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Interview with Blake Simpson, Project Engineer, W.E. O’Neil Construction

Behind the Build: Interview with Blake Simpson, Project Engineer, W.E. O’Neil Construction

Earth Day is just around the corner. During this time of year, special attention is placed on efforts and initiatives to protect our environment. But when it comes down to it, it’s about the people who really care that will make a real difference. Blake Simpson, Project Engineer at W.E. O’Neil Construction, is one of those people who truly values and respects the natural environment that we have. With a focus in environmental engineering and a lover of the great outdoors, Blake believes that more people like him in the building industry will be critical to our planet’s future.

“The industry needs more sustainably-minded people who are passionate about the environment and can implement that into construction.”

In this edition of Behind the Build, we speak with Blake about how he blends his passion for construction, the environment and photography. Read on, below.

What is W.E. O’Neil Construction’s specialty?

At W.E. O’Neil, we pride ourselves on building great relationships. While many other companies may claim that’s also their motto, at W.E. O’Neil, I’ve seen this in action. On every project I’ve ever worked on, the focus has been on teamwork. Everyone helps each other out, and it’s not just internally in the company. This mentality is carried out with the architects, engineers, owners and subcontractors that we work with.

My favorite part about working at W.E. O’Neil is our team. I interned at other places, but I immediately meshed with the people at our company. It’s a mix of people that’s typical in a construction environment–a lot of different types of personalities that need to mesh and work together. But at the end of the day, it’s about meeting our clients’ needs.

Everyone is passionate about delivering a good product, and that shows, as we tend to work with the same owners over time due to this team-wide commitment.

What drew you to the construction industry?

At UCLA, I studied civil engineering and focused on environmental and hydrological engineering. I have a different background than a lot of other engineers or people in construction who maybe focused on construction management or structural engineering. But I love working in construction. It gives me the ability to work outside and with a big team of people. I’m hoping that as my career progresses, I can more frequently apply my environmental engineering background to my job in construction.

In regards to the labor shortage, why do you think younger generations are choosing other career paths rather than construction?

Construction can be a tough and stressful industry. It can mean long hours and weeks, and that’s not always appealing to those graduating high school or college.

But the people who end up working and thriving in the construction industry are just passionate about what they do. If people don’t love it, they won’t survive in this industry. On the other hand, for those who do find a passion in construction, it is very rewarding to see a building created from start to finish.

In addition to construction, you’re also a skilled photographer. How have you been applying these unique skills to your work in construction?

I’ve been practicing photography since high school. Like I mentioned, I love being outdoors and capturing the beauty of completely wild places, often untouched by man or construction. For me, it’s an outlet to release stress and gather my thoughts.

When I was in college and living in the middle of urban Los Angeles, I came across some unique man-made landscape architecture. What I found was that I didn’t necessarily need to be in the complete wilderness to experience and enjoy the environment. It was cool to see so much landscaping throughout the city where people were integrating native plants, trees and other furnishings with buildings. I ended up doing a photographic project to show how the natural landscape interacts with architecture. Today, it’s given me a unique eye as a project engineer, and I’m often heavily involved with the landscaping and site work on a project. It’s been fulfilling to line up two things I’m passionate about in that way.

What do you think construction’s role is in protecting the environment?

I have stumbled upon many articles about how construction isn’t always sustainable and can hurt the environment. In general, the industry needs more sustainably-minded people who are passionate about the environment and can implement that into their day to day construction lives: for example, spending a little extra money to implement a solution that better avoids pollution of local water resources.

I’ve talked about this with other coworkers and have found out that I’m not alone in this thinking at my company. I’ve gone wilderness hiking and backpacking with my coworkers, and almost everyone on my team takes time to experience and enjoy the outdoors. We’re all trying to do better to take care of the planet and we strive to enhance the places we love with the communities we are building, not detriment them.

Since day one on the job, you’ve worked with PlanGrid. What has that experience been like?

W.E. O’Neil has been big on PlanGrid since I started working here full-time. When I interned elsewhere, we didn’t have PlanGrid. Instead, we relied only on huge, cumbersome paper plans and had to redline and write in any changes by hand. As an intern, your entire job could be sitting at a plan book, tracing lines and then communicating that to the field however you best could. It was significantly less efficient, and it took a lot longer to go through plans and changes from the field.  

But with PlanGrid, the entire project is online. We receive an RFI response, it goes directly into the cloud and the field can see it immediately. I use it every day to go through plans and change orders. I think it helps facilitate an essential component of construction; syncing information from the office and the field and keeping everyone on the same page effortlessly.
Furthermore, PlanGrid allows us to almost entirely eliminate the need for paper! It helps push us one step closer to supporting a more sustainable industry.

What has recently excited you about PlanGrid?

Right now, we’re starting to use PlanGrid Submittals more. At the beginning of my current project, we weren’t using it and our engineers spent a lot of time going through our spec books and plans just to create a submittals log.

It’s exciting to see that on new projects an engineer can generate a full submittals log basically in a day now, rather than weeks.

Better yet, we can easily maintain and track them through PlanGrid.

What advice would you share with the next generation of builders?

Open your mind to what it means to work in construction.

A lot of people outside the industry think of construction as just hammers and nails and getting dirty. Although that is part of the story, it’s also about creativity and finding solutions. We need to bring in more personalities and interests into the industry, such as people like me who value art and the environment. Whether you love to physically build buildings or prefer to be behind a computer solving problems, there’s a place for you in the industry regardless of your interests and background.

Further Reading:  Introducing PlanGrid Connect and Our Expanded Ecosystem

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