Universal Engineering Sciences [By Eric Wright]
Someone once commented that “foundations aren’t seen, but their lack is always evident.” When pondering this maxim, people may automatically think of one of the most famous towers in the world next to the Eiffel in Paris or the Washington Monument in the U.S. We refer, of course, to the Leaning Tower in Pisa. Beautiful, but perilously flawed and without the herculean efforts of some of the modern world’s most brilliant engineers, it would topple over. The problem was not with the design of the majestic tower, but the soft soil in the coastal city where it was built.
Making sure structures are built to last is what Universal Engineering Sciences (Universal) has spent over 50 years perfecting. From super highways and ingenious tunnels, to iconic buildings like the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts or the Amway Center, Universal has been involved with many of the structures that aesthetically define and economically advance our region. The work of this geotechnical engineering company has helped to maximize the public and private investment, while insuring their long use and safety.
Universal, along with its founder Seymour (Sy) Israel and now his son and company president Mark Israel, enjoys a reputation that spans the continent. It’s not an idle boast; Universal was ranked No. 237 in the national Engineering News-Record’s Top 500 Design Firms list for 2016. But lest you think Universal is touting recent success like a comet catching attention in the evening sky, this star has been in the Top 500 listing for the past 31 years running.
Quality, Safety & Environmental Assurance
“Our primary focus is as geotechnical engineers, which is a subset of civil engineering,” Mark explained. “We drill down into the ground and pull up soil samples and from the tests we run on those samples we design the foundations for buildings. When you watch the early stages of a building’s construction or a road, you may see them driving pilings in the ground or rolling the ground with a compactor; that is because we tell them, ‘Here is what you need to do on this job and here is what to do on that job.’ We explain to the structural engineer the requirements for a specific type of foundation and they put it into the drawings.”
Though architectural designs evolve and building materials change, the product Universal works with is as old as, well, “dirt.” Mark shared that the tests for compaction and the standards have changed very little, though some of the test equipment has been modernized. Sy launched the company in Merritt Island back in 1964 and commented, “The specifications we use haven’t changed since the 1940’s.”
Another of the company’s major services is construction materials testing. “Universal is out on the job site ensuring both the materials and the construction processes meet the appropriate specifications,” Mark continued. “We watch the piles that are driven to make certain they are the right depth and how the soil is compacted. Then we test it to make sure it meets requirements.
We are also the company that checks the concrete to make sure it is strong enough; in addition we inspect the structural elements, like the steel, the bolts and the welds.” Universal also conducts threshold inspections, a task mandated by a state law enacted after the collapse of the Harbor Cay condominiums in Cocoa Beach in 1981, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 construction workers.
“Threshold inspection ensures that every structural element is built according to the specifications of the architect and the engineers,” Mark said. Up until that time, supervisors or contractors might overlook an item or consider a specification “over engineering”, without having to worry that an inspector was looking over their shoulder. Companies like Universal now make certain that plans, specifications and codes are all in alignment.
“In 2003″, we added building code compliance as a very important item on our list of services,” Mark Israel explained. “This came as a result of a Florida Statute that allowed private firms to do inspections for municipalities. Public inspection departments, especially in smaller towns and counties were being overwhelmed during the building boom and contractors were having to wait weeks for inspections to be completed,” Sy added.
One of Universal’s business areas Sy and Mark enthusiastically discuss is the wide range of environmental services the firm provides. These services include environmental site assessments, property condition assessments, wetlands and threatened/endangered species assessments, which are usually a part of the due diligence in any land transaction. What is more, the firm is even involved in excavating and relocating endangered gopher tortoises from certain death or injury on construction sites.
Universal’ environmental staff includes professional geologists, environmental engineers, environmental scientists and biologists to assist clients with any number of environmental issues. “We became involved because clients called us for help in this arena,” Mark said. “But the work also aligns with our values as well as our core skills of analyzing and assessing land.”
In the Company of Friends
From the company’s humble beginnings, in space leased from a residential subdivision’s sewer plant, Universal has expanded around the southeast. Today, Universal is one of the largest family-owned firms of its kind in the United States. Universal now has 650 employees, in 18 strategically-placed offices stretching from Miami to Atlanta. The firm has been involved in projects whose estimated value is over $410 billion in the past 52 years; $160 billion of which is right here in Central Florida.
Several principles stand out as the bedrock of Universal’s success. The first is an unwavering commitment to understand and then exceed their clients’ expectations. “You look people straight in the eye and then you do more than you say you’ll do.” It is a truism the senior Israel likes to repeat. You can sense he means every word of it.
He has more. “Do whatever it takes”, Sy Israel says proudly pointing to the same expression gracing the company’s lobby wall.
Another guiding principle of Universal Engineering Sciences that is easy to see in daily practice is the amazing rapport the Israels have with their own employees. They seem to work as hard at making their employees happy as they do their clients. Or perhaps, they understand that being faithful to one is the best way to make the other one happen.
“From the time I was young, I worked in the business, and I don’t mean in the office,” Mark recalls. “I was out in the field. I understand it’s hard work, out in the full gamut of Florida weather. My employees know that I understand, because I have done their job and I think that is reflected in how my father and I treat our employees.”
This commitment to their employees, in an age of mergers, acquisitions and the profitable exit strategies, is one reason the Israels have remained owners. “We’ve had a lot of offers to sell the company” the senior Israel said, as Mark nodded in agreement. “Some of our competitors have sold to corporations for one reason or another. Mark has grown up in the business and understands, like I do, that our clients and our employees are our friends.”
Again, Mark nods, smiling. “I can recall the feeling I had as a kid sitting in the cabs of the equipment in the storage lot. I guess I loved it, even then!”
Today, Mark works in an office directly across from his father’s. Neither of their doors are ever closed, a constant reminder that the doors to the president and the chairman of one of the largest geotechnical companies in the country are always open – to employees, to clients and to new ideas.