company as a senior mechanical engineer, Witkowski, along with colleagues Steve Griet and Brian Malloy, became partial owners of the company. Since the buy-in, the trio designed a new company headquarters and recently packed up all its materials for the big move to Ambler, Pa.

All this work combined with serving as  ASHRAE’s Philadelphia Chapter president, his respected industry reputation and forward-thinking and energy-conscious designs have led to Witkowski being named pme’s 2014 Mechanical Engineer of the Year.

Witkowski believes that his and McHugh’s versatility helped the company to survive and thrive during the recent Great Recession. Personally, Witkowski spearheaded a recent bevy of projects including a church, a high-rise renovation, a refrigerated warehouse, an off-track wagering facility, an office building and an athletic facility.

“This is what keeps the field fun and exciting,” he says.


Go-to guy

When Havertown, Pa.-based Casaccio Yu Architects and Eric Trainer began plans for the St. Joseph Parish Catholic Church in Downington, Pa., its long-standing relationship with McHugh Engineering was something he relied upon. McHugh Engineering currently has licenses in 13 states with projects in Philadelphia, Connecticut and Florida among other locations.

“McHugh Engineering has been our go-to engineering firm for more than 20 years, teaming with us on religious, commercial and institutional projects,” Trainer says. “Mike always had the owner’s budget and schedule constraints in mind, recommending simplicity over more complicated and sophisticated system components.”  

Witkowski – the third in his family to graduate from Philadelphia’s Drexel University – was the project manager for the 30,000-sq.-ft.,1,400-seat church and evaluated many different HVAC strategies. The owner of the church was interested in installing a geothermal system, but Witkowski made sure the owner was completely informed. His team explained to Trainer and the parish’s building committee that geothermal was not the proper investment to make at St. Joseph’s.

Witkowski recommended the parish utilize a more conventional, but still high-efficient application that is compact and cost-effective. Also, Witkowski worked with an acoustics consultant to minimize noise from the equipment. The system is quiet, which is ideal for a place of worship.

“Geothermal is great, but it is only really great if you have an occupied building five to seven days a week,” Witkowski states. “When your peak demand load is one day a week, you are not going to capture those energy savings.”

The St. Joseph’s Parish project did not provide much space for its mechanical room, so coordinating with the structural engineer was critical. Witkowski was able to keep the equipment hidden from view, but accessible for any future service or replacement.

Witkowski also impressed Trainer with the ability to coordinate the other important elements of the St. Joseph project.

“In addition to serving as the chief mechanical engineer for the project, Mike coordinated the electrical and plumbing engineers working under him at McHugh,” Trainer says. “He effectively communicated with his team members and kept them active in decision-making. Throughout the project, Mike was always level-headed, responsive and met project milestones and deadlines.”

St. Joseph’s opened in 2013 and Witkowski

was very satisfied with how the facility turned out, particularly with the aforementioned small spaces and the unusual timing of the building’s workload.

“Churches always are challenging,” he says. “They normally require a high level of finishes that affect where the mechanical equipment can go. They have high peak loads on the weekends with low usage during the week. The end users are very conscious of energy usage because their funding is fairly limited.”

McHugh also has been involved with the renovation of four, 19-story high-rise buildings in Philadelphia. Witkowski has been working on the project for nearly four years and the first of three phases has been completed.

“During the design, the buildings were added to the Federal Historical Registry,” he states. “While this is a great thing, it dramatically affects what we can do with the façade and penetrations. The project has constantly been evolving and fine-tuned through the years.”

The complex has around 980 units and phase one of the project included the replacement of the failing mechanical infrastructure. Witkowski reports the piping and fan coils were past their useful life. The decision processes in how to best complete the job while the building remained operational were critical. The owners, the design team and the contractors agreed to do the work in sections because a portion of occupants would be moved to a hotel for two weeks while the work was done.

“It was very fast-paced,” Witkowski says. “There were a lot of decisions that had to be made to make this plan work. Was it building new chases to put the piping in a remote location? Was it utilizing the existing openings?

“We worked hand-in-hand with everyone to make sure the design was best accommodating for what they needed to achieve.”


Other side of the coin

As part owner of McHugh Engineering, Witkowski says his role in day-to-day design duties has shrunk, but he’s excited about nurturing the younger talent the company has under its roof.

“I am reviewing and guiding some of the younger employees in our office. This transition will take some time because I will continue to supervise projects that I started several years ago and see them through to completion,” he says. “In my new role, I am responsible for the mechanical and plumbing departments and it is important that I am well-versed in the technology of our industry.”

As owners, Witkowski, Griet and Malloy will continue with the foundation put in place by former owner Joe McHugh. Witkowski saw McHugh Engineering pay for a portion of his graduate degree and cover the costs of professional memberships in ASHRAE and ASPE.

“We pay employees for monthly society meetings and additional coursework as the employees see fit,” Witkowski says. “We’re also always willing to purchase software or tools that will help the company.”

Griet says the company’s vision under their leadership is to constantly improve service to clients and continue to evolve with energy-efficient designs.

“We want to express to our clients that we are committed to the importance of energy-efficient designs. We incorporated our own philosophy into the construction of our new office building,” he says. “It is our vision to continually provide our clients with the latest engineering technology and to always seek ways to improve our current engineering design services.”

In October, McHugh Engineering completed the lengthy process of moving its Pennsylvania offices from Fort Washington to Ambler. The move included renovating 7,800 sq. ft. of former warehouse that now houses the company’s 18 employees. Witkowski worked alongside architectKyle Litzke of Malvern, Pa.-based Arcus Design Group. Litzke says the teams easily found symmetry and common ground, resulting in a smooth construction project.

“Working with Mike and McHugh on their new office space was one of those experiences you dream about as an architect,” Litzke says. “It was a wonderful collaboration of the different design trades, each respectful of the other’s experience and strengths while keeping focus on the ultimate goal of an innovative and efficient building design that invigorated new life into an old warehouse shell.”

He adds: “Even the value-engineering process, which we did have to go through to reduce some cost on the project, was thoughtful and uncompromising of the design goals.”

Litzke says Witkowski’s preparedness and attention to the detail stood out in spades.

“Mike went the extra mile to make sure the various mechanical components were not just compatible, but that they were enhancing the details of the design,” he says. “He did not rely on what the cut sheet told him the size of the diffusers was. He called the supplier and made sure he knew the actual dimensions. This type of careful scrutinywas critical to this project due to the open nature of the industrial warehouse design. Many of the mechanical elements were exposed and incorporated into the overall aesthetic.”


Leader of the pack

Peers of Witkowski universally praise his passion for the industry and the extra work he puts in. Jeff Crozier, a senior mechanical engineer with Ambler-based Precis Engineering, works closely with Witkowski within ASHRAE and is a longtime friend. Crozier credits Witkowski for staying on task, which allows him to fully enjoy every aspect of his life.

“It is no secret that Mike, like many engineers, works more hours than we would like to count,” Crozier says. “However, Mike has always valued family time even though his company is growing. He manages to find time for family life and ASHRAE. He does this by staying organized, not procrastinating, and going to the office early when possible and not allowing his work to linger into the weekends.”

Robert Finkboner had Witkowski as a staff officer during his term as president of the ASHRAE Philadelphia Chapter. He was pleased to see Witkowski buy into the plan the group laid out during that time.

“My takeaway from working with Mike is he is committed to ASHRAE’s mission and vision,” he says. “He works tirelessly to inspire and educate. He connects people around ASHRAE resources, codes and building practices.”

Witkowski says his president’s role – which began last July – has broadened his career in numerous ways including developing as a public speaker and sharpening his management skills. Additionally, the industry group continually makes Witkowski a stronger engineer.

“ASHRAE is a great resource to me and my continuing education,” he says. “As I’ve matured in my career, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the systems we design. I can better appreciate the detail required for a complete design.”

During his one-year tenure, Witkowski plans to make sure members and officers know their roles to keep the chapter moving in the right direction. He’ll make a concerted effort to showcase the achievements of the delegation in the chapter’s publications.

“I really want to drive home the basics to each board member,” he states. “The board is relatively young and we want to make sure the newer officers understand their positions. One goal I have is to recognize the efforts of individual board members each month in our newsletter.”

Witkowski’s first 15 years in the industry have been challenging and rewarding, but the satisfaction he feels after each project is palpable.  

“It can be a lot of pressure because, in a very real sense, we’re affecting people’s lives,” he says. “We’re designing their homes, their offices, their places of worship. We need to meet our clients’ expectations. It’s a great feeling when I get to finally walk through a building I have studied on paper and see it come to life.”  


The Witkowski File

Other notes on McHugh Engineering’s Mike Witkowski, pme’s 2014 Mechanical Engineer of the Year.

• Married to his wife, Alana, for 7 1/2 years with three children – Hannah (5), Molly (3) and Shane (1);

• Serves on Drexel University’s College of Engineering Alumni Association board;

• Served on Drexel University’s alumni board;

• Taught HVAC courses at Villanova University for four years;

• Worked as an outside observer for Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology reviews at Widener University;

• Was an advisor to Drexel’s Smart House team in its attempts to design an old fraternity house into a living research lab.

• Participated in the MS 150 bike ride in New Jersey the last three years to raise money for local people with multiple sclerosis. In 2014, Witkowski’s group rode the first day and did an extra 25 miles for a total of 100 miles.

“I started to think why did I do this and then as I finished the race there were several people who are suffering with MS at the finish line helping out,” he says. “Seeing those people put it back into perspective as to why we have supported the ride. Hopefully the money raised can make one of their battles a little less challenging.”