Fire Tower Engineered Timber (FTET), a company that has been located in Calumet for several years relocated to 104 5th Street (the former Cafe Rosetta space) this fall. Read on to learn more about the company from one of it's owners, Joe Miller.
1. What does FTET do and what is your involvement and title with the company? FTET is a structural engineering firm, specializing in the design and engineering of heavy timber structures. We work on a mix of residential and commercial projects either as the sole engineer of record, or more commonly as a specialty engineer who focuses on the timber components, while a local engineer handles everything else. We’ve worked on projects everywhere from the Yukon to the south Caribbean and from Germany to Thailand. Most of our projects our in North America though - with an occasional one in the UP as well. All have the common theme of having a heavy timber component, whether that is new construction of CLT projects or restoration of traditional timber framing.
2. What's your favorite part about what you do? Our unofficial motto is “anything but boring”, and, while there are exceptions, we do tend to have more interesting work than a regular structural engineering clients. And, you never know on any given week, whether it may be the clients that are the more interesting part, or the work. A big appeal for me is FTET regularly works with the same timber framers and fabricators, so we build long term relationships that in a small industry like ours, are what matter most.
3. Why Calumet? What do you like about our community? Short answer - I earned my PhD at MTU - and I wanted to stay in the area. Longer answer… I’ve lived in a lot of different states for school and work within the timber frame industry so when I finished at Tech - and realized I could work from anywhere, staying in the Keweenaw appealed most; the people, history, and snow, all appealed to us. My wife and I found a spot on a dead end road in Keweenaw County to call home, and, we’ve been here ever since. As far as why Calumet - I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was more convenient of a commute than Houghton/Hancock - but, that is really only a small part of it. We like the schools for our kids, church, shopping, and all of that - I’ll go weeks without crossing the bridge. Professionally, as ones who engineer almost entirely within the private sector (we, by intention, try and stay away from public projects), a bit of distance from the university actually fits our mindset a bit better. Timber frame engineering requires you to be confident in your own direction, as there are limited building codes or guidance for what we do - and when you follow the little there is - you tend to end up with dull and lifeless structures. So our independent mindset meshes better with Calumet than elsewhere. We have an annual copper dog party as well - so, the appeal of 5th street is strong.
4. What are the plans for FTET's future (if you are able to share that info)? Timber frame empire? FTET started in 2006 in New Hampshire, with several timber frame engineers wanting to detach from the business of cutting timbers and rather focus on the engineering and design (most of us worked directly for timber frame fabricators in various forms before joining Fire Tower) - so, our primary focus has been, and will continue to be the engineering of heavy timber structures. As a lot of our clientele are the fabricators, and most of our projects are a fair distance away from the Keweenaw - we haven’t any intention of going into the business of fabricating. As our projects are spread out throughout north America and beyond - having a centralized location isn’t a primary concern. For a long time, FTET was based out of Rhode Island (since the most employees lived there), but, now we are based out of MI - with employees in NJ, MA, VT, WY, and here. Barring any unforeseen changes - we plan to continue growing as our clients grow - but remaining a small focused firm. Large commercial projects hold little appeal (they don’t tend to fit into the “anything but boring” category), so growing much larger doesn’t open up many additional opportunities for us - and, frankly, means I have to manage more, and engineer less.
5. Tell us something interesting about yourself. My interest in timber stems from an old family homestead in southern Indiana. Growing up, my dad and I would travel down there on weekends, and, fix up the old timber frame barn, and tried our hand at hewing a few logs, and, ended up completely rebuilding the original log cabin using mostly period tooling. I went off to college, and, the first week my freshman year, my now business partner came and gave a talk about timber frame engineering for the a project he was building close by. And, I’ve been hooked ever since. While most of my experience is on the design/engineering side, I’ve spent some time cutting timber frames in a commercial shop, so have a bit of hands on experience - enough to know I make a better engineer than I do timber framer, at least. I’m also an active member in the Timber Framers Guild (TFG), a non-profit trade group that includes in its mission partnering with local communities to build timber frame structures with volunteer labor (think farmers market pavilions, restoring old buildings, covered bridges, and the like) - so I get out of the office for a few weeks a year getting to build some interesting structures with some interesting people. Who knows - maybe we can make a TFG based project happen here in the Copper Country sometime in the future.
6. Where are you from and how did you get to the Copper Country? I’m grew up on a small farm in northern Indiana, but growing up, I made the trip to the UP on occasion (a friend’s deer camp…), so I’ve enjoyed the place for a long time. Later on, I was living in central IL working for a timber frame company - and, while I enjoyed the rural farming community, the deafening sound of the corn growing and everything covered in corn pollen each morning was a bit overwhelming. One fall day, when we were claustrophobic from all of the crops encroaching, we decided to take a long weekend and head north - and, somehow ended up in the Keweenaw. It was October. There was the refreshing smell of everything but corn smut. There weren’t many people. It was snowing. Lake Superior was grey and angry. How could we NOT love it? Upon returning to the grey sullen clouds and brown muddy fields of an IL winter, and having long threatened my wife I was going to go get a PhD, I somehow convinced MTU to let me do research on heavy timber and give me a teaching stipend. Over a dozen years later, with a house and kids in school and all of that - we’ve not looked back.