Hamstra Chases His Windmill

June 5, 2002
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HOLLAND — The forces are finally coming together to allow Steve Hamstra to do the kind of work he wanted to do when he got out of college 20 years ago.

Armed with an engineering degree from Michigan State University, Hamstra envisioned going to work designing high-tech, high efficiency energy systems that would help save the world. One problem with that idea, though: Nobody was buying.

“When I got out of college, there was not that much interest in that. The market just was not there,” said Hamstra, a mechanical engineer and vice president with the Holland firm of GMB Architects-Engineers.

Today, in an era of global warming and high energy prices, that interest is finally beginning to pick up. Hamstra, 42, now finds himself spending an increasing amount of time working on or talking about technologies such as the geothermal heating and cooling system that GMB designed for the Zeeland Public Schools’ new high school.

“It’s fun stuff. It’s absolutely fascinating,” Hamstra said.

That fascination with technology goes back to Hamstra’s childhood, when he was always fascinated with science and physics. He constantly read books about windmills and solar power and recalls working as a teen-ager in the 1970s with his father, Cal, who owned the former Hamstra & Associates heating and cooling company, on a solar-heating system for a home that was featured in the annual Holland Parade of Homes.

As an adult, Hamstra blends those childhood interests with his Christian faith, which drives an environmental stewardship and results in a gee-whiz enthusiasm for designing heating and cooling systems that use alternative energy sources.

“We’re called to serve the earth and we have a dominion over the earth. But you can’t have dominion over something that you destroy,” Hamstra said. “Stewardship calls for us to take care of things so those that follow us have the same opportunities.”

“We can enjoy the same quality of life we have right now, we just don’t have to be wasteful and we have to be intelligent about the way we build buildings and the way we design cars and the way we live.”

A Holland native and father of three, Hamstra joined the former Daverman Associates, which is now part of URS, following his 1981 graduation from MSU. He worked on energy studies for clients across the nation before leaving Daverman two years later to join GMB for the first time.

After three years, he decided it was time to join his father in the family heating and cooling business, Hamstra Associates Inc. When they sold the business three years later, Hamstra went to work for Van Dyken Mechanical in Grand Rapids for a short period before returning to GMB in Holland in 1989.

At GMB, Hamstra has developed a niche for designing what’s known as GeoExchange systems, which use solar heating stored in the earth’s surface to heat and cool buildings. The result is a significant reduction in a building’s energy use, as well as the elimination of the associated pollutants.

In the case of the new Zeeland high school, Hamstra projects an energy savings of 30 percent to 50 percent, or about $50,000 annually.

The interest in such systems has been on the upswing in the last two years, boosted by their proven effectiveness and a growing environmental awareness that stems from global warming. Hamstra hopes that the Zeeland project will demonstrate the technology’s usefulness.

“You really need those test cases where you can show that it works,” he said.

California’s energy crisis and rising energy costs over the past year also have generated new interest in alternative heating and cooling systems, said Hamstra, who recently received accreditation as a Certified GeoExchange Designer by a national trade association.

Hamstra also seeks to actively promote alternative energy sources and sustainable design through affiliations and memberships in organizations such as the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, American Solar Energy Society, the U.S. Green Buildings Council and the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.

After 20 years in the profession, he’s glad to be finally working on the kinds of projects he envisioned doing when he graduated from college and, in his one small way, practicing his own brand of promise of environmental stewardship.

“We have an opportunity to really impact the quality of life of a lot of people, and that’s a big motivation,” Hamstra said.

The other motivation?

“It’s fun technology,” he said.

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