Small engineering firm's great passion for green

March 01, 2009 |

“I've been with Rumsey for almost four years now, and I've turned away millions of dollars in business. From the standpoint of being in a small firm, that's been a bizarre experience,” says Clifton Lemon, VP of marketing and operations for Rumsey Engineers, Inc., a 32-person, Oakland, Calif.-based MEP firm focused solely on energy-efficient and sustainable design. The reason for those seven-figure rejections: “It's allowed us to control our brand and our reputation,” says Lemon. “We're known as pretty much the greenest engineers west of the Mississippi.”

That deep green reputation is paying off for the 13-year old firm. Rumsey has been on the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies list since 2006, the firm has doubled in size in the last three years, and Rumsey has grown revenue each year for the past five years, with 15% of profits redistributed to employees.

Of course, it's easy to make money in a boom economy, but as the AEC industry suffers dramatic declines, Lemon says the firm's focus on green has probably insulated it from the worst of the slump. “We're not seeing much of a decline in business yet, and we're cautiously optimistic,” he says. “Naturally, we have to be more competitive now, but we're confident our sustainable focus is sustainable, economically.” Lemon says the firm is still prepared to turn away projects that don't fit its sustainable design focus (typical projects have a baseline 30%-50% more efficient than traditional designs).

Rumsey's sustainable achievements include being the first MEP firm in the U.S. to engineer four LEED Platinum buildings. The firm also designed the HVAC system for the nation's first zero-carbon, zero-energy commercial building (a still-under-wraps project in California).

The firm's reputation as a sustainable MEP has aided Rumsey's recruiting efforts and employee retention by attracting young engineers who embrace the notion of green—both personally and professionally—and then stay because they feel they're having a positive impact on the built environment. “Sustainability, energy efficiency—they believe in it, they're passionate about making a difference,” says Lemon.

Rumsey encourages that passion for sustainability and engineering with two significant strategies:

Developing employees' engineering acumen through continuing education, training, and mentoring.Supporting healthy, “green” ideals both inside and outside the work environment.

The firm's education and training program includes an annual stipend of $1,500 per employee for outside education; payment for classes, exams, and fees for employees seeking LEED AP and PE licenses (47% of technical staff are LEED APs, with 43% earning accreditation since joining the firm; one-third of technical staff has PE licenses, 10% earned since joining firm); raises for employees earning accreditation/licenses; and weekly lunch-and-learns. Employees are also encouraged to attend and present at seminars and conferences, perform educational outreach, conduct research, and author white papers.

Rumsey's mentoring program involves assigning each junior engineer a mentor who also is a leader for one of the firm's four core teams: High Technology, Energy Analysis, Green Building Design, and Plumbing and CAD. Junior engineers gain experience working on each team and contributing to team projects.

Rumsey Engineers is a sustainable company, operating out of a 12,000-sf former Del Monte warehouse (located reasonably close to public transportation) with many green features: daylighting, low-flow toilets and faucets, Energy Star-rated equipment, Blueair air filters for improved IAQ, and low-VOC materials. Rumsey was the first engineering firm in Alameda County to earn Green Business certification.

Less typical is the firm's purchase of carbon offset credits (through the Chicago Climate Exchange) for both the office (operations) and employees (commuting and personal life activities). Rumsey's extensive recycling program—the office alone reduced garbage by 75%—also includes household goods, so employees are encouraged to bring items from home and recycle them at the office.

Rumsey's community contributions include pro bono energy analysis and site work for a local elementary school and advising a young entrepreneur on building a green brewery in the neighborhood. (Lemon admits this last project isn't entirely selfless: the firm gets free beer.) Rumsey also sponsors local and national charitable events and nonprofit organizations, and matches employees' donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $5,000 annually. —Jay W. Schneider, Senior Editor


At Rumsey, it's always 'Bike to Work Day'

Although Rumsey Engineers has a company car (a Toyota Prius, of course), they also have two company bikes, available to employees who want to ride to a client office, grab lunch, or run errands. Employees are also encouraged to bike to work, with secure, inside bike storage. Rumsey contributes to the cost of helmets, locks, and safety lights. Once a month, a bike maintenance company comes to the office, with Rumsey picking up the tab for all maintenance and repair costs for employees' bikes.
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