Engineering Leadership: Key Element for Commissioning Success

Several years ago, Tom Stewart and I wrote a paper for ACEEE titled Making Energy Intensive HVAC Processes More Sustainable via Low Temperature Heat Recovery. The paper looks at how heat recovered from low temperature sources, like the condenser water system in a chiller plant, can be used to offset reheat, preheat and even space heating requirements in some applications.

Tom is the Director of Facilities for Memorial Hospital of Carbondale.  In many ways, Tom and his facilities group and I kind of “grew up” in building industry together through a relationship that started out as client/consultant and evolved to friendship. (To this day, when I call there, it feels more like calling home than calling a facilities office).

It was in Tom’s boiler room where the light bulb first came on and I realized we were throwing heat away in the cooling towers while generating steam to make hot water to serve loads that it might be possible to serve with water at condenser water temperatures. The idea led to:

  • A lesson in practical functional testing thanks to Joe Cook (read the paper to find out the details),
  • My first implementation of condenser water heat recovery thanks to Tom’s open mindedness, and
  • A lower than average energy consumption profile for the hospital.

To quote the paper;

The building square footage has increased by 94%, but the current building energy consumption in terms of Btus has only increased by 17% over the baseline in 1979 when the first energy audit was done and the ongoing energy conservation and ME systems
improvement program was initiated.

In 2002, when the paper was written, Memorial Hospital was spending about $1.88 per square foot for utilities while the typical Illinois hospital was spending about $2.35 per square foot. The culmination of this was that Memorial Hospital became one of the first if not the first health care facility to receive an energy star rating.

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Recently, Marriott International’s Western Region has embarked on a plan to reshape the way they operate their buildings. This started as an effort to implement
their own brand of retrocommissioning
(which they term MRCx) in as many of their facilities as possible.

A key component of the MRCx program from the start was the recognition that it was not a one time process; rather the commissioning tool set  is embraced as an integral part of how a building is designed, fabricated, placed on line, and operated.  As Marriott’s team began to develop the infrastructure and training required to support MRCx, they realized that while the process was a technical process and thus, required support with regard to technical issues and engineering fundamentals, there were also key engineering leadership fundamentals that needed to be addressed.

In general terms, this was the same conclusion that Tom and I reached when we wrote our paper; that engineering leadership is integral to the short and long term success of any technical project.

When Tom and I decided to write a paper to share our ideas, I tackled the technical angle while Tom wrote about the Owner’s perspective. In doing that, he identified the engineering leadership and management principles that he felt were integral to
our success. These principles are outlined below (these are my titles for the concepts Tom discusses in the paper).

  • Management Support
  • Long Term Planning
  • High Quality Facilities Engineering Team
  • Training and Empowerment
  • A/E Team Interaction and Integration
  • Long Term A/E Team Relationships

If you read the paper and think through the ideas Tom writes about, I think you will begin to realize that:

  • These ideas are powerful ideas because they not only pave the way for efficient, sustainable systems to emerge, they pave the way for these systems to persist.
  • Many of the concepts, like planning, training, empowerment, and integration are also core commissioning concepts.
  • The concepts not only embrace the wise use of natural resources, they embrace, support, and develop what may be our most important resource, people and their skills and ideas.
  • The course Tom and his management set for the hospital in terms of facilities engineering was nothing short of brilliant.
  • The preceding is especially true when you realize that these concepts were evolving and in place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, before the term “commissioning” had come to the forefront in our industry.
  • That the work Tom and his team did is a powerful case study documenting the long term benefits to be achieved in terms of efficiency, sustainability, reliability and leadership if core commissioning concepts are embraced and implemented as “business as usual”.

As I worked with the folks at Marriott to develop the training classes for the first group of engineering directors and supervisors to go through the program, we used Tom’s principles as our foundation for the coursework on engineering leadership. That process caused us to think a lot about workable ways that these ideas can be implemented in the day to day operations of a modern building.

The ideas we developed and presented were well received and even, perhaps, exciting to the engineering team leaders that attended our recent class. So, with Marriott’s blessing, and with gratitude to Tom and his team for developing and sharing their ideas in the first place, I thought I would share some of our recent insights with you through this blog. Our hope is that you too might find the ideas useful, exciting, and an inspiration to go out and make the world just a little better place.


David Sellers
Senior Engineer – Facility Dynamics Engineering
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