Hugh Kelleher cuts an impressive figure that contradicts any misconstrued stereotype of the American contractor.

Construction quality control manager, master plumber, author, press secretary, teacher, Harvard graduate — it’s clear that Hugh Kelleher, president of Construction Quality Analysis, Cambridge, MA, cuts an impressive figure that contradicts any misconstrued stereotype of the American contractor. And Kelleher enjoys challenging this stereotype. A story he fondly recounts takes him back to his days as a second-year apprentice in the mid-’80s when he worked on an enormous renovation of the Harvard biology labs for two and half years and at night taught a writing class. “I was working there all day in my greasy work clothes and at 3:30 I would walk two blocks to a friend’s apartment, shower, pick up my briefcase and walk to Harvard Yard to teach my evening class,” remembers Kelleher. “I would walk past the professors and they would see me earlier in the day but wouldn’t recognize me. It was a great kick to have a card in my pocket that said plumber and another that said Harvard visiting faculty.”

Graduating on scholarship with high honors from Harvard in 1973 with a BA in English and a thesis on Leo Tolstoy’s theory of art, Kelleher chose many diverse paths before engaging on the one that would lead him back to Harvard as a plumber. Kelleher started out as an English teacher at an elite prep school in New York and from there became the chief aide to the president of the Boston City Council. His press and speech-writing skills found him a position in Washington, D.C., as the press secretary for Massachusetts congressman Jim Shannon. While sitting at his desk one day, Kelleher weighed his future options. “I was there in Washington and I was thinking I was in my early thirties, was doing fairly well, but I looked down the road and asked myself, ‘Do I want to be sitting in an office writing speeches for the rest of my career?’” said Kelleher. “I thought not and decided that I would learn a trade.”

So, one weekend Kelleher returned to Boston, began talking with some people, convinced them he was serious and found himself a job as a first-year apprentice with Boston mechanical contractor Maurer and Sforza for $5.50 an hour. “One week I was in Washington on Capital Hill, and the next I was in a trench in Boston and I’ll be honest, I loved it.”

As a member of Union Local #12, Kelleher enjoys the people most of all. “It was such an incredible change and I worked with a great bunch of people. I think that guys in the trade are good-hearted, no-BS guys who know a hell of a lot and deserve to be treated with a lot of respect,” said Kelleher. After his time in Washington, one of the things that impressed him was the fact that in the trades things get built. “We don’t just sit around and talk, we actually do build things. I think it’s a very healthy life and I’m proud of the choice I made.”

When asked why would someone with a Harvard degree become a plumber, Kelleher’s short answer is Independence. “I wanted a field, a real hands-on, useful field where I could ultimately be my own boss. I was not looking to get rich, but to have a reliable and useful skill. This is something plumbing has helped me achieve.”

With his master plumber’s license, Kelleher attained the independence he had been searching for. The same week he received the license he went out on his own and formed Kelleher Plumbing & Heating, Inc. in 1988, providing a full range of plumbing, heating, gas and sprinkler services for commercial, residential and industrial sites.

The Quality Control Niche: A few years ago Kelleher was drawn into a new field, quality control, and formed his latest venture, Construction Quality Analysis, which provides on-site inspections and expert testimony for construction contractors and litigators. “The quality control work I’m doing now is really an effort to combine some of my strengths — an understanding of piping systems with an ability to write and communicate about it,” said Kelleher.

As fear of litigation causes more and more owners to insist contractors and subcontractors provide independent documentation, the opportunities in quality control management continue to grow. Kelleher describes the field as a definite financial benefit to all involved in the construction process. “If people are able to do the job once instead of having to go back and do it again, if they’re able to avoid litigation and conflict by having everything documented on the front end, instead of fighting over it legally at the back end, everyone gains financially.”

For the past five years, Kelleher has provided this documentation by managing quality control for EMCOR and its local company, J.C. Higgins, a long-time leading mechanical contractor in Massachusettes. EMCOR/J.C. Higgins has handled over $85 million in plumbing, mechanical and HVAC contracts for the Boston Harbor Clean-Up project. Anyone who voted in the 1988 presidential elections between Bush and Dukakis well remembers the controversy, not to mention the political commercials, concerning the Harbor’s illegal pollution levels. But nine years later that’s all changed. Absent for years, seals have returned to this healthy feeding ground and once again swimmers and boaters are taking to the water without fear of contamination. This can all be attributed to the Boston Harbor Project (BHP) overseen by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

The Great Clean-Up: The BHP is a $3.4 billion, 11-year program to construct new state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facilities at Deer Island, a 210-acre site that forms the northern edge of Boston Harbor, approximately five miles from downtown Boston. When completed in 1999, the project will ensure that wastewater discharges from 43 sewer-service communities — over 2.5 million residents and over 5,000 industries with flow requirements of 480 million gallons per day average and 1,270 million gallons peak — meet all state and federal standards for protecting public health and the marine environment.

The project is the result of a 1986 federal court order issued by U.S. District Court Judge A. David Mazzone, who directed the construction of new treatment facilities after he determined that wastewater discharges into Boston Harbor violated the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972. The order was the culmination of a series of claims filed in Massachusetts Superior Court by the city of Quincy charging that wastewater discharges into the harbor violated state law.

In the past, combined sewage and rainwaters (CSOs) polluted the harbor, an area without the rough currents to assimilate the pollution. To remedy this problem, the project includes a new primary and secondary treatment plant on Deer Island, a headworks on Nut Island, and a four and a half mile inter-island tunnel under the harbor connecting the headworks with the treatment plant. There is also a new 27-foot diameter, nine and a half mile tunnel which will discharge treated wastewater through 55 diffusers into Massachusetts Bay, ensuring that the effluent is well-mixed with sea water. To those worried about polluting the sea, project tour guides swear that by the time the treated effluent reaches the diffusers it’s pure enough to drink, then hold up a vile of treated waste and drink it.

During peak construction, as many as 30 contracting firms, 3,000 workers and hundreds of pieces of equipment work side by side on a congested construction site. The fact that only one isthmus connects the island to the adjoining town of Winthrop greatly limits access to the site. In order to alleviate any traffic through Winthrop’s sleepy bedroom community, no private vehicles are allowed on the site. Instead, workers are shuttled via bus or ferry, which makes running out to a local hardware store for a missing tool out of the question.

“Preplanning is a large concern on this project,” said Kelleher. Contractors must not only plan to have the right amount of tools and materials, but all the different contractors must coordinate quality control reviews with their production schedules. Site project manager ICF Kaiser Engineers Inc. requires all contractors and subcontractors to submit regular quality control reports.

To handle the immense testing, inspecting and paperwork on a quality control job of this scale, Kelleher added two inspectors to his company. “The guys I like to hire are retirees,” says Kelleher, “they know the stuff and they’ve been there.” He trusts them to know the specs on the variety of contract packages EMCOR/J.C. Higgins is engaged in on the island, including the piping for one of Kelleher’s favorite installations, the digesters.

Twelve digesters, referred to as the Easter eggs by those on the project, provide anaerobic digestion of both primary and secondary waste. Each 140-foot digester can hold three million gallons of waste. The methane gas produced is used as fuel in the boilers for the plant heating system. EMCOR assisted in piping the methane to the power plant through a series of 50 feet wide and 25 feet high galleries running under the plant which are designed to carry all the utilities that serve the plant as well as process piping throughout the plant. Kelleher compares the galleries to those of the Louvre. “You walk in these enormous rooms that go on for miles, but instead of art you have pumps and piping.”

EMCOR was also responsible for the potable water installations such as bathroom groups, water stations, hose bibs, and protected water for wash downs. Potable water was not needed for process systems. Instead, to conserve water, plant water is used for all process systems where potable water quality isn’t necessary such as power plant condenser cooling, gravity thickening dilution, hot water flushing, hot scum flushing water and equipment flushing and washdown. These systems draw their supply from the chlorinated effluent at the disinfection basins. The peak available capacity of the plant water system is 40 million gallons per day, while the estimated average potable water consumption is two million per day.

Keeping with its “green” focus, an environment-friendly solution for the sludge, a sewage treatment byproduct composed of fecal matter and other solids that are removed from wastewater during the treatment process, has been created at the Fore River sludge processing facility where 60 tons of sludge a day is recycled and used as fertilizer.

Once the project is complete, the remainder of the island will be turned into a park with bike paths and open spaces. In the past Deer Island has served as a refuge for the unwanted and undesirable — no wonder a sewage treatment facility fits right in. It’s been home to cast-out Native Americans, small pox victims and served as a quarantine post for those escaping Ireland’s Potato Famine. The island also has housed an almshouse, prison and a reform school. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority will construct a memorial to the Native Americans, Irish immigrants and residents of public institutions who died on the island.

The BHP has generated roughly 23,000 full- and part-time jobs, has created new tax revenues of over $8.6 million annually, and has cleaned up an environmental disaster. And for Kelleher, it’s opened up opportunities he never considered, but is definitely willing to investigate.

The tides turn for Kelleher again as he dives into another field of welding and weld inspection and explores the possibilities of structural steel and the opportunities it provides.

With a few months left on the project, Kelleher is looking at several of the other large projects going on around Boston, especially the new transportation tunnel and central artery project. “I’m looking now to expand, to get involved in quality control work that extends beyond plumbing, though I know I’ll always love the tools and the job,” said Kelleher.