Project Frog’s Senior Director of Architecture and Engineering, Matthew Comber, SE, PE, shares his perspective on the industry, new construction approaches, and the company.
Matthew, your career spans over 15 years, with a significant part of that time at Project Frog. What first attracted you to Project Frog, and how has the company evolved during your time there?
When I joined Project Frog, I was at a point where I was looking for a change in my career path. I’d been with a traditional engineering consulting firm, which offered a very defined path, but I just wanted something that would challenge me in different ways. At the same time, our industry had begun evolving and attempting to adapt to new challenges, and I really wanted to become part of that evolution and be part of defining the next chapter. When I found Project Frog, I realized they had a lot to offer in the way of new, different, and unique opportunities. At the same time, I could bring a tremendous amount of potential with my expertise in structural engineering.
When I started, Project Frog had no in-house structural engineering capacity. With my skill set, we are advancing in new ways that could drive change in the industry. We meshed very well together. I still think we are moving in the right direction and are right where we need to be. We’ve tried many new and different approaches to find our niche, from pursuing various markets to delivery models to design philosophies. It’s been a fun and ambitious journey as we’ve evolved and focused on gaining a foothold in volume-driven markets like quick-service restaurants (QSR) and retail. Over the past four to five years, our company’s significant transformation has expanded beyond our initial education focus. We’ve hit our stride in QSR and retail, demonstrating the value of our design/fabrication expertise and optimization to our clients while continuing to perform in the education market. I am really excited about our path moving forward.
You’ve held leadership roles on regional and national committees, published papers and are known as an expert in your field. How do you apply your vast experience and knowledge to your work at Project Frog?
The design of most buildings is not to remain functional after natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes but instead to meet minimum building codes. Many people, including those in the construction industry, don’t realize that structural building codes are designed to protect occupants’ safety during a disaster but don’t extend to protecting the building itself from damage. Initially, an owner may pay a lower price for the design and construction, but they often face significant losses when a disaster occurs, and our environment and economy also pay the price. A few years ago, I developed a process that evaluates interactions between structural and nonstructural systems throughout a building’s lifespan to reduce expected seismic damage and minimize environmental impacts. By incorporating this practice into our building designs, the result is high-performance structural systems that can easily outperform standard code-based designs.
What type of challenges do you face when working with an owner on a new building platform?
That’s an excellent question. It’s not unusual for us to experience hesitancy when we engage new stakeholders unfamiliar with our methods. The most effective approach begins with helping the owner understand the value of our delivery model. They quickly realize they can more effectively manage their large build pipelines while opening faster at the same cost.
Over the past year, building supply chains faced significant challenges, including material price increases and shipping delays. How do you and your team adapt to these types of issues?
We’ve been able to build redundancies into our clients’ programs, allowing us to respond rapidly to market fluctuations. For example, we faced astronomical lumber prices during several of our major QSR projects earlier this year, so we converted upcoming projects to steel. As we continue to advance our platform, we focus on adjustments and agility that offer alternatives to prepare our clients for unforeseen market anomalies better.
As someone at the forefront of engineering and construction, what do you think the biggest challenges for the construction industry will be over the next five years?
The next challenge will be a big one – likely going on for a few decades – and that will be adapting to keep up with infrastructure demands. Construction labor faces a significant shortage as the need for housing and other types of building infrastructure continues to grow. Yet, our industry’s design and delivery approaches remain primarily unchanged and unresponsive to these growing demands. Without an inherent cultural shift away from outdated construction methods, our industry will struggle to respond to ever-growing market needs. Every other industry that has grown up around us has found ways to meet increased demand while we’ve been sitting idle with our status quo. We must change the way we work with each other, solve problems, and structure our businesses to make the necessary changes to keep up with the demand for built spaces.
As Project Frog’s architecture and engineering program leader, what are your goals for the company and the team over the next 12-18 months?
We’ve all learned new and valuable lessons throughout the pandemic, and I’m excited to use those experiences to drive growth for our business and evangelize our approach in the industry. I see multiple opportunities to bring in new clients and start with them from the ground up. By leveraging everything we have learned, both over the past two years and before, we can build on our principal foundation and further optimize the design of physical components to support more efficient approaches in delivering buildings. Our new high-volume accounts, and our success in growing our existing accounts into high-volume producers, demonstrate the value of Industrialized Construction. Now we need to generate enough noise to change the market.
Your passion for your work at Project Frog is genuinely inspiring; what entertains you when you’re not working?
These days my spare time is generally spent fixing up my historic Queen Anne Victorian house in San Francisco while preserving its original detailing and charm. Quite the project! When home improvement projects don’t completely consume my weekends, you will likely find me in the kitchen brewing a batch of beer or out hiking in our diverse Northern California wilderness.
About Matthew Comber, SE, PE
As a licensed Professional Engineer and Structural Engineer in 51 US states and territories, Matthew’s 15-year career spans many complex projects and markets ranging from small schools and restaurants to sizeable state-of-the-art tech manufacturing facilities and high-rise hospital buildings. Matthew developed cutting-edge seismic and sustainability analysis methods and tools while practicing under the mentorship of some of the industry’s leading minds during his employment at an internationally renowned structural engineering firm. As Matthew leads the Architecture and Engineering team, he injects his keen sense of practical design and engineering of holistic systems and processes into developing Project Frog’s building product lines and project deployment. Matthew’s attentiveness to process, automation, and quality ultimately delivers highly efficient building products that optimally leverage industrialized construction advantages at any scale.