BW Sessions: CFI Mechanical

BW Sessions: CFI Mechanical

Houston icon: The George R. Brown Convention Center remains one of CFI Mechanical's happy customers.

Houston icon: The George R. Brown Convention Center remains one of CFI Mechanical's happy customers.

by TODD STOLARSKI | Nov 2, 2015

Now in its 19th year, CFI Mechanical Inc. first opened its doors in Sugar Land, TX, a city of roughly 80,000 people. Since those early days, the specialty contractor has outgrown its old digs, but it has never forgotten where it came from. Now based in the much larger locale of Houston, the mechanical firm offers up a variety of services including photographic aerial capture, HVAC, plumbing, sheet metal, BIM, along with design-build and "green build" capabilities.

At our recent Demo Night: South event at Texas A&M University, BuiltWorlds had the opportunity to meet with event co-host Chuck Fell, CFI's owner and founder. Later, we caught up with David Kunkel, the "guru" who manages all of the firm's computer-aided design (CAD). We had a brief but revelatory chat about the future of mechanical work, BIM, and where virtual reality will play into all of this.

BW: What would you say was the main idea behind CFI Mechanical at the start?

Demo Night: South: CFI's Fell welcoming the crowd.

Demo Night: South: CFI's Fell welcoming the crowd.

David Kunkel (DK): Our owner, Chuck Fell, was working for another mechanical firm. After it went under, he decided to do his own thing. He no longer wanted to work for somebody else, (so) he began CFI Mechanical. Chuck started in his garage, and it became a giant snowball, getting more and more massive from there.

BW: With all of your different services, is there a particular void that CFI looks to fill?

DK: We want to advance new technology in the mechanical field as much as we can. If we see new stuff out there, we scoop it up, learn about it, and try to utilize it. It’s like a weightlifter. You can only lift so much, but if you have a wrench, you can do more. So with the tech always advancing, we’re looking for what’s new. We get it into the shop so that it can help us and ultimately, provide our customers with a great product.

BW: CFI offers BIM services which are crucial throughout a  structure’s life cycle. With all that has changed in just the last 10 years, how do you see BIM being utilized in 2025?

DK: Years ago, when I started to draw, we began to lay our plans out onto a table.  Lo-o-ong time ago. Well, not that long ago (laughs). I envisioned that one day, that table would have a hologram of some sort with the 3D model represented. The technology is getting there, but many bugs to still figure out.

Enterprise: The 55-story tower was a CFI success.

Enterprise: The 55-story tower was a CFI success.

A decade from now, I’m seeing guys with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) walking through the jobsites. They’ll be able to see what the building’s model is and what everything is in place. Basically, a miniature electronic copy of what you are given. A living, almost breathing copy of the building in the model space.

BW: I recently heard someone say: “BIM is not the thing, it’s the thing that will get us to the THING.” What do you see that THING being?

DK: VR, might be that “thing”. I think that’s what the future is going to be. It won’t just be that, though. It’ll be a combination of these tools, drones, 3D scanners, etc..

BW: Having the combination of BIM + 3D scanning + AR/VR + all of the photos captured from UAVs, you now have gathered nearly all of the data you possibly can from a structure. What else do we still need?

DK: Once you have that complete model, outside, inside, from every aspect, the only other thing would be to show water flowing through the pipes, and to chronicle the entire life cycle of the building. The tech is just getting better to put all of those pieces together. Very soon.


Yes, as with everything, the kids are always coming up from behind. “Innovate or die,” as they say. CFI has long been aware of this market reality, and that is a major aspect of what has consistently made them successful.

In 2012-13, CFI's Fell also served as national president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, and that experience has helped to inform the leadership of his firm. With the fortitude to keep pushing his firm to thrive, and now about to enter its third decade, the company motto remains a daily inspiration: “We do our job right the first time, every time”.

To contact the author, write to or find him on Twitter @toddstolarski.

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