A group of students, faculty and community leaders pose for a photo.

Engineering project helps improve Thanksgiving for hundreds of Arizona families


Monique Clement

Getting Thanksgiving dinner to run smoothly for one family can be enough of a challenge — the Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank in Avondale needs it to go smoothly for an average of 500 Phoenix metro area families every year.

Three students in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering used the power of value engineering to help the food bank improve its process, winning them the University Challenge Award for Value Engineering from SAVE International.

Value engineering is a method of optimizing processes, projects or products, a methodology championed by the professional organization SAVE International. It is often applied in civil engineering to things like roads and bridges, but the award-winning student team in CON 598: Value Engineering course instead took a more human-centered approach to value engineering for the Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank.

Construction management graduate students Monisa Manju Nagarajan Gomathi and Trey Tan and construction engineering graduate student Xiao Xiao Lyu evaluated the existing conditions at the food bank’s facilities and created design recommendations to improve work processes, food distribution and client satisfaction at big events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas meal distribution.

Instructor Stephen Kirk, who also works as a certified value specialist with Kirk Associates, was pleased by how the team applied the theory of value engineering to a real-world situation to benefit the community. Kirk complimented them on their compassion and caring for those who were in need of help and said he greatly appreciated their passion for helping improve the food-distribution process at Agua Fria.

At the end of the course when it came time to present their work, instructor Chris Kmetty knew the students had done something exceptional.

“The true value engineering really came out,” said Kmetty, who is also a construction engineering manager at Markham Contracting. “What [the team] was really doing was more for people than for anything else, and that’s what civil engineering really is — engineering for society.”

The unique, human-centered approach led instructors Kirk, Kmetty and Géza Kmetty, a civil engineer and certified value specialist for Kmetty Consulting, to submit the project for SAVE International’s University Challenge Award. The ASU team’s project was up against work submitted from universities around the world. Theirs was the only project focused on processes that help the community.

As part of their award, they were offered funds to help them get to SAVE International’s 2017 Value Summit in Philadelphia in August to present their work. Edd Gibson, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, helped fund the rest of the students’ conference and travel costs.

Gomathi said she enjoyed seeing the other international teams’ applications of value engineering.

“We could see how people who work with value engineering methodologies were very passionate,” she said.

Gomathi said the team was excited to present their project to value engineering experts and they appreciated the feedback they received.

Lyu liked the conference’s lectures on a variety of topics related to value engineering, such as how it can be combined with data analysis to improve value engineering and make projects more efficient. All three students learned about how value engineering can make a difference in any type of industry, office or personal project.

Kirk presented Gomathi and Lyu with their University Challenge Award from SAVE International at an award presentation at ASU on Nov. 8. He also gave them the award announcement letter from SAVE International President Kathy Bethany, a book by value engineering “godfather” Alphonse Dell'Isola, his own book on enhancing value in design decisions and a copy of the Pebble Creek Community newspaper Highlighting the Pebble Creek Community Church that featured a front-page story on the students’ involvement at the food bank and their project.

The instructors were joined by Gibson, Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank Executive Director Leanne Leonard and mission partner Edna DeFord from the Pebble Creek Community Church to congratulate the students on winning the award.

Leonard said he appreciated the unique perspective that construction engineers brought to the food bank’s operations.

“I was super pleased that they were willing to come and talk to and hear about the clients of the Southwest Valley,” Leonard said. “ I am incredibly proud of the work they did, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that will play out [this Thanksgiving] as we prepare to serve over 300 families.”

DeFord, who has been coordinating the church’s involvement in assisting the food bank’s distribution efforts during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays for more than 15 years, said it was interesting to hear the students’ ideas about improving their processes.

“It was just exciting to see that they were putting a name on what we’ve been doing all these years,” DeFord said.

In the spring CON 598: Value Engineering course, the instructors are hoping to bring out new and different solutions that focus on the people whom value engineering solutions aim to serve.

Leaders of the Phoenix Rescue Mission heard about the success of value engineering and reached out to Pebble Creek Community Church and ASU to assist them in a new project of their own.