From the time Burns & McDonnell landed its first major contract — designing a waterworks, sewer system and electric generating plant for Iola, Kan. — cultivating and maintaining relationships has been a cornerstone of the firm’s operation.
Long-standing relationships with municipalities are particularly important. Knowledge of a city’s history — where it began, how far it has come and where it’s headed — brings efficiency and forward-thinking to projects and builds trust between client and contractor.
Laying the Groundwork
With the final touches being put on the Dallman 4 power generating unit for the city of Springfield, Ill., Burns & McDonnell is helping do more than wrap up a nearly 10-year project. It’s offering proof that building relationships with municipalities beyond mere client-contractor status can go a long way to providing a city the right services.
The first link between Burns & McDonnell and Springfield dates back to 1924. It was then that Burns & McDonnell designed the dam to create Lake Springfield, which provides cooling water for the Lakeside Station power plant and potable water for Springfield and surrounding communities. The lake also serves as a recreational site.
The Lake Springfield project became a gateway to a decades-long relationship with the city, leading to 16 major projects over the next 26 years, including the Lakeside Station power plant, as well as the Dallman generating units beginning in the 1960s and continuing today.
“Knowing what the city likes and dislikes and how it operates allows it to get the level of service needed,” says Don Wolf, Burns & McDonnell project manager for the Dallman 4 generating unit. “If we know the client, we can anticipate their needs to some degree and ask the right questions and give them the right design from the start.”
The long history between Springfield and Burns & McDonnell creates confidence — from knowing initial permitting work completed by the firm will translate to compliance in the end to having working knowledge of one project and how it’s impacted by a new one.
“Having the same people always coming back and available makes the kickoff for each new project that much easier because they already know our philosophy of how we operate and what we require,” says Doug Brown, major projects development director for City, Water, Light & Power of Springfield.
The forethought involved with that lays the groundwork not only for a successful job, but also for the city to control its own destiny through independence and ownership in the services it can provide.
“We have the capability to draw clean water and reliably distribute that to our residents and not depend on anyone else to meet our needs,” Brown says. “And the same goes with generating and distributing electricity — we can protect our customers from volatile prices in the power market.”
With secure footing in providing key services to residents and feeling confident projects will be completed ahead of schedule, Springfield leaders can look to the future and feel confident the city’s needs can be met.
“The less funding we spend on a project, the more we can move forward with other projects or maintenance activities — and you definitely don’t have to look at raising our customers’ rates,” Brown says.
Moving A City Forward
In Columbia, Mo., thousands of people count on their elected officials to make the right decision about how tax and bond money is spent and that it’s used in alignment with their vision for the city.
“Columbia is a very unique city. It’s a college town, its residents are highly educated
and it’s marked by very active citizenry,” says Jim Foil, senior vice president of the Burns & McDonnell Infrastructure Group. “They are very open to pushing the envelope on environmental issues.”
There is no better example of that desire than Columbia’s current landfill bioreactor
project for which Burns & McDonnell provides operational assistance, design and geographic information systems (GIS) services.
The bioreactor works by applying water to waste, which helps the waste decompose faster. The accelerated pace of decomposition consequently increases the rate at which the waste produces methane, resulting in a significant increase in landfill gas, which is used for electricity generation.
Considered by many as the next generation of solid waste landfills, the Columbia landfill bioreactor is the only one of its kind in Missouri — and one of only a few in the country owned and operated by a city rather than a private entity.
“It’s not easy to try this,” says J. David Langford, associate vice president of the Burns & McDonnell Environmental Group. “If the city had several landfills, it could perform comparative tests to optimize the bioreactor performance, but Columbia only has one. So for them to be attempting this is a real feat.”
In knowing that, Burns & McDonnell can begin to visualize the landfill’s long-term needs — particularly in terms of data collection and management — to help ease the burden of navigating new territory. Working with a firm that knows a city’s wants and needs has real value because the firm, which has historical perspective and future vision, can work with a city to help bring their goals to fruition.
Having permitted and designed the landfill and three of its cells — plus the infrastructure surrounding the landfill — Burns & McDonnell knew the operational requirements of the bioreactor and the benefits the city could realize through the use of GIS to collect and store data. Engineers outlined that vision for the city from the outset and made sure those services were included in the initial bid.
“The new landfill GIS will immediately increase the availability of key landfill data without having to search through many different files and locations,” says Bryan Claxton, Burns & McDonnell associate project manager. “In the future, as the GIS is integrated into more of the landfill’s workflows, such as bioreactor operations, it will become an integral part of the data management and a powerful tool by which staff can quickly identify adjustments needed to optimize system performances.”
The GIS database development is under way, and the next bioreactor is already on the slate, with Burns & McDonnell serving as the owner’s engineer and providing construction documents.
“Through our knowledge of the city’s needs, goals and first-class leadership, we are able to offer services that will enable our shared vision to be realized,” says Chris Snider, Burns & McDonnell associate environmental engineer and project manager for the bioreactor.
The Trust Factor
A fundamental component of any relationship is trust. With it, a partnership can conquer any challenge. Without it, the relationship between client and contractor is tarnished, giving the client a negative impression of the firm, from distrusting it as an industry expert to removing virtually all potential as a future contractor for the client.
So when a firm objectively considers a client’s needs and offers advice for the best solution — regardless of whether the firm was hired — it speaks volumes about the firm’s work ethic.
“To have a consultant like Burns & McDonnell that’s knowledgeable about what you’re trying to do and know where you’ve been and know the mistakes that have been made is priceless,” says John Glascock, public works director for the city of Columbia. “Having the background knowledge of the city brings a lot of help to the table, and I feel comfortable enough to call for advice on projects whether we’re paying Burns & McDonnell or not.”
The impact of that trust is greater than dollars and cents. City officials must feel confident that the guidance provided by Burns & McDonnell appropriately backs up its policymaking and helps the city respond to tough questions and criticisms from its constituents.
“Our job is partly to create a progress-practical balance,” says Kiah Harris, a Burns & McDonnell principal in the Business & Technology Services Group. “We offer good support for policy justification, explaining if a constituent-suggested solution works and why it may or may not be economically viable.”
Doing the Job Right
The challenge of maintaining these types of long-standing relationships is that every job is a test. A firm intimately familiar with a city must prove it can think ahead for
more efficient planning and the most viable solutions.
“Our expectations for Burns & McDonnell are much higher because of our long history together,” says Springfield’s Brown.
If those expectations are not met, not only is the contractor letting down its client, but it’s also impacting the faith a municipality’s stakeholders have in their leadership.
“One reason a city contracts work out is for expertise,” says Paula Hertwig Hopkins, assistant city manager for Columbia. “If the contractor cannot fulfill its obligations, then they’re really not being helpful.”
“Burns & McDonnell has been nimble enough to understand our challenges — that’s been great for us,” she says.