FAIRFIELD – The Fairfield engineering firm French-Reneker-Associates is celebrating 70 years in business in 2022.
According to company president Stephen Hausner, the business performs engineering work mainly in southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri, but it has gone as far as Sioux City, Iowa, and recently to Fairmont, Minnesota, for jobs. He said some of the larger projects the firm does include wastewater treatment systems, construction staking, land surveys, street and parking lot paving, and watershed protection.
“We don’t focus on project size,” Hausner said. “Our projects range from a few hours to over 12,000 hours of engineering work.”
French-Reneker-Associates’ clients have been primarily small communities and local businesses in the area, including some state agencies.
“Our services have followed the needs of those clients through the years,” Hausner said. “These services have included the survey and design of streets and highways, municipal and rural water systems, subdivisions, recreational trails, ponds and lakes, and watershed protection, to name a few.”
A typical engineer employed at French-Reneker-Associates could be working on 20 or even 30 projects at once. However, Hausner said some of these may be waiting on regulatory reviews or permits, so engineers are usually working on between one to five projects per day.
Since the business was founded 70 years ago, much has changed in the field of engineering.
“Sustainability was not considered much 70 years ago,” Hausner said. “Since then, much attention and effort have been put into erosion control, water quality improvements, pavement drainage systems, and reducing stormwater runoff.”
There have been a lot of changes in construction materials, Hausner said. PVC and ductile iron pipe have replaced cast iron and clay pipe, for example. Major changes in construction techniques include directionally drilled pipe and GPS machine-guided grading, he said.
“Survey equipment has gone from steel chains, transits, and handwritten notes to robotic total stations, GPS, and electronic data files,” Hausner said. “A three-person, or more, survey crew used to be common. Now, a survey crew may be only one or two people. The technology in the tools we use has changed a lot. We have gone from slide rules and paper on drafting tables to computers and digital surface models.”
Hausner said engineering designs are not just delivered on large paper plan sheets. In machine-guided grading, the designs are transferred in a digital surface model from the engineer to the contractor’s grading equipment.
“GPS mounted on the grading equipment is used to guide the equipment to cut or fill the correct amount of dirt in any given location,” he said. “This eliminates a lot of construction staking and the time and effort spent grading to get the surface to the correct elevation.”
Some of the firm’s projects involve digital renderings of the finished designs. This allows the client to see the finished project before construction begins.
“There are currently discussions among some of our clients about eliminating paper plan sheets altogether and providing digital models of the designs instead,” Hausner said. “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a technology that has been growing for at least 30 years for managing infrastructure. Larger cities have been using GIS for a while now. Costs are coming down to the point smaller communities can take advantage of GIS now too. This is another service we provide that did not exist 70 years ago.”
In 2018, French-Reneker-Associates made a major capital investment in its property by installing a 40.8 kilowatt (kW) solar array, which would provide around 80 percent of the building’s electricity and save the company more than $9,000 per year.
Hausner told The Fairfield Ledger in 2018 that slashing the company’s high utility costs became one of his top priorities when he assumed his role as president four years earlier.
“I was quite surprised to see that our average electric bill was just over $1,000 a month,” he told The Ledger in 2018. “I thought, ‘That’s six or eight times more than I pay for my house, which is only three times smaller. What’s the deal here?’ So there was room for improvement on that electric bill.”
Hausner said the thing he likes most about running an engineering firm is getting to solve problems.
“The first step is to define the problem, which often requires gathering facts,” Hausner said. “Sometimes the problem the client sees is just a symptom of a much larger problem. Once the entire problem is defined, we develop solutions. The best solution is often dependent on the client and what would be best for them. Helping clients solve their problems is satisfying, it’s what motivates us.”
As far as challenges go, among the biggest Hausner faces is finding educated and qualified staff.
“Technology in both engineering and surveying has advanced a lot,” he said. “Finding staff that can efficiently use that technology, and that want to live and work in a more rural area, is a challenge.”
According to the business’s website, French-Reneker-Associates was founded in 1952 by Donald E. French in Kahoka, Missouri, with the original name of French Engineering.
“In the early days of Don’s practice, he did a great deal of work for counties in Iowa, upgrading their farm-to-market roads. As Don’s practice became more and more Iowa-oriented, he moved the practice to Fairfield, Iowa, in 1961,” the website states.
Hausner said Dan Reneker joined the company in 1965. By 1978, many of the employees owned stock shares in the company. In 1989, an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) was created.
“The company has always been very employee-oriented, which is reflected in the average employee tenure of its 20 employee-owners being 14 years,” Hausner said.
“Don was a licensed engineer and land surveyor,” Hausner said. “Surveying has been a significant part of the company’s business as well. Surveying complements the engineering side of the business since many project designs require survey information and construction staking. Surveying is also a standalone service the company offers.”
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