Colamette Construction Company



by Scott Handl

PORTLAND, OR – "Construction is an exciting industry. . . to start with an empty piece of ground and watch people's dreams develop on it," said James A. Hirte PE, CDT, president and principal owner of locally based Colamette Construction Co. Since its formation in November 1979, the general contractor has built many projects in the greater Portland area, but its work has also extended throughout much of Oregon and Washington. Colamette Construction has gained work in the Seattle area, Hirte said, from clients the company has previously served a bit closer to home.
Jim Hirte, PE, CDT

One of Three Founders
Hirte earned a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Oregon State University in 1972, but, he said, "Design did not excite me." However, "I was always fascinated by equipment and I gladly accepted the suggestion of a professor who thought the construction industry might provide a rewarding career. Hirte had grown up with an "inside view" of the industry, because, "My dad was a superintendent for a highway contractor."

Colamette Construction Co. was general contractor for the $1 .87 million Rolling Hills Community Church project in Tualatin, which included 21,000 square feet of new construction and remodeling of 6,000 square feet of existing space. Architect was MacKenzie/Saitc & Associates of Portland. The church how has separate, dedicated areas for both junior-high and high school age activities, and it was able to continue normal activities throughout the eight-month construction period.
(Photo by F.W. Schaefer's Aerial Survey)

After college, Hirte spent seven years with a large general contractor as a field engineer and operations manager, including four years as manager of the structural steel and pipe fabrication shop, and he earned his professional engineer's license in 1976. He broadened his skills and experience with another general contractor as a project manager and estimator before helping to found Colamette Construction along with two other men who have since left the company.

Hirte is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Construction Specifications Institute, as well as an associate member of The American Institute of Architects. He is a former president of the Oregon Section of ASCE and the Portland Chapter of CSI.

His activities with Colamette Construction include active involvement in preparation of competitive and negotiated proposals, and he has gained extensive estimating and project management experience.

Campbell Hall
The company has found particular satisfaction in seeking out jobs which "aren't easy," Hirte said. He pointed to the ongoing restoration of Campbell Hall on Western Oregon State College's campus in Monmouth, noting that the two-story Gothic structure was completed in 1871, and the last major addition was built before the turn of the century.

"It has been an incredibly challenging project," he said, adding that it has also been "a lot of fun."

Phase One of work on Campbell Hall has been to restore the building's structural integrity, with the job's being made more "interesting" by having to complete work in four months while allowing faculty and students to use all of the building except the basement. Colamette Construction had just five weeks to complete the major portion of work prior to the fall start of school.

"Projects that we enjoy are 'messy' projects, work which is difficult to do," said Greg Whitaker, vice president of operations and estimator. He served as project manager for the Campbell Hall project, and Jim Ohler, who started with Colamette Construction as a laborer, was project superintendent.

Another project with unique challenges was the Klickitat Salmon Hatchery, which Colamette Construction built on the Klickitat River, near Glenwood, WA. The site was beautiful, but it was also far removed from the usual supporting services required on jobsites. It has been the only time Colamette Construction utilized a remote batch plant to produce concrete on site, Hirte recalled.

A Completed Learning Curve
Colamette Construction is developing a minor specialty in construction of hazardous-materials holding facilities. "Almost all of them are interim facilities," he said, at which hazardous materials are stored temporarily on their way to permanent disposal sites.

Colamette Construction has completed such facilities for Precision Castparts Corp. in Milwaukie and for Boeing in Portland. The company also built a drip pad facility to capture hazardous wastes from wood treating at Taylor Lumber and Treating Co. in Sheridan, OR. Each project involved special foundation membrane lines and interior coatings, as well as underground leak-detection systems, and each was completed and tested to meet the strict requirements of the government agencies, owners and engineers involved.

With a completed "learning curve" and the experience gained in completing such environmental projects, the company is developing relations with engineers who specialize in such work.
Colamette Construction Co. was general contractor for the Boeing Super Profiler project in Portland, which included a concrete foundation and building to house a high-technology profiler machine. Architect for the 12,OOO-square-foot, $1.98 million project was Larson and Darby Inc., Rockford, IL.
As is often true with construction industry professionals who have risen through the ranks to senior-management positions, Hirte said, he misses the "hands-on" aspects of working as an engineer on particular projects. The paperwork which comes with being an administrator "doesn't provide the same satisfaction and fun," he said. Colamette Construction wants to maintain the diversity of its projects, but, Hirte said, the company also wants to maintain the team approach and high level of service it brings to its clients.


What he called a "wake-up" call on growth for Colamette Construction came with construction of the Eliot Hall Public Information Office at Reed College in Portland. "This was our first project for which I was there for the contract signing, but then didn't get to visit until after completion of the work," Hirte said. He doesn't want Colamette Construction to get much bigger than it has, he observed, because it would likely mean diminished close contact with individual owners and projects for him personally.

"It is very gratifying, however, to know that the key players are in place who can take a project from start to finish and know they provide the level of service, quality and personal attention to results in a very satisfied client, such as Reed College," he added.

Colamette Construction moved to its current location – a structure which it built – in 1989. As a general contractor, the company is unusual – if not unique – in holding membership in both the Associated Builders and Contractors and Associated General Contractors.
Smith Monroe - Gray Engineers was designer for the $1.3 million Lone Star Northwest batch plant built by Colamette Construction Co. on Northwest Front Avenue in Portland.

PORTLAND, OR – "Every day presents us with new challenges," said Jim Hirte PE, president of Colamette Construction Co. and a certified documents technologist. This is because it is people who actually carry construction through to its completion, and the documents they work with are not perfect, he observed.


"We are problem solvers," Hirte said, which means that the company's staff of professionals has to be ready and able to answer questions and solve whatever situation may arise.

Experience Is Key
" All of the superintendents who started with us the day we 'hung out our shingle' in 1979 are still with us," providing a vast amount of jobsite experience, he said. Construction work has grown more complex over the years, and all of Colamette Construction Company project managers are college graduates. It was rare even just 20 years ago, Hirte said, to find project managers with degrees.


Veteran superintendents and highly trained project managers are key factors in the team approach which Colamette Construction brings to all of its current and potential clients, he said.

The company provides its construction services in competitive bid, construction management, and design/build situations. The latter two types of work can cut about four months off of the time required to complete a typical project, saving time and money for owners.


  • Assistance in site selection;
  • Assistance in evaluating the suitability of an existing site;
  • Assessment of environmental impacts;
  • Master plans to provide the most efficient land utilization;
  • Preliminary designs and plans;
  • Conceptual estimating;
  • Competitive bid proposals;
  • Assistance in developing financing packages;
  • Building component analyses and value engineering;
  • Detailed designs and plans;
  • Government agency submittals and approvals;
  • Detailed project scheduling and analysis of critical paths;
  • Detailed cost estimating from initial conceptual work through final design;
  • Fast-track scheduling and construction;
  • "Energy smart" design;
  • Professional construction management and on-site supervision;
  • Complete construction services;
  • Building depreciation analysis;
  • Post construction analysis; and
  • Build-to-suit, lease back facilities.

"I do think you have to be at the 'cutting edge' of technology," Hirte said, so Colamette Construction is upgrading and expanding its computer system to be able to serve its clients with the most recent advances in systems and programs. There has been what he called "incredible progress" in computer-aided design over the past several years.

As construction grows more dependent upon computers, there are now projects for which no hand drawings are prepared. "Everything is done on floppy disks," he said, providing strong evidence of advancing technologies.


The Taylor Lumber project, built by general contractor Colamette Construction Co. in Sheridan, OR, included a pre-fabricated metal building, a 14-inch 70- by 80-foot concrete pad with a lined containment layer and a lined leak detection layer underneath, and an 8-10-ton hoist and tray system. Work on the project required by U. S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, was completed in six months. Engineer for the project was Sweet-Edwards/EMCON of Tigard.

PORTLAND, OR – Although some companies are forced into turmoil or even out of business when one generation of leadership steps down, a smooth move into the future is already taking place at Colamette Construction Co.

"The future of the company lies with these three young men," said Jim Hirte PE, president of the company, referring to Greg Whitaker, vice president of operations and project manager; Don Peck Jr., estimator and project manager; and Bill Ellis PE, also an estimator and project manager.

"There's a long-term buyout plan," Hirte said, through which Whitaker, Peck and Ellis will succeed Hirte and become the principal owners of Colamette Construction. "I had an obligation to these three men."

All are graduates of Oregon State University, with bachelor of science degrees in construction engineering management. The CEM program combines approximately two-thirds engineering classes with one-third business classes to produce graduates whose placement rate in the construction industry is usually 100 percent.
Greg Whitaker

" I started in construction when I was about 16 years old," said Whitaker, who joined Colamette Construction Company one year before his graduation from OSU in 1984. Two of Whitaker's brothers are also graduates of the CEM program.

He coordinates labor requirements and has responsibility for all field personnel, and he also serves as a project manager for both competitive and negotiated projects. Whitaker's administrative responsibilities include initial schematic estimation, preconstruction scheduling, value analysis comparisons, final project estimation, management during construction and post-construction project analysis. The biggest lesson he has learned from working with Hirte, Whitaker said, is to treat people fairly. "In this business, it's very easy to treat people unfairly...for a dollar."

Colamette Construction has practiced the principles of Total Quality Management for years, and the company now puts TQM together to give project owners "a bit more than they've asked for," Whitaker said. "We stay abreast of the new technologies," and one owner saved $30,000 on a project by implementing a Colamette suggested improvement. "Thinking on your feet is a very important thing for people in our business to be able to do," he said.

There is a sign in this office which defines "quality" as:

• Service
• Attitude
• Reliability
• Performance
• Appreciation

Peck serves as an estimator and project manager for both competitive and negotiated projects, with responsibility for initial schematic estimates, pre-construction scheduling, final estimates and project coordination.

He grew up in Eugene and gained his first hands-on experience while still a high school student, when he took part in a program in which "You went out and you built a house." After graduation, he spent the next five years working as a carpenter before beginning his studies at OSU. The engineering classes have been useful, Peck said, but, "The main thing I got out of CEM was the problem-solving techniques."

While earning his degree, he spent one summer working in Alaska as a project engineer on a hydro-electric project.
Don Peck, Jr

As did Whitaker, Peck worked for Colamette Construction his last summer before graduation, joining the company full -time in 1990.

He also serves as the company's safety coordinator. Peck works with the Associated General Contractors safety coordinator to develop site plans to meet the particular needs of each project, and he makes periodic safety visits to ensure compliance with all appropriate regulations. Peck is also administrator of Colamette's drug program.

He had long-term aspirations of company ownership, but, "Three and a half years out of school, it's kind of an exciting thing," he said. "You know where you're going to be."

Although he sometimes misses the "hands-on" days of his work as a carpenter, "In a small company there are still sometimes opportunities to go get dirty," he said with a look of enjoyment.

Peck is a member of the Construction Specifications Institute.

After earning his CEM degree in 1984, Ellis spent five years with a major general contractor in the San Francisco Bay area as a project manager and project estimator, working on projects ranging in value from $100,000 all the way up to $22 million.

He joined Colamette Construction in 1989 as a project manager and estimator. Ellis has managed both competitive and negotiated projects, and his pre-construction responsibilities include initial schematic estimates, scheduling, value-analysis comparisons, final project estimates, and buy out of subcontracted items.

Ellis said the most valuable things he learned at Oregon State were the "people skills." The CEM program blended communication and people skills with the technical side of engineering to create a "good balance," a more valuable program than he would have found a traditional civil engineering education to be, he said.
Bill Ellis PE

Soon after completing school, Ellis passed the "Engineer in Training Examination," which he called "the first step toward your professional license." After spending the next four years working under licensed engineers. Ellis passed the professional engineer's examination on his initial try.


"Being a licensed engineer gives me a better understanding of the engineering considerations in a project," and, it was also a personal goal, he said. Ellis is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Northern California Construction Institute, and he is a registered professional civil engineer in Oregon.

Even part-ownership of the company gives you more of a sense of the big picture" Ellis said, bringing him more in touch with overall financial issues, work-in progress, and development of both field and office personnel. "It's nice to work for a smaller company," he said.

Ellis said he particularly enjoys value analysis, which is performed during the conceptual estimating stage of preconstruction activities. "We review design alternatives," and present options to ensure that each project owner gets the "most bang for his buck."

Ellis has managed projects for Colamette Construction up to $3.7 million in value.

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