Members of the Chico State University student chapter present their report on activities, achievements and plans for 2009.

They came from all over the United States - more than 200 members of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) student chapters, their faculty advisors, executives and staff of local affiliated associations, contractors, and manufacturer/supplier representatives - to MCAA’s 2008 Student Chapter Summit in Omaha, Neb., Oct. 10-11. The two-day program, hosted by the MCA of Omaha Inc., gave the students an opportunity to learn more about the mechanical construction industry and its career potential, explore new mechanical technologies and practices, try out their knowledge of mechanical systems and problem-solving skills and broaden their network of acquaintances.


Two special events took place the evening before the summit. Midwest Mechanical Contractors Inc. (Kansas City, Mo.) organized a tour of the mechanical systems of the Qwest Center, a convention facility in downtown Omaha. Afterwards, students and faculty advisors enjoyed a hearty buffet dinner at the Embassy Suites Downtown Omaha.

MCA of Omaha Inc. also hosted a special dinner honoring the sponsors of the 2008 Student Chapter Summit, members of the Career Development Committee, local association executives and staff, and local and visiting contractors at the Joslyn Museum of Art. Ferguson, a Wolseley Company, sponsored the beverages served at that event.

The centerpiece of the summit program was a tour of the mechanical systems supporting the Scott Aquarium and Lied Jungle at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, and a reception and dinner. Summit attendees were divided into teams of 14 and guided through, above, and below the aquatic and rainforest environments, by student members of the MCAA chapters at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In between tours, attendees explored other areas of the world-renowned zoo, which heralds its Desert Dome and Lied Jungle as the largest of those types of exhibits in the world. The aquarium is the prototype for the facility in Atlanta.

The tour focused on the challenges presented by the unusual mechanical system needs of these facilities and how zoo designers met them. For example, the aquarium, which exhibits about a dozen different marine habitats (only one of which uses fresh water), required that designers use plastic and fiberglass pipes for the seawater exhibits; traditional steel pipes could not withstand the highly corrosive effects of salt water. In the rainforest environment, designers camouflaged the pipes that maintain the jungle’s moist, warm environment; attendees had to look carefully to discern the real trees from the camouflaged pipes.

Students view one of the tanks, plastic and fiberglass piping supporting the Scott Aquarium at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.


Following the tour, attendees relaxed and explored the aquarium’s fascinating exhibits while enjoying beverages and snacks. The heart of the reception took place in the aquarium’s tunnel, a Plexiglas® archway that surrounds visitors on three sides with swimming sharks, rays, sea turtles, and various kinds of fish, all of which seem to cohabitate peacefully.

Dinner was in the Hubbard Gorilla Valley, a habitat for several varieties of primates. The star of the evening was Mosuba, a 450-pound silverback gorilla, which lived up to every stereotype that Hollywood could imagine. The King Kong-like primate stared down observers, then pounded his chest and smacked the window before running off to another part of his habitat. Attendees learned quickly that Mosuba’s size and weight did not limit his quickness and agility.

Waldinger Corp., Omaha Division, sponsored the reception and dinner buffet.

One of the 20 student teams went right to work on the mini competition.


The educational sessions presented students and other attendees with lots to think about in terms of career options and chapter development ideas. The program was presided over by Career Development Committee Chairman Brett Christiansen. It combined traditional features of the summit with sessions that highlighted new technologies and practices emerging in the mechanical contracting industry.

MCAA President Jack Wilhelmi opened the program by stirring student thinking about the many benefits the mechanical contracting industry offers to future employees. Presented in a David Letterman-style “Top 10,” Wilhelmi counted off such attributes as: great pay and benefits, use of the latest technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), no two days alike, no two projects alike, and leadership in green building. He also noted that industry contractors are the best people to know and work with.

Brett Christiansen and committee member John Powell (Marelich Mechanical Company, Hayward, Calif.) announced the 2008-2009 Student Chapter Competition. The project, an actual construction job, is a two-story, 72,900-square-foot hospital located in Willits, Calif. The straight construction project includes patient rooms, an operating suite, physical therapy facilities, laboratory and supporting medical gas, HVAC pipe, ductwork, and controls. Powell explained that the Frank R. Howard Foundation, the owner, wanted the new hospital to incorporate green building features and achieve the highest possible Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating.

The facility was to replace another hospital that the family of the famed racehorse Sea Biscuit built to honor the son of Charles Howard, who died tragically from a riding accident in the 1920s. At the time of the accident, there was no medical facility near the Howards’ home to treat the injured boy. MCAA and the Career Development Committee gratefully acknowledge the foundation’s willingness to allow the use of this project in MCAA’s Student Chapter Competition and its assistance in arranging for the transfer of the necessary information.

New technologies and resources took center stage at the summit this year. Professor Tim Wentz of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln led two sessions that focused on green building techniques and practices. The first, How Do Buildings Turn Green?, provided attendees with an overview of green building basics and the elements of the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED rating system.

Wentz tied that session into the mini-competition, an annual summit tradition in which teams of six to seven randomly-assigned students prepare and present their response to a case study in less than 12 hours. The exercise forces the students to meet their counterparts from other chapters, and in the process, they also learn teamwork, organization, and planning, and test their own knowledge of mechanical systems.

This year, the students were asked to prepare green building options for the Midwestern State Athletic Association’s new headquarters on the banks of the Missouri River in Omaha. All teams prepared presentations, but only four teams were selected to present their ideas, a necessary accommodation to the summit’s rising popularity and attendance. First-place team members (Team 4) each received $100 for their excellent work. Members of the other three teams (Teams 9, 5, and 12) each received $50 for a job well done.

Emmett Reilly of John W. Danforth Co. (Tonawanda, N.Y.) introduced attendees to MCAA’s new WebLEMSM, the online version of the Labor Estimating Manual (LEM). Reilly explained that the LEM was developed in the early 1970s as a tool to help contractors estimate the labor hours required to install various mechanical systems in buildings. Until recently, a committee updated the data annually to keep the document current and accurate. Now, the data can be updated as frequently as needed, a definite advantage for the fast-changing industry. Reilly demonstrated how the WebLEM works while explaining the basics of estimating. An interactive game showed attendees the challenges faced by estimators in correctly pricing a job.


A panel discussion featuring three recent graduates who talked about their experiences transitioning from college to career prompted lively discussion and questions. Nick Doht and Chad Westphalen of Waldinger Corp. (Omaha) and Cody Kluver of Mechanical Systems Inc. (Omaha) talked about their jobs, how their summer internships helped them gain valuable experience and contacts, what to consider in negotiating salaries and benefits, what courses proved to be most helpful in their jobs, what features about the company convinced them to accept the job offer, and what new technologies they are using in their jobs.

Students and their faculty advisors gained a lot of information about chapter development, what works and what doesn’t in building organizations and membership. Kyle Erickson, president of the MCA of Indiana Student Chapter at Purdue University, explained how his chapter achieved the 2007 Student Chapter of the Year Award, the fourth time it has been so honored. Award judges were especially impressed with the Purdue Chapter’s employment achievements. An impressive 11 chapter members interned with mechanical contractors in 2007, and as many went to work with mechanical contractors after graduation.

The chapter’s community involvement also earned it high marks. Erickson described how chapter members helped a single mother of several foster children (some of whom are special-needs children) by replacing a cracked driveway. The chapter also mentors a local Girl Scout troop, teaching basic plumbing skills. Members also help elderly and low-income families around the university with mechanical service and plumbing needs. In 2007, the chapter raised $24,000 from its various fundraising activities for travel to the summit and the MCAA convention and to cover the cost of field trips.

All other chapters had an opportunity to report on their achievements in 2007 and 2008 and plans for the coming year. Many chapters reported growing membership numbers and members receiving internships and full-time positions with mechanical contractors after graduating. Fundraising activities ranged from washing cars and selling T-shirts to selling mulligans at golf outings, hosting wine tastings, and soliciting contributions from local association sponsor members. Most chapters reported their intent to participate in the 2008-2009 Student Chapter Competition and to win a place in the Final Four.

Brett Christiansen ended the 2008 summit by inviting the students and their faculty advisors to MCAA 2009 in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa, March 1-5, 2009, and to the 2009 summit in Denver.

Publication Date:01/19/2009