When the going got tough
At the height of the recession, Be Schonewald struck out to found her niche engineering firm, Schonewald Engineering Associates. She hasn’t looked back since.
On a recent fall day, Be Schonewald settled in for a 7 a.m. cup of coffee and some retrospection before heading out into the field. Like many in the transportation industry, her clients have a lot left to be done before the ground freezes. That is particularly true for Schonewald, who specializes in geotechnical engineering, a discipline that focuses on soil and rock as engineering materials, not unlike how structural engineers design with concrete and steel.
“We have some tricky soils in this state – soft soils, like silt and clay that are known as the Presumpscot formation – and they make my job challenging, but rewarding,” said Schonewald, her enthusiasm for the topic clearly evident. For more than 25 years, she has worked to find ways to improve those tricky soils so they are able to support new infrastructure and construction.
Schonewald this year celebrates an important milestone for her company, Schonewald Engineering Associates. It was five years ago that she founded the firm after being laid off from her job of 22 years with a leading regional geoenvironmental engineering firm. It was the height of the recession, and she knew she had to make a quick decision.
“Work had gotten very slow and they had to make the cuts. I looked at what I wanted and realized that I was at the point in my career where I had established a lot of contacts and a good network, so I decided to hang out my shingle,” recalled Schonewald.
The first year, she admitted, was slow. With characteristic positivity, she said that gave her time to map out a course for the new company. Within the first five or six months, she had secured Schonewald Engineering Associates’ status as a DBE (disadvantaged business enterprise) with MaineDOT and NHDOT. Shortly thereafter, MaineDOT prequalified her firm to provide geotechnical services. She also had defined what she wanted her niche in the industry to be and what her strategy for earning clients’ confidence would be.
“I wanted to aim for the ‘right-size’ project. I wanted to be self-sufficient and to do what I do best,” said Schonewald. While over the past 25 years she had worked and managed projects running the full gamut of geo-environmental engineering, for her own company she decided to focus primarily on offering geotechnical services that could take projects from subsurface exploration and preliminary engineering right through permitting and construction. She particularly enjoys getting out into the field, whether it is drilling subsurface explorations or overseeing geotechnical and civil aspects of construction on a job site.
When clients hire her firm, “they know exactly who is out there in the field making sure the job gets done right.” She also decided she wanted to develop a collaborative work model, keeping clients involved and informed throughout the process, so there were as few surprises at the end of a job as possible.
That strategy has worked, and in just five years, Schonewald Engineering Associates has earned a solid reputation for good work as the primary consultant – and often as a sub-consultant – on notable projects throughout the state.
Schonewald routinely performs all aspects of geotechnical design projects from scope development and field services, through analyses and preparation of project deliverables, to providing construction-phase services and technical quality assurance reviews for other engineering professionals. Schonewald has completed a diverse group of engineering projects, including geotechnical engineering studies, design, and construction; geotechnical instrumentation system design, installation, and monitoring; analyses and soil improvement design to mitigate soft soil issues; management and quality assurance monitoring of complex construction projects, including serving as construction manager, resident engineer, and QA engineer-of-record; solid waste facility design, permitting, construction, and operations support; and environmental permitting.
Before the heavy equipment
The work she most enjoys often begins long before the heavy equipment rolls in – drilling subsurface explorations and performing the analyses for a planned construction project and then designing the geotechnical aspects that will make the project possible. As she describes it: “The first thing that gets done is you poke holes in the ground.”
Recent transportation projects have included geotechnical support for the reconstruction of the Eastport breakwater, the expansion of the International Marine Terminal in Portland and reconstruction of a six-mile stretch of Route 11 just south of Eagle Lake, slated to begin construction in FY 2015. Schonewald also provided geotechnical investigation, design and recommendations for the redesign and construction of a Maine Turnpike underpass in Falmouth and reconstruction of Riverside Street intersection in Portland for MaineDOT that featured a lightweight foamed concrete embankment-retaining wall system.
In addition to her transportation clients, Schonewald has completed projects for commercial and industrial clients. Schonewald provided geotechnical consulting to the lead investigator – Credere Associates – on the Callahan Mine clean-up in Brooksville, an EPA Superfund site. For that project, they evaluated the stability of the mine’s tailings impoundment as it related to initial remedial construction.
This November, MaineDOT released new design charts for foundations for overhead signage and mast arm poles, part of the department’s updated standard specifications. Schonewald worked closely with MaineDOT staff to develop charts that standardized the geotechnical design and are expected to help streamline contractor bidding and shorten construction timelines.
Senior Geotechnical Engineer for MaineDOT’s Highway Program, Kitty Breskin, oversaw that project and many others, and she praises Schonewald’s responsiveness, her ingenuity and how she always puts the client first. “If we have a project that has time restrictions, we can count on her,” said Breskin. “She thinks outside the box and is great to work with.”
Schonewald got her start in the field in the mid-1980s. Growing up, her father worked in the oil and gas industry as a petroleum engineer, and she early showed an aptitude for science and math and for a while considered a career in medicine.
“I discovered after a year of pre-med that I liked working with rock people more than pre-med people,” said Schonewald. She earned her first undergraduate degree – in geology – from the University of Vermont in 1983. Upon graduation, she found her options were limited – and research seemed the most viable option. Then she had an informational interview with an engineering firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts that changed the course of her life. She decided to go back to school for engineering.
She earned her second undergraduate degree, a B.S. in civil engineering, from UMaine in 1986 and her master’s a year later. She had interned with Haley & Aldrich in Hartford, Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts, and at graduation, she landed work with GZA GeoEnvironmental’s Manchester office, eventually moving to the company’s Portland office where she worked as a geotechnical engineer, senior technical specialist/ senior project manager and became an employee shareholder.
Schonewald has been active in the professional community as a member and past president of the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and was involved in that group’s work to develop the Maine Infrastructure Report Card. Her firm is a member of the MBTA, and she is a charter member of the Maine Chapter of WTS International (Women’s Transportation Seminar), an organization that promotes the education and advancement of women in the transportation field. Schonewald Engineering’s memberships have also included the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) of Maine and the Portland Society of Architects. She is an active member of the Civil Engineering Association at the University of Maine and is treasurer and on the board of the Maine Engineering Promotional Council (MEPC), organizers of Maine’s annual Engineering Expo intended to spark school-aged kids’ interest in technical subjects and careers in engineering. She served on the Maine Section ASCE board of directors from 2000-2006.
“Be’s commitment to volunteerism is amazing, as evidenced by the many projects and committees she has taken on for the various industry and engineering groups to which she devotes so much time,” noted Katy Hews, president of the Maine Chapter of WTS and fleet sales and marketing manager for Hews Company in South Portland.
Said Hews: “Despite her busy schedule managing projects in the field, and as a sole proprietor, she finds time to work in various leadership capacities for WTS, ASCE, MEPC and other groups. Her focus and organizational skills, as well as her vast network, are a tremendous asset to the engineering and transportation community, and she is forever looking for opportunities to mentor students and women interested in breaking into the field.”
Schonewald is proud of how well her firm has done and how much she has achieved since she “hung out her shingle” in 2009. This past summer she sent out a thank-you card to all of those who have provided support and encouragement over the past five years and is quick to give credit where credit is due, including to the Maine Small Business Development Center, which helped her establish the business, and other small business owners as well as fellow MBTA members who have brought her in on projects and helped spread the word about her firm.
“I’ve had a lot of help,” said Schonewald, who added that this sense of generosity and spirit of collaboration is what drew her to the profession in the beginning. “That is the best of engineering, when people work together to solve a problem and achieve a common goal. It’s collaborative and, in the end, we all succeed.”
FMI: Schonewald Engineering Associates offers geotechnical engineering, construction support, solid waste engineering and environmental permitting services. To learn more, visit schonewaldengineering.com