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Peratrovich, Nottingham & Drage: an engineering firm bent on growth.

NEARLY FOUR YEARS AGO, Alaska pioneer engineer Dennis Nottingham predicted that state spending cuts would not hurt business at Peratrovich, Nottingham Drage Inc. "We view them as an opportunity for those who take a common sense approach and rely on sound engineering and logic to come up with effective projects at the lowest prices," said the president of PN&D.

Nottingham's comment appeared in the January 1986 issue of Alaska Business Monthly, just before collapsing world oil prices sent Alaska's economy into a wild three-year tailspin. Because the recession was particularly hard on engineering firms as well as the construction industry, PN&D's success during the economic downturn was nothing less than phenomenal.

"We went into the recession with about 25 people and we now have about 45," Nottingham says. "Perhaps by default we got to be among the top 10 firms). Everyone else left town."

While the Anchorage-based engineering consulting firm kept its slide rules and adding machines busy in Alaska with such projects as the 54-mile Red Dog Mine road near Kotzebue, PN&D also opened new offices in Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. On the Big Island, for example, PN&D is designing a two-mile recreational waterway for the Mauna Lani Resort.

"We noticed that during pipeline days, everyone came to Alaska; people totally unqualified came up here and got engineering jobs," Nottingham says. He adds that now PN&D is landing work in their home towns.

Nottingham and Roy Peratrovich launched the engineering firm in 1979 as Peratrovich & Nottingham. In 1983, the firm was renamed Peratrovich Nottingham & Drage when engineer Brent Drage, who died early last year, joined the firm.

As Nottingham and Peratrovich see it, Alaska's economic slide also gave the firm an opportunity to demonstrate a business principle that has guided the company since its inception a decade ago. "There are two kinds of people," Nottingham explains. "There is the recall' person who survives by using other people's ideas. The 'logic' person figures things out for himself. Unfortunately, there are more recall people than the other kind. Therefore, the opportunity for huge cost savings is often overlooked."

Peratrovich, senior vice president, attributes some of PN&D's success during the economic recession to more aggressive marketing. "We changed our approach a few years ago," he says. "We decided to become a little more vocal in the community, making presentations and telling our story."

Nottingham estimates that PN&D research has saved the state of Alaska about $100 million. The firm's open-cell dock concept alone has saved the company's clients about $20 million, he says.

Over the years, the innovative Alaska designs produced by 22 engineers who work for the consulting firm have won 13 national awards from the James F. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation. The projects have touched all regions of Alaska: a ferry terminal at Cordova; bridges at the Yukon and Gulkana rivers; a dock at Klawock; a mooring dolphin at Dutch Harbor; permafrost pilings on the North Slope; a railroad bridge at 76th Avenue in Anchorage; and a coal-handling facility in Seward.

"We do all right, but we don't like to tell people how well we are or are not doing," says Nottingham. "We do try to maintain a very stable employee base. We give our employees more benefits and more opportunities. Employees are your key, the important part of business - not how much money you make. It's professional competence."

In a fitting finale to PN&D's 10th anniversary in August, the firm collected two more national design awards and $6,500 in cash prizes for engineering work on the Fort Wainwright bridge and the 300-ton mooring dolphins at Dutch Harbor. "We've had the good fortune to be involved in almost every major project in Alaska in recent times," Nottingham notes.

The welded steel box-girder bridge at Wainwright was designed by Nottingham and his son Todd, and they are believed to be the first father-son team honored by the foundation. "In the company, it's generally a teamwork effort on specific projects," the elder Nottingham says.

Nottingham and Peratrovich are considered pioneers in Arctic engineering, and both their friendship and professional association predates the founding of PN&aAs bridge engineers for the state in the early 1960s, they began working together on such projects as the George Parks Highway.

A Tlingit Indian born in Klawock, Peratrovich was the first Alaska Native to be licensed as a professional engineer in the state. After receiving his degree in civil engineering from the University of Washington in 1957, he worked for the city of Seattle for three and a half years as a bridge engineer and later moved to Juneau where he worked for the state the next eight years.

"There wasn't too much information available back then on how to build in the Arctic," Peratrovich recalls. In most cases, we didn't know much about the terrain or much about the soil and ice conditions. We tried the safest solutions we could, and each time we witnessed the construction to see how it performed. That's how we learned."

Nottingham, as a young engineer working for the Montana Highway Department, decided to head north in 1962 after spotting a classified advertisement in a Helena newspaper calling for engineers to work on Alaska's virtually non-existent highway system.

The two young engineers couldn't have picked a more opportune time and place to develop their skills, Nottingham recalls. "Arctic engineering was in its infancy at the time. Coming up from down below, many of the engineers, including myself, didn't know much about it. Once we got up here, we designed everything in ice."

It was a time when Nottingham began to unlock the secrets of permafrost, which he calls "a little understood material" and "a magic word that seemed complicated to outsiders."

Instead of fighting the perpetually frozen ground, Nottingham learned its physics" and began treating permafrost as a building material rather than an obstacle. Using this engineering tool, he developed a now widely used technique of driving pilings into the frozen tundra. By first melting the ice around a pilot hole, he found that pilings on the North Slope could be driven into the ground easily. And when the warm water froze around the piling, it had the strength of concrete.

"I had the guys go get a bucket of warm water from the sink," Nottingham explains. "I dumped the water in and waited for an hour while we had lunch. We came back and drove the pile in seconds. And that's the way it was done. On the Slope, with time constraints and those big investments, you have to make it work."

The pile-driving technique also has been adopted by engineers in the Soviet Union, Nottingham says. "We like to do research and developments directed toward Alaska conditions. Usually, the biggest challenges are not always the biggest projects. The biggest challenges are normally where someone gets in a bind and has to have a project in a short time--projects that from design to construction take six to eight months."

Nottingham had plenty of opportunity for creative engineering during construction of the 800-mile transAlaska pipeline. For example, there was the time Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. got to the Gulkana River and discovered the pipeline could not be buried beneath the frozen river bed as planned. Nottingham solved the problem by designing a bridge strong enough to support a 48-inch pipeline loaded with crude.

"It was a situation where they got to the river and had to immediately change construction methods. That bridge was designed and built in five months. It was an interesting challenge because everything had to go right and it did," Nottingham notes.

A similar predicament arose on the pipeline route at the Yukon River, where Nottingham designed a bridge in three months. And at Thompson Pass, he quickly engineered a 1,700-foot cable system to transport heavy pipe up the steep terrain.

Nottingham remembers the time Peratrovich and he were asked to design a less expensive and more efficient ferry transfer system at Cordova. "We didn't know too much about movable bridges and machinery so we went to juneau to get some ideas and see how one worked," Nottingham says. "We climbed all over it, looked at all the parts. We climbed down off the thing, and I'll never forget: I looked at Roy and he looked al me. We said, This doesn't make any sense.

The two engineers came up with a relatively inexpensive, lightweight docking system now used throughout Alaska. "That was a case where we could have copied the whole horrible structure, and it would have worked. But it also would have cost a lot of money," adds Nottingham.

PN&D continues to reap success even in a lackluster Alaska economy. Presently, the company is working on numerous marine projects around the state, including dock and building designs for Westward Seafoods and UniSea surimi plants at Dutch Harbor, where winds are known to blow 140 to 170 miles per hour.

"Those are the kinds of clients that are good to work for," Nottingham says. "They have an immediate goal in mind. Time is important so they are willing to listen to things that make sense. Whereas with government work, money isn't much of an object and time has no meaning whatsoever.It's just a different world and we prefer it."

PN&D also is looking to market its talents in the Pacific Rim and Soviet Union. "That's our long-range goal," says Peratrovich. "A lot of stuff we are doing in marine design work is useful. We've learned a lot about corrosion and coastal engineering."

Nottingham believes governmentAlaska's largest landowner - is blocking development of Alaska's abundant natural resources by failing to expand Alaska's. road system and provide access across its lands. He says roads need to be built all over the state: to the Beluga coal fields, to Juneau, to Cordova and to Whittier, for example.

"We've got advanced drawings, layouts, costs-everything," he says. "But the government isn't doing anything. Transportation is key, the one thing the private person cannot do."

Regardless, Nottingham and Peratrovich say Alaska is still the land of opportunity. But would they recommend the Great Land for a young professional looking to make his mark in engineering?

Nottingham says yes, but only if that person gets to practice engineering and doesn't get pigeonholed in a permitting position and never get to do any real engineering. He adds, "There's such wonderful opportunities for a young person, although they may not be as good as when I came up here. It was such a wide open place, it was just a matter of doing."
COPYRIGHT 1989 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Tyson, Ray
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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