Imagine life as one big science project.

Do that, and you've captured the essence of Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Merrick & Co., ENR Mountain States' Colorado/Wyoming Design Firm of the Year.

From helping to develop biofuel plants in Louisiana and India to designing nuclear containment facilities in New Mexico and Tennessee and creating agricultural research laboratories around the world, Merrick's engineers frequently blend basic science into their everyday engineering work.

"From the point of view of the engineers—the process and mechanical people—they enjoy stuff like that," says Dave Huelskamp, president and CEO of the 60-year-old, employee-owned company. "It challenges them every day to come up with new ideas on how to get things done cheaper or better and just having something exciting to work on every day."

Chris Sherry, Merrick's senior vice president and chief operating officer, offers two examples of intriguing projects, both involving biofuels, that the company is working on. The first, for Reliance Industries in India, under contract to Genifuel Corp., involves growing algae and processing it into jet fuel and other biochemicals through Merrick-designed refining facilities.

"It's really cool," Sherry says. "You can imagine for an engineer that's something you can really sink your teeth into. We kind of joke about it—it's like a science project. And who doesn't love a good science project?"

The second initiative may provide even greater professional satisfaction. A Merrick-designed plant in Louisiana is producing biofuels from wood chips through a pyrolysis process that leaves the chips charred after use. The resulting biocarbon is highly porous and absorbent, and turns out to be an excellent way to conserve irrigation water, Sherry says. Merrick's client, Cool Planet Energy Systems, recently donated several tons of the chips to drought-besieged California for the state to spread on the Capitol grounds in Sacramento and demonstrate the substance's water-retaining properties.

"It's a very green, environmentally conscious fuel-processing facility," Sherry says of the Cool Planet plant. "Not only do we get green gasoline out of it, but we have this by-product, a soil amendment that's actually helping conserve water. So our engineers are feeling, 'We're not just doing process engineering. We're also providing a product that's going to help in this drought that California's going through.'"

Purposeful Design

Such "engineering with a purpose" underlies Merrick's four business units—energy, national security, life sciences and sustainable infrastructure. Years ago, the company decided to focus on market segments where it had both passion and expertise. Merrick's results—$95.7 million in revenue in 2014, along with strong work force growth to 480 employees—speak to the success of the strategy.

"You can be Walmart or you can be Neiman Marcus, and you can be very successful at either end of the spectrum," observes Bob Berglund, senior vice president. "We tend more toward the Neiman Marcus model, where we are highly specialized. As an example, our life sciences business is recognized as being one of the world's leading experts in the design of high-containment animal research facilities. We do a lesser number of bigger projects and are continually successful at that because of the depth of the Merrick expertise."

Scientific know-how extends to Merrick's national security business unit, which serves both the U.S. military and the Dept. of Energy's nuclear research facilities in Los Alamos, N.M.; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and other locations. Merrick works for all three branches of the Dept. of Defense and is currently designing a high-tech data center for cybersecurity; living quarters at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio; and a set of hangars for the Air Force's new KC-46 refueling planes. The DOE, meanwhile, has been a client for 25 years, relying on Merrick's knowledge of nuclear safety.

"We're kind of known as the people who design high-integrity containment facilities and systems for handling of radioactive material," Berglund says. "That is particularly valuable in the restoration and reconfiguration of the Manhattan Project-era facilities that are now being improved at both Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. We really take pains to understand systems that are based on a high degree of complexity and have to conform to very stringent nuclear quality-assurance controls and systems in order to produce facilities that are safe to operate."