North Bend engineering firm digs deep

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NORTH BEND - One may never see Chris Breeds' work, but they will definitely use it.

As the owner of the engineering firm SubTerra, Chris believes what goes on underground is just as fascinating as what happens on the surface. To Chris, the tunnels and quarries he works in are just as amazing as anything an architect builds.

"It is never boring," he said.

As a child growing up in England, Chris' first engineering interest came in fixing up cars and boats. His parents were poor and he needed to earn money for school. He found grants from a mining company in South Africa that allowed him to study mine engineering. He was offered a job in South Africa, but a motorcycle accident before he graduated caused Chris to lose his hearing in one ear. Needing perfect hearing to work in a mine, Chris had to refuse the position.

With no job waiting for him, Chris went back to school and eventually earned a Ph.D. in coal mine engineering. As he was finishing up his degree, Chris was visited by a man from Virginia Polytechnic University (now called Virginia Tech) who was looking for assistant professors. Having never even visited the United States before, Chris took the job and in 1976 arrived at Blacksburg, Va., with a suitcase and about $50.

After three years in Virginia, a friend from Colorado came and asked Chris to help design tunnels for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Chris loved his teaching job, and was even voted best professor of the university, but he had yet to get a lot of practical experience with what he was showing his students.

"I'm teaching these guys out of books and taking them on tours of the industry, but I need expertise before I go back and do it again," Chris said.

Chris moved to Colorado and went to work for International Ground Support Systems. Fortunately, he met his wife Tricia at the company. Unfortunately, the company fell apart and Chris was once again looking for work. He found a job in nuclear power, but the problem was Chris was not yet a U.S. citizen and needed to become one before working around nuclear power plants. A U.S. senator from Colorado tried to get Chris' name on a bill that would naturalize him (along with other foreigners who were trying to be naturalized in time for the 1980 Winter Olympic games), but the page on the hill with his name on it was removed.

Chris went back to the man who had offered him the nuclear power job and was told about another job in the state of Washington at an engineering firm called Golder, which he took.

The company grew and Chris gained a lot of experience all over the world, eventually a little too much for his liking. In 1989, he went to Germany and started two new companies for Golder. The new businesses required Chris to spend a lot of time in Germany and not a lot of time with his wife and his new son. There was always talk of allowing Chris to move his family over to Germany, but it kept getting pushed back.

"He would be gone for three months, home for a week, gone for three months, home for a week," Tricia said. "He drew a line in the sand."

In 1991, Chris left Golder and started his own engineering company, SubTerra, out of his house, offering engineering work. He went two years without taking a pay check and still had to travel extensively. The business relied mostly on contacts Chris had made over the years and took him all over the nation. Chris' time was, however, in his own hands and his family got to travel with him.

"It [starting SubTerra] was flexibility to control one's own destiny," Chris said.

SubTerra grew. Chris eventually brought on his first staff and even bought a house in Kirkland in 1994 to convert into office space. In 1999, SubTerra moved to Preston, and the following year purchased a building on North Bend Way. SubTerra worked on renovating the historic North Bend building throughout that first year.

The formal open house for SubTerra was held in April 2001, which coincided with Chris' 50th birthday.

In addition to more time with family, Chris also sought a more experienced staff. He found some retired and semi-retired employees who had decades of experience to help add some valuable wisdom to the company.

"They want to stay involved in the work and they have a tremendous amount of knowledge that can transfer to the next generation," Chris said.

With Chris and his staff's experience, SubTerra has evolved to handle more aspects of ground work and engineering. In addition to tunnels large enough for people, SubTerra has worked on microtunnels, which are smaller and used for cables and pipes.

His background also allowed Chris to become an expert at quarries. He can monitor the environmental implications of mining and blasting around sensitive areas.

Some local projects include tunnel work for a water line from the Tolt River to Seattle, and some blasting engineering work (although explosives ended up being unnecessary) for the Snoqualmie River widening project that recently concluded.

Additional services Sub Terra has developed are digital imaging and video productions that give clients an idea of how their projects will look like once they are finished. A graphic can show what a reclaimed area will look like with additional vegetation, and can even demonstrate what kind of shadows it will have at certain times of the day, during certain times of the year in certain parts of the country.

In 2002, SubTerra received a grant to work on graphics for a submerged floating tunnel through Lake Washington. The 3-D graphic SubTerra produced was shown on local news stations and was also used for a Discovery Channel program on experimental engineering.

SubTerra has an office in England, and just opened an office in Denver. Chris works as hard as he ever has and still has to spend a lot of time traveling, but it is different now. He gets to work in North Bend and Tricia, who is on staff, works in the office next to him. When the weather is nice, they go next door to Scott's Dairy Freeze and get milkshakes.

He credits his accomplishments to hard work, but also believes he has gone down a path he never could have planned. He doesn't seem to mind.

"My life has been a series of events of which I have had, literally, no control," Chris said.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at

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