Designing Kalispell’s public schools - engineer reflects on a family tradition

October 8, 2018

Tom Heinecke, 63, has carried on a family legacy of designing Kalispell schools that began with his grandfather, notable architect Fred Brinkman.

In 1923, Brinkman started Brinkman and Lennon, an architectural and engineering firm where Heinecke built the foundation for his own career in mechanical engineering, working alongside his father, Bill, and eventually stepping into the role of firm partner.

The Kalispell native reflected on his family history during an interview at Rankin Elementary on Airport Road, the final project of his 41-year career following his recent retirement from Morrison-Maierle.

When talking about his career, Heinecke said he was “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

He began with his great-grandfather, a carpenter who moved to Kalispell in 1893 and constructed a house, still standing, on Second Street West.

Among the buildings his grandfather designed, Kalispell’s public schools are the common thread woven through the histories of fathers and sons.

Brinkman designed Hedges and Russell elementary schools, both currently being renovated. Brinkman also designed the Linderman Education Center building, which is slated for a major renovation.

Heinecke, his father, and grandfather have all had a hand in shaping Flathead High School’s footprint over the decades beginning in 1926 with the auditorium and small gym. Coincidentally, Heinecke was part of the most recent renovation project at Flathead that, in the spring, included demolishing the small gym his grandfather had designed to make way for a new auxiliary gym and classroom addition. One of the architectural features of the small gym, medallions, were salvaged and will be incorporated in the addition design.

Heinecke first worked on Flathead in the 1980s when the Black Box Theatre and a portion of classrooms in the west annex were built. He had just started working for Brinkman and Lennon with three years of experience under his belt.

“I was a very young engineer at that point still just learning the ropes,” Heinecke said.

Heinecke knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a mechanical engineer at a young age. As a student he loved math and science.

Also factoring in his decision to study mechanical engineering was an unspoken pecking order of the different branches of engineers based on difficulty, with chemical engineering at the top, he said laughing. Smiling, Heinecke said mechanical engineering was a perfect fit for him. It also matched his interest thermodynamics. Heinecke’s mechanical engineering area of expertise being heating, ventilation and air conditioning and plumbing systems.

His brothers have also followed career paths in engineering and design. His older brother became a civil engineer and his twin brother designs houses.

When Heinecke’s father retired from Brinkman and Lennon in 1985, he took over as a partner until 1991 when circumstances led him to make the very difficult decision to close the firm.

Yet, the decision allowed him to seek out new opportunities and he started working at Morrison-Maierle. In 1991, when he started there weren’t any mechanical engineers at the firm.

“It was strictly civil engineering - roads, bridges, water treatment,” he said.

It has since expanded to a firm employing a staff of hundreds of engineers, surveyors, planners and scientists.

While there are similarities in the layout of a mechanical system, every project is custom, which means inputting a tremendous amount of building specifications. When it comes to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems you look at specifications such as the amount of windows to the amount of outside air coming in from windows or doors, for example. The next step would be running through simulations on a computer to determine the requirements to maintain certain temperatures throughout a building.

Then, thousands of decisions have to be made on every detail he said, pointing to a balancing damper lever, which controls air flow, as an example. It could have been located elsewhere, but would have resulted in more noise he explained. This kind of knowledge comes from experience he said.

One of the unique experiences Heinecke has had, was when Morrison-Maierle was selected to serve as the primary design consultant during Kalispell Public School’s long-term facility planning process and was tasked with recommending an architectural firm to the district. Typically, it’s the other way around, where engineers are hired by architects.

“That’s been a very unique and very rewarding for me personally,” Heinecke said.

In addition to Rankin, Morrison-Maierle was also the lead engineering firm when the district had a central kitchen built and classroom additions constructed at Peterson and Edgerton elementary schools. The projects were completed in 2014.

So what other projects has Heinecke enjoyed working on?

“The ones that push the envelope in terms of energy conservation are always exciting,” he said.

Unusual projects are also interesting to Heinecke such as the Summit House on Big Mountain.

“In the summer they have to be worried about grizzly bears ... because they cook hamburgers all summer long, they wanted to make sure the hamburger smell didn’t attract grizzly bears. So, we had to design a specialized filtration system,” he said.

Retirement doesn’t mean Heinecke will stand still. There are adventures ahead planned by his wife, Terry. The couple have shared a zest for life since they met freshman year in college.

He credits Terry for planning the unforgettable experiences of riding elephants bareback in Thailand and swimming alongside humpback whales in the Silver Bank just beyond the Dominican Republic.

“She has an outlook on life that is truly remarkable,” Heinecke said. “She is the light of my life.”

He is also looking forward to spending his hours in the skies and on the slopes as an avid skydiver and skier.

Skydiving since he was 18, Heinecke has made 2,089 jumps and survived four parachute malfunctions.

“It is absolutely the coolest thing,” he said.

When it comes to hitting the slopes this season, the former college ski racer’s goal is to rack up 1 million vertical feet.

As Heinecke wraps up a career in engineering, his son, Taylor, is carrying on the torch in a new way.

“He graduates this fall with a master’s degree in computer science. I’m pretty excited about that because - ” Heinecke said pausing with a broad smile. “Computer science is in the college of engineering!”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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