Spokane Journal of Business

MSI Engineers shows resistance to lulls

Firm designing systems for highly visible projects

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-—Mike McLean
William Meulink and Natalie Johnston are two of the four partners at MSI Engineers, which next year plans to expand its space in the Legion Building at 108 N. Washington downtown.

The Spokane mechanical engineering firm known today as MSI Engineers has enjoyed steady growth since its start, says founder William Meulink.

“Even during the downturn, we didn’t contract,” he says. “We continued to grow.”

Today, MSI Engineers has a staff of 15, including 11 engineers.

MSI Engineers designs mechanical systems for buildings. One of the main mechanical systems in a building is the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. Other aspects of mechanical engineering include designing energy management systems, and certain life-safety systems, such as fire suppression.

Meulink says the firm’s annual revenue is “north of $3 million” and trending upward.

MSI Engineers hired four people in the last year, including three engineers, Meulink says.

“We could pick up more people,” he says, adding that the size of the staff is limited by space. 

“This office is full and we’re getting ready to double its size,” he says.

MSI Engineers currently occupies 3,250 square feet of space on the fifth floor of the Legion Building, at 108 N. Washington, downtown and will expand next year to take up the entire 6,500-square-foot floor, he says.

Meulink started the firm here as Meulink Engineers in 1999. Jess Stauffenberg joined in 2001 and became a partner in 2006. In 2012, the partners renamed the firm Meulink Stauffenberg PS, from which the MSI Engineers moniker is derived.

Meulink and Stauffenberg recently named Natalie Johnston and Aaron Donnelly as the newest of the four partners in the firm.

Regarding clients, Meulink says, “We focus on the big five,” referring to the industrial, government, health care, education, and private sectors. 

Much of the work is highly technical and complex, he says.

The firm has handled mechanical aspects of high-dollar projects from the beginning, starting with a service center for an auto dealership, Meulink says.

“Before I started this firm I was a partner at MW Consulting, where we did a lot of technical work, and my pedigree was in larger state and federal projects,” he says.

Johnston joined the firm eight years before being named a partner.

Her first project was in designing mechanical systems for the 145,000-square-foot Patterson Hall renovation at Eastern Washington University. The $50 million project, which spanned two bienniums, involved gutting and renovating the building.

Johnston currently is MSI Engineers’ project lead for The M project, a highly visible mid-rise conversion at the former Macy’s building, at 608 W. Main, downtown.

MSI Engineers’ responsibilities in the $20 million-plus project include designing the central mechanical plant, including boilers, chillers, and air-handling systems, she says. MSI Engineers also is designing elevator and stairwell pressurization systems, and other life safety features.

“It’s a phased project, starting with the building core and shell,” Johnston says.

The mechanical design for retail space on the first two floors is complete and the developer currently is working on permitting for the residential package for the third through 10th floors, she says.

Walker Construction Inc., of Spokane, is the contractor on the project, and Spokane-based NAC Architecture designed it.

MSI Engineers is the mechanical engineer for another big Spokane project, a $34 million, 100-bed psychiatric hospital that’s going up under a lean-construction process at 104 W. Fifth, with 80 percent of the design complete so far, Meulink says.

Representatives of the contractor, architect, and subcontractors meet weekly to review the progress and coordinate the work to be done next, he says.

“The idea is to design and build an entire facility with as little wasted time as possible and still give the owners what their looking for,” he says.

Renton, Wash.-based Providence Health & Services and Fairfax Behavioral Health, of Kirkland, will operate the hospital. Bouten Construction Inc., of Spokane, is the contractor on the project, and NAC designed it.

Projects on MSI Engineers’ boards now include a $6 million-plus chiller plant replacement at EWU starting in the fall.

MSI Engineers also is preparing to start work on three high schools to be constructed in the Washington cities of Prosser, Kennewick, and Grandview. The firm also has projects in the works with Spokane Public Schools, Central Valley School District, and Mead School District.

“On average, we do about 12 schools a year in Eastern Washington and Oregon,” Meulink says.

MSI Engineers’ clients with current projects in the Tri-Cities include Kennewick School District, Bechtel National Inc., and Kadlec Regional Medical Center.

In Western Washington, MSI Engineers is the mechanical engineer for the 300,000-square-foot Freedom Crossing shopping mall at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord exchange.

The Spokane firm has done projects throughout the U.S., recently including projects in Alaska, Mississippi, and Virginia. 

Meulink says MSI Engineers does a lot of energy efficiency projects, including many that meet Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design standards.

The heating and cooling system that it designed for the new $15 million Naches Valley Elementary School, for example, is coupled to an aquifer, which makes for a highly efficient heat pump system.

“We don’t take a cookie cutter approach,” Meulink says. “We come into a project and look at budgets and what (clients) are looking for, and we try to come up with a system that’s going to save most energy and the most money as a result.”

About 30 percent of MSI Engineers’ active projects are private commercial and industrial projects. Most of the rest are grouped into state, federal, health care, and higher education projects.

That ratio changes over the years, Meulink says.

Early on, the firm was a leader in engineering projects for telecommunications clients. When the bottom dropped out of that industry, the firm turned to schools, which became its bread and butter, Meulink says.

“We wanted to be more diversified, and we were able to spread into health care, industrial, and other sectors,” he says. “The last thing we want to do is contract. Finding people and grooming them is very difficult. I don’t want any of them to go away.”

Johnston says the firm nurtures a creative and collaborative culture and environment in which people want to come to work.

When it comes to recruiting talent, the firm tends to look for engineers who are less than five years out of school. They work with the firm’s senior engineers who teach the craft of engineering, she says.

Meulink adds, “If you do a good job, the phone will ring, we’ll get more work, and the business will take care of itself.”

Mike McLean
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Reporter Mike McLean covers real estate and construction at the Journal of Business. A multipurpose fisherman and vintage record album aficionado, Mike has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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