Published July 21, 2009
Volume 17, Number 7

Richard Haro Pioneers Sustainable, Cost-Effective Infrastructure Construction Process

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

When Richard Haro, President of HSI Engineering, went to work building the infrastructure for Hacienda Business Park in 1981, it was a ground-breaking event in more ways than one. As a quality control manager with Kaldveer Associates, Haro was part of the original engineering team on what was then a sprawling, empty parcel of land. Their task was to utilize a chemical stabilizing process to construct a significant amount of new roadway, while lowering the cost. It was the first time in California that the chemical stabilization process had been used on such a grand scale.

Flash forward almost three decades to May 2009, and Haro has just moved his specialty engineering firm, which he started in 2007, into a new office at 5627 Stoneridge Drive. The timing for his primary area of focus—essentially, a much more sustainable and cost-effective way to build infrastructure, such as roads and levees—could not be more auspicious.

“One of our biggest markets right now is reconstructing deteriorated roads,” Haro reports. “Instead of removing the old pavement materials and bringing in essentially the same products, we recycle the materials in place, stabilize them for long-term durability, and then pave over them with new asphalt.” Haro has calculated that the recycled process reduces air emissions by 150 percent, while cutting re-construction costs almost in half. “Every time you move rock 20 miles, it doubles the cost of the product. The only material we bring to the site is new asphalt and a small amount of reagent, which makes it very sustainable.”

The chemicals used in soil stabilization are traditional compounds, cement or quicklime, hardly new discoveries, Haro explains. “The Romans built roads out of ancient cement or calcium, from volcanic ash and seashells. We have refined and optimized the process, utilizing modern equipment and techniques. The future is all about recycling in place, reducing the cost of infrastructure while lessening the environmental impact. For companies like mine, a cost-sensitive economy represents a big opportunity.”

Having grown up in a very rural Hollister, back when “the whole town was out in the country,” Haro does not see a very strong connection between his youth and what he is doing today. He does know, however, when and where his interest in chemical soil stabilization was triggered: during a summer job after his first year in college. Working for a small geotechnical engineering firm in San Jose, he was “exposed to soil mechanics early on,” he relates. He soon felt the pull of the industry and in 1978 he joined the company full time.

A few years later he was recruited to another engineering firm, moving into a lab situation where he started developing his expertise in chemical stabilization of soils. He continued to work his way through the engineering and geotechnical community, further developing test procedures and progressing up the managerial ranks, including construction management and business development. Eventually he became a partner in a large engineering firm and later president of Terratech, the firm where he originally started his career. Soil stabilization continued to be his forte, and a smart choice, given the Bay Area’s poor soil conditions.

In 2001 Haro joined forces with a specialty contractor eyeing expansion in the construction industry. That same year he wrote a technical manual that formally introduced his chemical stabilization process to the marketplace. In 2007, he again became a consultant to promote the process even further. As the design projects started coming in, it did not take long to make the transition from sole proprietor to a corporate structure, hiring seven employees so far this year. In addition, HSI Engineering has just acquired a specialty construction company from Sacramento.  Newly named Solid Ground Inc., the contracting arm allows the firm to offer its clients a complete package of design/build services in-house. 

This expansionary phase of the business has entailed several “big decisions” lately, Haro admits. “I have been very focused on where this company is going. It’s amazing how much effort it takes to get off the ground, all the other entities and details that must be dealt with,” he remarks.

Good hiring choices have helped him keep an even keel as he navigates the complexities. “I took my time to bring in the right people and create a good working climate.” Olivia Lamon, the office manager, not only answers the phone, a welcome personal touch, but also keeps Haro from getting “bogged down.” 

He recently took on a partner to help support the company’s growth. In Donatas Greb, PE, Haro has found “the right combination of experience, entrepreneurial spirit, and just plain nice guy,” he comments.  “Since Don has come on board, our opportunities have expanded and work is back to being fun.”

Haro is understandably enthusiastic about seeing his life’s work now bearing fruit. “It’s an interesting time to be in business,” he muses. “I’d rather be the small guy looking up instead of the big guy looking around finding the market is gone.” With his niche specialties, he is constantly running into other pockets of opportunity, such as trouble-shooting projects and forensics, small but confirmed markets. “I’m finding all these niches and keeping my people busy,” he relates.

Asked if he could see himself here 20 years ago, he gives a candid answer: “Not 20 years ago, but over the last 15 years people I know have been encouraging me along this path. They have reminded me about my unique experience and suggested I could be out there doing it for myself, not working for someone else. I can create opportunities because I sell unique services, all based on my own experience and methods, and deliver added value over my competitors.”

On the home front, Haro lives with his wife, Donna, and their blended family of three teen-agers in San Jose’s Almaden Valley. The eldest is going off to college in Santa Barbara in the fall; the other two are high school students. Their backyard pool sees a lot of traffic in the summer, as do the 35 miles of trails surrounding them.

The couple banter about the stark difference in their professional orientation. In the first graduating class to include women at the Air Force Academy, Donna earned her Ph.D. from Stanford and is now designing a new satellite communications system for the military. He is obviously much more earthbound. “She talks about space all day, and I talk about soil. At home we park it and meet in the middle,” he quips.

The couple’s next goal combines both a personal and professional landmark: opening a HSI office in southern California and moving down there to live. The climate will be good for their gardening hobby. “One day of frost ruins a lot of work,” he notes.

It will also be very hospitable for business, especially with infrastructure projects like high-speed rail on the horizon. Aggregate sources are diminishing, and California has already seen shortages, Haro says. Supplying new infrastructure projects of this scale will require either the creation of additional quarries or chemical soil stabilization. Haro thinks the answer is obvious: “Our firm is competing with a process that is obsolete. We see continuous growth.”

For more information, visit www.hsi-engineering.com.


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