Civil engineers don’t stand out at a construction site. They usually play a supporting role to the architects and general contractors designing the project. However, one Charlotte civil engineering firm is breaking that stereotype: Carlton Burton is a hands-on problem solver who assumes an active leadership role in his firm’s projects.
“Site work is the largest variable cost in a project,” says Burton, president and founder of Burton Engineering Associates located in the SouthPark area. “Construction project managers can calculate the costs of the building and land acquisition pretty accurately.
“What is unknown is the cost of preparing the site,” he continues. “Preparing the subsurface conditions and storm water drainage—all the earthwork—it varies from location to location.”
Having a Passion
Burton Engineering Associates is the “problem solver” for clients’ construction projects according to Greg Welsh, a civil engineer who joined the firm last year. He explains that when prospects are considering sites, the two largest unknowns are the site development costs and the potential tax incentives. So from that perspective, each project has at least two essential players: a civil engineer and an attorney.
“When a client is considering various sites,” describes Burton, “we can quickly and accurately prepare building and site layout scenarios, preliminary grading, and infrastructure concepts which are then used for pricing. We look at what our clients want and figure out how to create something out of nothing.”
He recalls a recent meeting with a client who asked him how he would envision a site development. He says he grabbed a marker and sheet of paper and sketched out his site plans.
“Our client was surprised that I could draw it out for him—model it and show him in real terms what it would look like,” he says, noting that a good civil engineer has to be able to show what a plan will look like and why it is relevant and economical to build.
“He was amazed that when the project was completed, it looked like my drawing and was within less than a foot of my dimensions,” Burton laughs.
“When we join the team, it becomes as much our project—and we take ownership of it. We have a passion for what we do,” he says earnestly.
“Our role is pretty integral to the project,” confirms Welsh. “We go beyond the project specifications. We want to understand our client’s business model.”
The business had a humble start in 1992. Burton, a civil engineering graduate of UNC Charlotte, had worked for a few firms and “got the itch” to start his own company and do better work. He started working out of his home. When his wife nixed the idea of getting a copier delivered to the home, he decided to sublet a 10 foot by 10 foot space, or as Burton describes, an “old break room with orange shag carpet.”
“I started with one big client in commercial development and began working my contacts in the community,” he remembers, reaching out to developers and architects. “I began building up my project lists and never looked back.”
Today, Burton Engineering Associates has a history of partnering on some of the largest projects in Charlotte. Work has expanded into the Piedmont, to South Carolina and Virginia. Burton and his team of 18 employees provide expert advice to their clients.
Welsh, who leads Burton Engineering Associates’ business development, helps direct its 30-plus ongoing projects which include retail centers and standalone; office buildings and office parks; industrial warehouse, distribution and manufacturing; health care facilities; single and multi-family residential developments; and K-12 education.
One common core component in a company’s decision to locate to the Carolinas is how long it will take to get the business up and running, says Welsh. Burton Engineering Associates partners with developers and contractors using a design-build, rather than a design-bid-build project delivery model.
Comments Burton, “Most general contractors now want to get a project constructed in six to eight months, rather than the typical 12-month time frame, and we understand scheduling to the point where we can get that done.”
Civil engineering includes the permitting process, which can be very lengthy, says Welsh; the sooner the firm can get involved with the project, the better. Burton Engineering Associate’s clients rely on the firm’s experience and established relationships with state and local officials and economic development offices to help them navigate the permitting process.
Burton cites his firm’s knowledge of “site readiness” as an additional benefit for clients.
“We’ve been working around this area long enough that we know most of the available sites,” Burton acknowledges, adding he has a library of data on different sites. “We can advise clients about site features like wetlands and clay deposits, and help them locate sites that can be cleared and graded quickly.”
“When we start the civil engineering on a prospective site, we like to get a jump on the project,” he continues. “We can do a preliminary site evaluation, pull grading permits early, and find a way to work around the time constraints and meet the schedule.”
Additionally, Burton believes in continuing to participate throughout the project.
“We understand the cost implications of different design decisions and constructability that is often overlooked,” he remarks. “We like to work as a team with our contractors. We might suggest a second look at plans to see if the design could be altered to help in the flow of construction.”
Another way Burton Engineering Associates works faster on jobs is by using its own in-house surveying, Foresite Surveying, something added about 10 years ago to the firm’s capabilities.
Burton Engineering Associates has been an integral partner in one of Charlotte’s well-known office parks, Whitehall Corporate Center, a 700-acre community on Arrowood Road. Burton partnered with American Asset Corporation on five of the six mid-rise office buildings, including the standout 25-foot sculpture Metalmorphosis that debuted in 2007. Burton Engineering Associates did the site design for Buildings II through VI.
Called one of the “seven wonders of Charlotte” by local media sources, Metalmorphosis is a 14-ton stainless steel motorized head created by Czech artist David Cerný. It sits in a reflecting pool and different sections of the head rotate, forming clusters of new shapes. When all the facial features line up, the sculpture spits out water.
“That piece set all the parameters for the project,” recalls Burton. “The actual artwork was top secret—not to be viewed in any form until the unveiling. All we knew was the size of the artwork and that it would be set in water.
“We had to figure out how to prepare the site to accommodate this ‘unknown’ addition, including all the preliminary work down to the design of the building.
“A steel frame was built around the project site and kept it covered,” says Burton. “When the big reveal happened as part of the opening of the office park, it was complete with an Oktoberfest party with bands, dancing girls, and lots of German beer.”
Another well-known office project is the Microsoft Corporate Center in Charlotte. Completed in 1998, it includes two four-story buildings housing Microsoft’s East Coast call center, totaling 430,000 square feet of office space, and two parking garages. Burton Engineering Associates provided the site planning and engineering.
A Can-Do Attitude
Business was booming for Burton Engineering from the 1990s to the mid-2000 years. Its 50-plus office buildings and parks included Edgewater Corporate Center, a 90-acre office park, and the HSBC Eastern U.S. headquarters, both in Lancaster, S.C.
With 60-plus industrial, warehouse and manufacturing projects, work included the Clearwater Paper Company in Shelby, the Saddlecreek Distribution Center in Harrisburg, Dixon Valve’s Phase 1 and II in the Gaston Technology Park and the Lenovo Distribution Facility in Greensboro.
A major expansion project for an ER addition at Spartanburg Hospital in S.C. included the establishment of a branch office there to serve the multi-year project. Add to that another 90-plus single and multi-family residential developments and 30-plus K-12 education projects.
“It was the great boom in Charlotte and certain sectors overbuilt,” admits Burton. “They did it because they could; it happens in every economic cycle.”
But then the great recession hit. Business slowed dramatically. Burton Engineering Associates concentrated on standalone retail projects, including more than 30 Family Dollar stores in three states.
Gradually, business started to turn around.
“The current forecast for Charlotte is tremendous,” says Welsh. “In mid-2014 there was an accelerated business pick-up in Charlotte, and where’s there’s growth there’s a need for civil engineers.”
Recent Burton Engineering Associates projects include White Oak Crossing, a 710,000-square-foot retail center located at Interstate 40 and Highway 70 in Garner, N.C., that includes BJ’s Wholesale Club, Kohl’s Department Store, Pet Smart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Pier 1 Imports, Rack Room Shoes, Target, Best Buy, TJ Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Party City, Staples and Michael’s.
Burton Engineering Associates is also doing site design and permitting services for the FedEx Smart Post 300,000-square-foot distribution facility located in Concord, along with new public roads and improvements to International Drive that is scheduled for completion midyear.
Agility Systems, a Rowan County, 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility accelerated project is on track for completion in the next few months.
The recently announced Movement Mortgage Headquarters in Lancaster County is currently in design as well.
“There’s so much business to be had in our area,” says Burton, who expects to continue to concentrate on projects in the Piedmont region. “It’s measured, healthy growth—there’s a sustained market for projects, including spec buildings, which we haven’t seen in several years.”
With the economic cycle set to boom, Burton Engineering Associates is continuing to expand.
“We’ve been growing with good-quality people,” says Burton. “I had to bet on the future—and I knew that during the last economic upturn (early 2000s), it was hard to find good qualified people.”
“We continue to look for new, bright engineers who can communicate well. We’re no longer the engineers that sit in the corner and design. Now we’re out with the clients, going to meetings and being constantly involved in the project design,” acknowledges Welsh.
“We have a great energy level at the firm,” he adds. “We’re the small firm with the can-do attitude.”
Expect Burton Engineering Associates to continue to play a leading role.
“I’ve managed to keep my hands in engineering throughout my career,” says Carlton. “I enjoy the conceptual piece of my work. Every job is different and I want to be involved from the start to the finish.”