5 Questions With An Expert: Frank Carmichael

September 30, 2020

Profile_Frank Carmichael
Frank Carmichael
Austin Civil Branch Manager/Pavement Practice Leader

1. What type of work do you do at HVJ, and what do you find most interesting about it?
I lead HVJ’s pavement engineering practice, and am also the Austin Civil Branch manager. My team’s specialty is plan, specification and cost estimate work with a focus on street rehabilitation, pavement design and traffic control plan engineering.

We work on a wide variety of projects, including urban streets, county roads, state highways, airport runways, taxiways and aprons, toll roads, and port terminals. As part of pavement work, it is a natural extension for us to also develop PS&E for street rehabilitation projects and traffic control plans to accommodate motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians during construction.

I enjoy the challenge of designing transportation infrastructure that meets many competing demands. Traffic loading frequencies and different load types and sizes must be estimated for the life of the pavement. Another significant design consideration is environmental conditions, such as accounting for exceptionally hot weather, or areas with recurrent ice or frost. In high temperature, for example, pavement can get soft, so the pavement mix must account for that. It may seem simple on the surface, but we use complex engineering to determine factors like the thickness of the surface and base layers as well as the design of the mix so that it will perform according to the traffic loads and environmental conditions. It’s a statistical problem to estimate how long the pavement will last and which design option will meet both budget requirements and demands for longevity.

2. What have you found to be most important in a project being successful?

A successful project requires anticipating the design problems that are most likely, and also solving the unexpected problems that pop up in a way that meets the project’s goals. Technically, pavement engineering is like designing a recipe that must be perfectly made. I am a detailed person, which is important because missing one detail can result in costly maintenance and even early failure of the pavement. I often think about high profile engineering failures that have had disastrous consequences. It drives me to strive to make sure we develop a clear understanding of the project requirements, and that we are designing cost-effective, durable pavement.

3. What are the common types of problems that your clients are trying to solve? What do you think draws them specifically to HVJ?
Our clients are looking for a pavement design that meets their technical operational requirements within the confines of their budget. They are counting on us to provide a design that accounts for environmental and contextual factors which are unique to each project. For example, residential areas have a low number of heavy vehicles (limited to the occasional school bus, garbage truck, etc.), while arterial roads may need to withstand over 250,000 vehicles per day with many heavy vehicles. So our clients are trusting us to consider all of these design factors

We must also work within the confines of the client’s budget. With an unlimited budget, it’s not as difficult to create a pavement design that will last for many years. However, it is rare that budget does not impact our decisions. Sometimes the budget is very limited and we need to think creatively to make the pavement last longer, such as looking to a new material or a unique construction design. For example, you can modify the hot mix asphalt or Portland cement concrete mix design to make it last longer. So, we need to fully understand their requirements and then create solutions that fit.

4. HVJ describes itself as being built on service. What does client service mean to you, and what keeps clients coming back to HVJ?

One of the most important skills that keeps clients coming back to us is our ability to listen closely to their operational and budget requirements. This necessitates our thinking critically to ask the right types of questions and being fully engaged in the problem. The best solution will be customized for each project. Our team’s depth of experience allows us to listen closely, and then make promises that we can keep. Unexpected challenges often arise, but we work around them to meet the timeline, budget, and technical needs -even if it means working outside of the box.

One unique way that HVJ provides value, is that our project team is made up of the same people from the beginning to the end to provide continuity. At many firms, a different team works on each piece of the project; this makes it difficult for everyone to understand all of the pieces of the puzzle. At HVJ we focus on building lasting client relationships by earning our clients’ trust so they want to keep coming back. We are responsive and collaborative. We take seriously our role as  a team player in developing strong relationships that enable the entire design to fit together.

5. You’ve been at HVJ for 20 years. What do like most about being part of the HVJ team?

I appreciate that HVJ encourages and expects everyone to participate in professional organizations, and to engage in activities like authoring professional papers and practicing lifelong learning. I also appreciate the culture of developing non-technical skills such as effective communications, active listening, and setting clear conditions of satisfaction. HVJ fosters an environment of open communication,  and I have confidence that I can openly call my colleagues in other offices to ask questions, brainstorm, and make sure we are coming up with the best possible solution.

One of the most common problems in this industry is making assumptions rather than confirming facts through clear communication, so HVJ’s open, collaborative culture mitigates that risk. We succeed by working well together. These are expensive decisions that can not be taken lightly, and everyone at HVJ takes this seriously. As a branch manager, I instill those values to my team through our team meetings and by encouraging everyone to share plans with one another. Even with COVID, we have found great success in virtual team meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page.

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