An Interview with Joel Smith, P.E., of PSF Mechanical

By Seth Pike

Joel joined the PSF Mechanical Team in 2009 and is presently the Engineering Department Technical Director.  His opportunities in mechanical contracting started in 1969 while attending West Seattle High School as a ASHRAE drafting intern with MacDonald-Miller Company. A 1975 mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Washington, Joel worked throughout the ranks of engineering, project management and sales and became the Vice President of Engineering/Sales and Estimating at MacDonald-Miller Company. In 1997 Joel sold his shares of MacDonald-Miller to Encompass, a public company and in 2002 moved to Hermanson Company as the Engineering, Estimating and Sales manager.

Joel has specialized in the area of design/build and has participated on design teams that have won two Contracting Business Magazine 1st Place awards for comfort and quality.

SP: Why did you get involved in mechanical engineering?

Joel Smith:  When I went to junior high school, they had a technical drafting course at James Madison Junior High and I got pretty good at it, this was roughly back in 1966.  When I went to high school I had to select my elective and could not get into auto shop because everybody wanted it. I was more the technical guy anyways so I took technical drawing, I did well at it.

Ben Notkin and Jerry Hermanson, who were with MacDonald Miller Company at the time, decided it would be a good idea to hire an intern from one of the local schools. My technical drawing teacher let me know about this opportunity.  I interviewed with Jerry and got the intern position.  This was my first time working with MacDonald Miller back in 1969, which I stayed until 2004.  So, a lot of the early history of design-build I was either a participant in it or witnessed it.

SP:  You have worked in several of the capacities in the mechanical industry, what attracted you to focus on engineering?

Joel Smith:  When I first went to work with the MacDonald Miller Company I was just a draftsman, engineers would give you a design and you would draft it.   I did that through college at Shoreline and UW.   At that point, McDonald Miller was owned by JM MacDonald and Thomas D Miller, they were the two principals and MM actually sprung from Refrigeration Engineering who did freezers and coolers for grocery stores, JM and Thomas did the A/C side of things and split off and started their own design-build company, this was in ‘65.  I went over there in ’69 so they were pretty new.  In the early 70’s they sold out to a company called Western Pacific Industries.

I ended up going back to MM, as part of Pacific Western Industries.  PWI was a forest products company and found that the mechanical business was not right for them so they sold that company back to the people running it at the time.  This happened in ’78 or ’79.  Around this time, I started working under John Ramsted in engineering.  He was the engineering manager.  He was not a degreed engineer but he was good at what he did.  He was my mentor early on.  When he left to become the lead engineer at PSF Mechanical, I ended up taking over the engineering department at MM.

SP:  What would you consider one of the highlights of your career?

Joel Smith:  One of the highlights of my career is a project called Pioneer Place in Portland, Oregon of all places, that was in 1979.  The Rouse Company was the developer and they asked us to participate as a design-build team member for that project.  It was a Victorian style shopping center and office building, with an underground level that spanned two city blocks.  MAX, the rapid transit ran right through it so we had to keep that operational during construction.  This was a mega-project for us back then, $4,000,000 which was a large contract at the time.

One thing I liked was that the owner was in Columbia, Maryland, so every three months we got to go to Columbia to meet with them and every two weeks we got to go to San Francisco for design meetings, and the job was in Portland, and we were based here in Seattle.  It was the best group of people I ever worked with on a project at that time, they were just fun to work with.

SP:  From an engineering standpoint, what kind of mechanical system was selected?

Joel Smith:  It was a giant condenser water system.  It had horizontal heat pumps in the office and other areas had vertical self-contained units.  In fact, the equipment manufacturer did a marketing video about that job to with me talking about vertical self-contained units.  The office building had large roof-top package units with VAV boxes because it was a pretty simple structure.  For the mall area, we used hydronic heat pumps for the tenants because The Rouse Co didn’t want to take care of the tenant’s equipment.  So basically, you as a tenant bought 3 GPM per ton, if you wanted 5 tons you bought 15 GPM, and then you did whatever you wanted for the design.   They had a philosophy that the tenant was in control of their own space.

SP:  What other type of unique mechanical systems have you been involved with?

Joel Smith:  The Department of Labor and Industries had a changeover system.  Some people didn’t like change over systems because they thought they were too complex.  I always wanted to do morning warm up with gas heat.  To add hydronic fin-tubes radiation or hydronic fan terminal units, that was pretty expensive, it could add five dollars a square foot to the project.  But if I had chilled water coils in the system, like the Department of Labor Industries we could add a change-over system.  They had electric heat, but I showed them how we could put a boiler in and use the existing chilled water system, the pumps and everything.  Just put a boiler on the loop.  For morning warm up we could use the main air-handlers, open the VAV’s and we could bring the building up to temperature using gas heat.  It worked great.

SP:  You’ve been here for few years.  What changes have you seen in terms of the way projects are being delivered, or maybe in mechanical systems compared to when you first got into the industry:

Joel Smith:  The variable volume stuff, the VFD drives.  There was a time where you just couldn’t use them, they were grossly expensive and they were big as a Cadillac.  The technology now for variable volume on fans…pumps…that’s probably the biggest single thing.  You want to talk about compressors with increased efficiency, but for me it’s the variable volume on things, mostly water systems, two-way valves instead of three-way valves, that’s the stuff that I have seen.  VRF of course, but I am still forming my opinion on that (laughing).

SP:  I got one final question for you.  We have a lot of young members that are interested in mechanical engineering, what advice would you give someone contemplating getting to the engineering world.

Joel Smith:  Find a good mentor, somebody you can sit with, someone who will teach you stuff.   Because if they hire you and put you off in a corner it’s pretty tough.  I think you have to be a pretty special person to pick it all up yourself, if it is even possible at all… find a good mentor to hang out with.  And I would say don’t be in such a rush to be the head of engineering or whatever, take your time, learn as much as you can learn, with someone you think knows what they are doing.