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Engineering outside the envelope

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 26, 2009 - 7:38 PM

Howard Noziska, president and founder of Eden Prairie-based consulting engineering firm Encompass Inc., likes saving energy and saving money. He's pretty sure building owners do, too, especially in this brutal economy.

That's where Encompass' exterior "envelope commissioning service'' can help, Noziska said.

For non-engineers, the service involves reviewing plans and inspecting construction to make sure the exterior of a building, whether new or under repair, will stand up against water intrusion and other environmental wear.

With a good facade and proper insulation, Noziska said, a building can get by with smaller, more efficient heating and air-conditioning systems.

"All of this saves energy and it saves repair costs," said Noziska, 64. "You're putting together something that is going to have some longevity to it and not require maintenance every time you turn around."

Growing demand for the service is helping Encompass weather the downturn. Testing services also are giving Encompass a boost. The company has professionally accredited in-house and mobile testing labs that can inspect windows, doors, curtain walls and skylights for air infiltration and water penetration.

Encompass has 16 employees and posted revenue of $2 million in 2008, Noziska said. Both numbers have doubled in the past four years, according to business manager Rob Giesen.

The company's other specialties include forensic investigation of construction defects and building failures and providing expert testimony about such problems.

The problem solver

Noziska founded the company in 1979, almost out of necessity. He began consulting because his extensive experience in structural design and construction management had made him a go-to resource for contractors who needed help solving building problems. He quickly realized he needed liability protection and incorporated Encompass.

If envelope commissioning sounds like another green, sustainable practice, it is. Trendy, however, it isn't. At least not for Noziska, who has done building exterior commissioning for nearly 20 years and designed and built his energy-efficient home 30 years ago.

"Right now everybody is talking about this green stuff: 'You've got to go green' and 'You've got to have sustainability,''' Noziska said. "There are so many people trying to sell things, it's scary. Along with all the talk, this [envelope commissioning] is actually doing it."

Recent envelope commissioning projects include Dakota County's Northern Service Center, a 240,000-square-foot, multistory building that houses more than 700 employees in West St. Paul. Encompass helped the county develop sustainability principles that guided the building's construction. It since has earned Energy Star recognition and been certified as 96 percent efficient, Noziska said.

Washington County brought in Encompass to figure out how to fix problems with moisture getting into bricks on the outside of its law enforcement building, Public Works Director Don Theisen said. Since then, Encompass has consulted on construction of two county service centers and a library, Theisen said. None of the buildings has had any problems.

"With Howard's expertise and his staff's expertise, they catch things, not only in the design details but also during construction," Theisen said. "The architects and construction manager value what he brings to the table because they also don't want to have problems after the projects are built."

The company's recent building-failure analysis work includes supervising repairs to the facade of MnDOT's headquarters in St. Paul. The project involves refurbishing and replacing large stones that have been coming loose from steel supports.

In Minneapolis, Encompass is supervising replacement of thousands of windows that had deteriorated in just a few years at a downtown condominium project. Water damage and other building problems usually arise from only a handful of sources, Noziska said.

"You only have to look at four things: the design, the construction, the performance of the materials and the maintenance," Noziska said. Of those, he said, design more often than not is the culprit.

South Dakota native

Noziska grew up in western South Dakota and graduated from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

He got an early glimpse of energy-efficient building practices while serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Germany, where buildings considered new often were hundreds of years old.

He later built his house here -- neighbors call it "the bomb shelter" -- the same way he saw German ones built, with precast plank floors, 8-inch block walls, insulation outside of the blocks, then an air gap and a brick veneer.

Noziska spent much of the 1970s serving as project engineer on construction of Maplewood Mall and Burnsville Center. Adding to his structural engineering background, he learned how to work with reinforced concrete, steel trusses, huge steel columns and features such as skylights, metal panels, brick veneer and fancy brick detailing.

He then served as executive director of the Minnesota Masonry Institute from 1976 to 1987. Along the way, he began the consulting that would lead to the creation of Encompass.

Noziska is eager to pass along what he has learned from decades in the field.

To that end, Noziska in 2007 took on two of the younger engineers he had recently hired, Curt Isernhagen and Kent Jones, as partners.

"Quite frankly, it makes everyone in the company a whole lot calmer," Noziska said. "They know that life will go on when Howard steps down."

Not that he has any immediate plans to do so.

The expert says: Mike Ryan, director, Small Business Development Center at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said Noziska is off to a good start at succession planning, having brought in young partners who can take over the company and organized it as a corporation, which outlives an owner.

Ryan recommended several additional steps for Noziska and other business owners to consider as part of a succession plan. Completing the process can take at least two years and sometimes three.

"The good time to do this is ahead of time, before there's a crisis," said Ryan. "You can continue with new management and keep everybody employed, which is something we're concerned about at the moment."

Ryan's recommendations included: developing a buy-sell agreement to outline how the sale will take place, how the company will be valued and other details; cleaning up financial statements, particularly to remove any personal expenses, and to have them audited by an outside accountant; begin transferring authority to new managers, who can develop and strengthen client relationships that are vital to professional practices and consultants.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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