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October 2008
The Optima Solution
By Ellison Clary

     Without hesitation, the founder of Optima Engineering names the mixed-use Villages at Lake Norman as the firm’s most engaging project.

     Keith Pehl, Optima president, calls the 110-acre development “very different” because so much of its 3.5 million square feet are subterranean, including loading docks and parking. It’s quite an exercise to ventilate such space, make it water tight, properly light it—and stay within budget.

     Pehl relishes in stiff tests for his 16-year-old company that specializes in electrical, mechanical and plumbing engineering as well as fire protection and lighting design, with a focus on green precepts.

     “It’s fun to do something that is hard and challenging,” Pehl says. “We strive to hire good quality engineers and retain them. Part of that is challenging them, and part of that is getting challenging projects.”

     A focus on learning and applying new knowledge has been important for Pehl since he was a boy watching his father Glen Pehl operate his insurance consulting business. He liked that his dad valued doing the right thing more than making a profit.

     The younger Pehl determined he’d have his own firm someday. He earned his degree in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University, and then worked in three Charlotte engineering firms learning his discipline. For good measure, he earned a master’s of business administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte along the way.

     “He’s a very hard worker,” says Steve Fink, owner of Signet Engineering in Charlotte, who was Pehl’s supervisor at the Clark Tribble Harris & Li architectural firm. Besides his father, Pehl names Fink as one of his most important mentors.

     Even though Pehl was fresh out of college, Fink turned him loose on the Gateway Center building, precursor of Gateway Village. “He gave me guidance and he let me make mistakes on my own, too,” Pehl says. “I did learn a lot from him. He was a very good mentor.”

     Fink remembers Pehl was driven, very purpose-oriented. “Everyone pretty much knew what he was planning as far as opening a business,” Fink says. “You could tell that’s where he was headed.”

     By the time he was 30, Pehl felt ready to open Optima, even if the 1992 economy wasn’t all it could be. His wife Cathy had a good job, their twin girls, now 14, hadn’t come along yet and Pehl rightly planned that his new business wouldn’t make money that first year.

     Operating from a spare bedroom, Pehl developed enough momentum to bring in Ron Almond, a mechanical engineer, as his partner. Today Pehl is president, Almond is vice president and co-owner.

 

The Right Combination

     Pehl and Almond initially decided to offer mechanical, electrical and plumbing services because “those areas just go together real well,” Pehl says. Architects like to get all three in a package. “There are economies of scale when you combine the trades together on our end,” he explains.

     A year after startup, Pehl moved Optima and its five employees into center city’s Carillon Building, where they had an engineering contract. Subsequently, the company had one more address before settling in the historic Textile Supply Building on South Mint Street where it is presently.

     It’s been there since 1998 and grown to 38 employees who are bursting at the seams of its 8,000 or so square feet. That’s why Optima soon will move to the third floor of a new office building at South Tryon and Doggett streets.

     The 16,000 square feet will give the firm plenty of room to grow and will fit its profile in another important way. The space will be finished to platinum—the highest—standard of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) specifications.

     “I’ve always been interested in sustainability and LEED,” Pehl says, pointing out that the house he built in the Lincoln County town of Denver uses a geothermal heat pump system and sports a solar water heater on the roof.

     It’s becoming more lucrative for Optima to emphasize green precepts, especially in the last couple of years, as the Southeast’s traditionally low energy costs have started a steady upward spiral. According to Pehl, North Carolina has enacted legislation specifying new state-funded buildings must be planned for 30 percent less than code-derived baseline energy usage. That, he adds, usually equates to the silver LEED classification.

     Pehl is proud that he won green buy-in from his engineers, traditionally a conservative lot. They have come to like the idea that their new digs will have solar panels and a solar water heater to show off to potential clients.

     He believes that designing new structures with sustainability in mind has rectified a situation that evolved in the 1980s. Computer-aided drafting, or CAD, made individual designs easier to devise remotely, breaking up traditional   meetings between architects and engineers to discuss and vet a project.

     “LEED has helped push all that back together,” Pehl says. “Architects and engineers are forced to sit down with an owner and go through options. Because everybody’s talking in the same room, it’s a lot easier way to design an efficient building. It usually results in a lot better design.”

 

Proven Concepts

     Although subscribing wholeheartedly to green precepts, Optima’s offerings stop just short of cutting edge; the company prefers to champion what is proven, but maybe just not widespread. For instance, photovoltaics and solar thermal are not new, but the systems that provide them are improving markedly, Pehl says.

     Currently, the company is promoting new lighting technology for both fixtures and controls. Motion sensors that automatically turn on electric lights with movement but cut off after a certain period of time have been used in Europe for a decade but remain novel here.

     “We can light a room for about half the wattage we could even three years ago,” Pehl says. “I can take a larger building and cut the power for lighting in half.”

     This means air conditioning costs drop, he continues, because the system doesn’t have to counteract as much heat from light fixtures.

     “It’s a win-win,” he smiles. “The owner’s paying less money up front and they are paying for less energy overall.”

     Its LEED concentration has made Optima a strong candidate for school projects. It’s involved with the South Mecklenburg High renovation and an addition to Idlewild Elementary.

     A long-time client for Optima that appreciates its sustainable bent is Charlotte’s Overcash Demmitt Architects. Principal Stephen Overcash reckons his company has worked with Optima on hundreds of projects.

     “They’re very green and that means a lot to us,” Overcash says. “They’re a good creative group. They’re very fair in their pricing and a lot of fun to work with. They’re also responsive. They get back to us when we have a tight deadline.”

     High-profile Charlotte projects the two have collaborated on include Irwin Belk Track and Field Center and the Robert & Miriam Hayes Stadium for baseball, both on the UNC Charlotte campus.

     Other notable Optima projects include the new zMax Dragway that auto dealership and racing billionaire Bruton Smith has opened in Cabarrus County.

     “It’s a lot of work for what looks like a piece of asphalt that cars go fast on,” Pehl chuckles.

     It includes six miles of trenching for conduit and wiring. The thousands of feet of wiring services huge electronic signs and allows race fans to plug in their camping vehicles. Also sucking up electricity are grandstands, concessions and ticket booths, not to mention huge video screens. Pehl calls the work “very intense.”

 

Myriad Sectors

     Speaking of intensity, Optima also specializes in mission-critical data centers for companies that include Wachovia and Lowe’s Home Improvement. A facility that architecturally is just walls with a roof must feature enough electrical redundancy to ensure continual operation. Protection from overheating is part of guarding against computer malfunction, so cooling redundancy is also critical.

     Optima employs more plumbing engineers than any other firm in the region, Pehl adds. The native Charlottean is proud that his company provides mechanical, plumbing and electrical design services for Presbyterian Hospital, where he was born 46 years ago.

     Optima is registered in multiple states but about 80 percent of its projects are in the Carolinas, Pehl says. Their variety is impressive, because the firm works in myriad sectors with a large number of clients. That, too, goes back to something Pehl learned long ago.

     That first firm Pehl joined, Clark Tribble Harris & Li, ultimately went bankrupt. Pehl believes that happened because its focus was too narrow. “I never want to be in a position where I have to lay people off,” he says. “So we’re very broad. If we lose a significant client, we can survive.”

     Optima’s annual growth has been between 15 percent and 18 percent for several years. Pehl thinks it might be time to slow down and concentrate on quality.

     “Five years from now, I think we’ll be at 50 employees,” he says. “We’ll have an even better reputation and be able to do even more quality work.”

     In its first 10 years, he explains, Optima was known for fast work on smaller jobs. Now it’s seen as a company that can handle larger, more complex projects but with the same adherence to deadlines.

     Pehl is shaping Optima’s reputation for client sensitivity, evolving it into a firm whose designs can save building owners 10 to 15 percent annually in energy and maintenance while providing a good quality product. He sums up, “That’s where I want our reputation to be.”

     He’s proud of the company culture, which he calls tight-knit. Conscious of quality of life and team building, the company closes early on Friday afternoons and employees enjoy occasional golfing or other outings together.

     “We try to hire people that have good social skills and good personalities,” he says. “They’re not the pocket-protector stereotype engineers. They work with architects and contractors and they’re very people-oriented.”

     Pehl also emphasizes the need to do things right and make things right. When something comes to their attention, even after the fact, that could have been done better or more appropriately, Optima will do its best to make it right, even helping to mitigate the costs.

     “We are proactive in providing the best service in the most informed fashion possible. And above all, we try to be honest and fair,” Pehl explains.

     “We also try to be responsive,” he continues. “You can’t wait two weeks to respond to a problem a contractor has today. You’ve got to answer it today.”

     That brings Pehl back to what he believes is Optima’s overall strength. “We’re selling knowledge and we’re selling service,” he says. “We’re always trying to be better at what we do, to improve our quality and the quality of projects we’re able to get. We want to provide a higher level of service.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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