A Summer with Wood Harbinger

By Ethan Prehoda

I was hired by Wood Harbinger this summer as a commissioning intern, with the opportunity to also work in the mechanical engineering department. As a junior in the mechanical engineering program at Michigan Technological University, this was my first engineering internship. Excited by the idea of cutting my teeth in the industry that will become my professional career, I left Michigan the day after my last Spring semester exam, drove over 2,000 miles in 40 hours, and arrived in Seattle ready for my first day with the firm. Well… when I arrived in the city, I took a brief 16-hour nap, but THEN I was ready for my first day.

I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on my personal experiences over the past 12 weeks, and provide some insight into the engineering industry from an intern’s perspective.

What do you know?

Whenever I start a new job, my first experience—with my coworkers, supervisor, or boss—typically involves them figuring out what exactly I know, and me figuring out what I need to know. When I arrived at Wood Harbinger, I quickly realized that I knew: nothing. Absolutely. Nothing. The modeling software was a foreign language, I barely knew what “HVAC” stood for, let alone how to design a system. And to make matters that much worse, I found out that the commissioning team was filled with a mechanical engineers’ worst nightmare: electrical engineers (Full disclosure: my brother is an electrical designer for the firm). I can imagine the horrified look on your faces as you read that, and believe me, I felt the exact same way. Luckily none of them were in the office my first week.

When I walked in on day one, I was whisked around the office by Andy Brown, BIM Manager, and cultivator of one of the finest beards in the PNW. I met several people, shook a lot of hands, forgot more names than I remembered, and 15 minutes later sat down at my desk dazed and knowing even less than I did when I first walked through the office doors.

At about 9:45, I got my first job: organize project documents that could be later referenced in responding to comments made on the same project’s drawings. Not the most glamorous task, but it provided me with an excellent overview of everything that goes into a project, while also giving me a crash course in the true engineering design process (not that flow chart that every professor tosses up on their projector screen on the second day of class). Once I finished that task, I spent a great deal of time exploring that project folder, and a few others just for good measure. It had only been a day, but I was already getting a slight idea of what exactly I had got myself into, and I was already starting to like it.

On my second day, the head of my department, Jeff Yirak, informed me that I would be heading across the state to Pullman, WA, the following week with the commissioning team to visit a job site and perform functional testing on the building’s mechanical and lighting systems. That sounded cool enough, but when he also told me I would be out there all week, staying in a company-paid hotel room, I thought, “Now THIS is when the adventure really begins.” I had no clue how right I was.

Meet the Avengers

Monday morning of the second week came around and my brother, Ben, a Wood Harbinger electrical designer and the local Revit guru, drove me to a Park & Ride at 6:00am to meet the commissioning team to head east. At 6:30, a black Ford Expedition with tinted windows pulled up in front of my car and stopped. The back opened automatically and a guy wearing dark sunglasses and a Punisher t-shirt, exposing several tattoos, got out of the driver seat. “Let’s go,” my brother said and opened the door.

Though I never saw money exchange hands, I had the sneaking suspicion that I had just been sold. However, on the contrary, it turned out that this guy was my project manager, Nick Baker. Over the course of the summer, I learned that Nick is a fantastic guy, an excellent engineer, and a hell of a mentor. In that one week, I learned more about engineering from Nick and the rest of the crew—Shaun May and Jacob O’Dell, both equally great guys and outstanding engineers—than I learned in my previous three years of school. Watching them work in the first few days felt like watching the Avengers taking on some genetically mutating monster. But in this case, that monster was the Commissioning Issues Log.

Commissioning Technician Jacob O’Dell using his latest invention at WSU’s Digital Classroom to test photocell response time. This modern marvel of engineering and human ingenuity is made with a paper Dixie cup, a telescoping mop pole, and an engineer’s best friend: lots and lots of duct tape. Jacob spent five minutes building it and two hours coming up with its name: “Cup on a Stick.”

Teamwork Defined

In the next five days, the four of us scoured Washington State University’s brand new 80,000 sq. ft. Digital Learning building, testing everything from light switches to active chilled beam water valves, looking for design issues, installation issues, and machine function issues. Shaun’s attention to detail meant there wasn’t a single issue overlooked, no matter how minor. Jacob’s organization and tactical proficiency enabled us to tackle large chunks of the building at a time, cornering issues and pinpointing their source almost immediately. And Nick wielded a constant torrent of communication and information sharing between Wood Harbinger, the project contractors, and our clients, streamlining the entire process.

If you really want to see somebody geek out about performing point-to-point inspections on air terminal units, buy me a cup of coffee and ask me about my week at WSU. In fact, you’ll probably have to buy three or four cups. And maybe dinner after. We’ll be there a while.

Just Intern Things

After that second week, I couldn’t imagine how interesting the next several weeks would be with the company. I was ready for my next task, my next big adventure, and my excitement was rewarded with: a rusty red furniture hauler? The company was a couple months away from moving to a whole new building, and all of our current office furniture was being replaced. Enter one intern, one handcart, and a giant dumpster waiting to be filled with old furniture and cubicle walls. A lot of cubicle walls. 18 tons of cubicle walls, office furniture, and miscellaneous debris to be exact.

While moving the furniture out of the building, I had the opportunity to appreciate just how long Wood Harbinger has been around, mostly by observing the shear amount of stuff that filled every cubicle. Engineering drawings fell out from behind shelves, in between desks, and under drawers. Engineering drawings dating back to the 1970s and even before that. Engineering drawings that are literally twice my age. And it struck me just what an impact Wood Harbinger has had on their surroundings. Hospitals, schools, planes, and even military facilities throughout the greater Seattle area, Washington State, and beyond, have all felt the lasting impression of a Wood Harbinger design over the last 50 years. For one quarter in their 50th year, I was a part of that. It’s truly awesome to think about.

Where do they send the intern to take pictures? Down into the bottom of a floating pontoon of course! I got an interesting perspective of one of Wood Harbinger’s largest recent projects: the SR 520 Floating Bridge and Landings. Not pictured: Whatever lives in the dark hole on the right side of the image. But it sounded hungry.

“The Talk”

As I prepared to leave Wood Harbinger and return to school, I found myself having several “talks.” Some of those talks were with other employees, exchanging contact information, and ensuring that some relationship will exist beyond this internship; be it a friendship or perhaps a future professional affiliation. I had a few conversations with my project manager Nick and department head Jeff, evaluating the summer from all of our standpoints and briefly touching on the possibility of a return to Wood Harbinger in the future.

But the most important “talk” I’ve had in these final weeks has been with myself. Reflecting on this past summer, I have developed a deep appreciation and respect for the engineering industry, particularly within the markets served by this firm. I am even more excited about starting my professional engineering career, and I hope that I might one day work for a firm with the history, character, and reputation for excellence that has made Wood Harbinger so successful in the Seattle area since 1967, and will maintain its success for at least the next 50 years.

I would like to thank Jeff Yirak for the opportunities this internship provided me this summer, as well as Nick, Shaun, and Jacob for their guidance throughout the last 12 weeks. Additionally, I would like to thank my brother, Ben, for showing me the quality of work and work ethic required to be a great engineer, and the rest of the Wood Harbinger family for their hospitality this summer.

Finally, I would like to thank you, the reader, for taking the time to read this novel…I promise if I ever find myself in the good fortune of writing another Wood Harbinger blog, it won’t be nearly this long.

This entry was posted in All Insignts, Commissioning, Mechanical Engineering and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

  1. Ed au dette
    Posted July 21, 2017 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Ethen, now u know a little bit about the HVAC field that I was informed over forty five years, which was a just a part of the machanical end. I enjoyed your story and wish u the best in the future. U. Take care, luv u.

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