The Raiser’s Edge

Civil engineers make sure buildings don’t fall down

by Will Lindner

engineering_venturesDavid Boehm founded Engineering Ventures PC in 1994, when he and his wife, Joan, decided Burlington was where they wanted to live. This was the second time he had founded a Burlington engineering firm: the first was Boehm Associates, which had been acquired by a Fortune 500 conglomerate. Today, working from historic quarters in Burlington’s South End, the company has a staff of 28 engineers, designers, and support staff plus an office in Lebanon, N.H.

Joan and David Boehm found the right place to live — not once, but twice. And both times it was the same place, their adopted city of Burlington.

In 1977, the Boehms were a young couple living in Easton, Md., where he was employed as the director of planning and zoning for the county government. It wasn’t the kind of job he’d expected to land when he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1970 with a degree in civil engineering.

A native of Albany, N.Y., after graduation, he had worked for a few years for a large company in Connecticut that designed and built industrial plants, and then returned to RPI, where he earned a master’s degree in urban environmental studies, a technically oriented planning degree.

Talbot County, on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, hired him to help develop its infrastructure (roads, sewer systems, a landfill). As Boehm was closing in on four years working for the county, his wife, Joan, was finishing her MBA at the University of Maryland. They decided to reassess their situation and make a conscious choice about where they wanted to live, looking for jobs secondarily.

“This was before the Internet,” Boehm points out. “We did research; we had census information. We took a trip through the Northeast city by city. Out of all the possibilities, we picked Burlington and then looked for jobs,” he says, laughing.

It was the outdoors — the lake, and the nearby mountains— that clinched it for the couple, who were skiers and owned a boat. Also, Burlington — less hectic and more personal than Stamford, Conn., but more active and cultured than Easton, Md. — seemed the best fit.

The second time the Boehms (whose last name rhymes with foam) chose Burlington, their lives were quite different. It was 1993. He had founded and developed an engineering firm, Boehm Associates, had his company acquired by a Fortune 500 engineering conglomerate, and taken an executive position in that company. That put him in charge of 12 offices around the Northeast, including Manhattan, overseeing the work of 350 people.

Their home base remained in South Burlington, but Boehm was on the road most of every week. After five years of that, it was reassessment time again.

“It was a tremendous opportunity, to participate in managing a group within a large, public company,” he says. “It was very educational.”

But it was also taxing, with constant travel taking him away from his family. (By now he and Joan, a CPA who co-owned an accounting firm, had two children, Julia and Eric). So he resigned, and they asked themselves the same question they had 16 years earlier: Where do we want to be?

“I had interviews in many locations,” he recalls, “but each time came back saying Burlington is the place.” When they made the decision to stay, it was like reaffirming their vows, but to a community. (Their vows to each other apparently worked fine the first time, as the Boehms have been married for 42 years.)

Thus, in April 1994, Boehm started his own business ... again. Today Engineering Ventures PC occupies tasteful, historic quarters in a former broom — and then candy — factory in Burlington’s South End. It features wood floors, brick walls, cantilevered ceilings, exposed beams, and a staff of 28 engineers, designers, and support personnel tackling civil and structural engineering projects and much else.

They’ve performed important projects for the likes of Burton Snowboards in Burlington, King Arthur Flour in Norwich, the Fellows Gear Shaper Plant in Springfield, NRG Systems in Hinesburg, the Life Sciences Building at Dartmouth College, Mt. Ascutney and North Country hospitals, Shelburne Farms, the Middlebury Town Hall Theater, and the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre.

The firm handles 400 to 500 projects a year, says Boehm. “We do a wide variety of work, much of it for very well-known institutions, but we probably do as much residential work — single-family homes, and both subsidized multi-family housing and condominiums — as we do colleges, hospitals, and commercial buildings. There’s no such thing as a job that’s too small for us. If you had a crack in your basement wall and wanted us to look at it, we’d be there.”

Yet there’s an irony about the engineering business.

“We’ve done literally thousands of projects around Vermont, and in New Hampshire as well — enough there that we opened an office in Lebanon in 2006. Our impact kind of permeates everywhere; but we’re not well known to the public, because we’re the behind-the-scenes people.”

Rolf Kielman, an architect with the Burlington firm TruexCullins who has collaborated frequently with Engineering Ventures, has a humorous way of describing the architect/engineer relationship. “We need people like David to make sure our buildings don’t fall down!” he says.

Engineering Ventures puts it more delicately on its website: The firm “collaborates with clients to ensure that structural considerations are incorporated into designs at the beginning of a project. This close collaboration translates into buildings that are efficient, effectively coordinated, and cost-effective.”

Load analysis and design, a thorough understanding of supportive materials like steel, reinforced concrete, timber and manufactured wood, and frames equipped to resist floods and earthquakes, are the kinds of expertise that engineers bring to presumably “architectural” projects. On the outside (civil, as opposed to structural, engineering), Engineering Ventures sees to such matters as erosion and sediment control, placing or connecting to buried utilities, designing roads and bridges (that Easton, Md., experience has proved valuable), water supply, and sewer access. Engineering, at some level, seems to touch on every material aspect of modern living — a fact no doubt known to engineers but perhaps lost on the rest of us.

Engineering Ventures has also evolved with the times, developing specialized skills in environmental protections, historic preservation, and permitting processes. “We respect the permit process and have no complaints about it,” Boehm insists. “We don’t have confrontations about permits; we work our way through it, together.”

It’s hard to know how much of this experience and development of expertise Boehm could have foreseen when he and Joan arrived in Burlington, in 1977. He is a planner, after all — and not just the technical planning that, basically, is engineering; he has planned the development of his business. (“He always seems to be one of those people who’re thinking beyond where they are,” says Kielman.)

Boehm’s first job in Burlington had been as an employee for Kiley, Tyndall & Walker, internationally known landscape architects. “It was an exceptional opportunity,” he remembers. “We worked on the New York Botanical Garden; the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Kennedy Library in Boston. I was the only engineer they had ever hired.”

However, because it was a small firm that he describes as “closely held,” Boehm didn’t see much potential for upward mobility. He eventually went out on his own as a consulting engineer, typing up a one-page flyer, cold-calling architects and developers, literally knocking on doors.

“People actually asked me to do projects!” he exclaims. “Shazam!”

That was the beginning of what would grow into Boehm Associates, later to be incorporated by the Fortune 500 firm. The second time around, in 1994, after he and Joan had again decided that Burlington was their town, Boehm took a longer-range view as he developed his business.

“One of the key things was to have a partner this time,” he says, “and not have everything on my own shoulders.” This shows a side of Boehm that his former employer, Peter Ker Walker, formerly of Kiley, Tyndall & Walker, admires. “He’s a very astute businessman,” Walker points out.

In 1995, within a year of starting Engineering Ventures, he brought in Robert Neeld, P.E., as a partner. Their business grew more robustly than they anticipated, to the point that in 2001 they decided they had better slow down and make sure they were, as Boehm puts it, “sustainably organized.”

As it happened, 9/11 did that for them. And as the country slowly recovered from that shock, the recession hit in 2008. “We had to let some people go,” he admits.

Yet on the whole, the past decade was good for Engineering Ventures. And Boehm has stuck to the plan — not only expanding the firm’s technical and technological repertoire, but also adding eager young partners, who buy stock in the company and thereby make it their own.

In 2007 Neeld became the company president. There’s a handful of vice presidents. Boehm’s title now is founding principal.

“Three years ago I cut back to full time,” he says, humorously, but seriously, too. “I’ll stay involved for quite some time, working on special projects that fit my capabilities best. But the plan is to encourage others to take over the leadership and management. It’s the way it should be.”

Boehm is 65 now. He has garnered many awards along the way, including the 1983 Young Engineer of the Year Award from the Vermont Society of Professional Engineers, and the 1990 Vermont Engineer of the Year. He has served on advisory boards at the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College. Both he and Joan, who for 10 years has been the chief financial officer and assistant town manager for Colchester, have served on a long list of community boards.

For architect Kielman, though, Boehm’s character, even more than his expertise, is the key to their strong personal and professional relationship.

“David is the perfect collaborator,” he says. “He’s disciplined and organized, everything you’d want in your engineer. More than that, he’s generous; he’s just such a kind human being. For all those reasons, he’s a very special person to work with.”