Inside Track: Doing the job her own way

Experience with LEED in China translates well for Rockford Construction’s Chaoying Zhang.
Chaoying Zhang has lived in big cities all her life but finds West Michigan’s friendly people and pace of life enjoyable. Courtesy Rockford Construction

Learning never stops for Chaoying Zhang, who is at the forefront of new technological innovations at Rockford Construction. Because she considers herself very scientifically minded, she embraces the challenge of being the company’s first mechanical engineering plumbing coordinator.

“The majority of my education was done in China,” Zhang said. “In China, education is split into two parts: arts and sciences. Usually boys are really good at science and the girls are really good at arts, but for me, I didn’t have any partial section. I think I was good at both.”

Zhang said she didn’t want to follow the path most women take in her country and instead wanted to challenge herself by breaking into a traditionally male-dominated industry.

“When I was young, I thought about being a teacher or a dancer, but that was just when I was young,” Zhang said. “When I was in high school, I wanted to challenge myself, so that’s how I became an engineer.”

She also was influenced at a young age by her parents. Her mother was a math teacher and her father also had a mind inclined toward science.

“I didn’t have a hard time finishing all my homework,” Zhang said. “So, I thought great! I can compete with the boys.”

Zhang worked in Beijing for almost two years after completing her education in mechanical engineering. For that time, she did engineering consulting to help builders achieve LEED certification.

Rockford Construction
Position: MEP coordinator
Age: 32
Birthplace: Shanxi Province, China
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Chen Xu; son, Cullen Xu, 6 months
Business/Community Involvement: Association for Corporate Growth Western Michigan, board member; DEI Advisory Council at Rockford, council member; ELF volunteer at Sibley Elementary Holiday Fiesta; volunteered to help build a new playground for the youth at Eastern Park with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks.
Biggest Career Break: “It’s a little bit early for me to name my biggest career break as I still have a long way to go. Joining Rockford is a definitely a right and happy decision. Great culture, platform, opportunity and especially nice coworkers. All these make my daily work so exciting!”

She also gained inspiration from her first director, who she said trusted her with great responsibility even though she was fresh out of college. In just two months, he’d assigned her to be in charge of her first LEED project, which achieved LEED Gold certification.

“He said, ‘Chaoying, just do it in your own way.’ I said, ‘do you really want me to do that? I’m not saying I can’t do it, but I’m new,’ and he said, ‘just do it,’” Zhang said.

Working for the Shenzhen Institute of Building Research, she accomplished several projects including IBR Northern Region Office (LEED-CI Gold), Beijing Green Building Labeling Evaluation, Tianjin Financial Street Nankai Center (China Green Building two star), and Union Medical College Hospital project (Energy Saving Reconstruction), and participated in two currently ongoing projects: Qiaoyuan Artistic Center (LEED-CS Pre Gold), Junhao Central park plaza (LEED-ND).

Zhang then came to U.S. in 2015. She said she could speak a little English when she was in China, but coming to the U.S. exposed a gap in her ability to understand people and express herself.

“I’m a very outgoing person, so for me it’s very easy to get used to living in a different place,” Zhang said. “I don’t think I had any cultural barrier, but I do have a language barrier.”

Despite this, Zhang continued her education and received her second master’s degree in engineering management from New Jersey Institute of Technology. During her studies, she interned in construction management at Plaza Construction in New York City.

While there, she was involved in a commercial building reconstruction project and three Target store renovation projects, coordinating with estimators, attending subcontractor meetings and client meetings, among other responsibilities.

Zhang’s struggles with the English language sometimes led to humorous scenarios. She recalled a conversation with her project manager at Plaza Construction.

“I told him I was really hungry … but he didn’t listen very clearly, or maybe I didn’t pronounce it very clearly, and he asked, ‘Are you angry?’” she said, laughing. “So after that, every team member knew the story.”

In 2017, she and her husband relocated to Michigan, where she received the offer from Rockford Construction to be the company’s first Mechanical Engineering Plumbing (MEP) coordinator.

Prior to moving to West Michigan, Zhang was used to living in big cities like Beijing, Shenzhen or New York City, but the smaller feel of Grand Rapids was a welcome change, she said.

“I’m kind of tired of the big cities,” she said. “It’s so busy, so fast paced. I enjoy the working and living pace here and also West Michigan’s weather is not that bad. We don’t have hard winters I think … and the people are super nice compared to big cities.”

Not only serving in a career field with a lack of strong female representation, Zhang also currently is the only MEP coordinator at Rockford and is the only person at Rockford who can fill the role based on her mechanical and engineering management experience.

“I wanted to combine engineering and management together,” Zhang said. “I wanted to get more communication with people and challenge myself, not just sit in front of a computer doing the engineering work.”

In her interview for the position, Rockford President Shane Napper told her she was ideal for the role of MEP coordinator, which was an entirely new position for the company.

“This position was brand new for Rockford, and also it was brand new for me,” Zhang said. “But we’re both confident and believe in us to do it good.”

In her role, Zhang coordinates with Rockford’s MEP trade contractors to get projects done correctly, on time and within budget.

“Because Rockford is a general contractor, it’s really good at knowing how to build a project, but it doesn’t really have the MEP technology, documents or systems built in, so Rockford really relied on MEP trade contractors to give that info,” Zhang said. “But right now they have me, so they ask ‘Chaoying, can you give me some professional advice on this mechanical system?’ It’s a more cost-effective way.”

In her first year with Rockford, Zhang was tasked with building out the company’s MEP system. She then coordinated with the industrial team for almost two years to build up the company’s Building Information Modeling (BIM) capabilities.

BIM is computerized 3D modeling used to generate much more sophisticated plans for a building as opposed to a traditional blueprint.

“I know many other companies already have 3D design and 3D construction, but at Rockford, we were just starting,” Zhang said. “There is a learning curve, but we are getting to it.”

In those two years, Zhang and the industrial team worked on five or six projects that incorporated BIM.

Currently, Zhang is working to get the BIM platform customized for Rockford and helping field team guides better take advantage of it in their work.

As MEP coordinator for the entire company, Zhang consults directly with the leadership of Rockford Construction, but the firm is considering having two or three more coordinators under her in about two years.

For the time being, she’s helping steer a ship in uncharted waters, but she said constant positivity and a passion to continue learning are key to her success.

“Practice makes perfect,” Zhang said. “I don’t think I’m a uniquely intelligent person … and learning never stops. That’s why I’m really into the technology world and challenging myself to learn new things.”

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