Putting the Pieces Together: A Q&A with a Trio of SHP Engineers
Imagine starting a 1,000-piece puzzle. How do you begin? Perhaps you sort through the pile and organize by color. Maybe you spend an hour finding the elusive corner and edge pieces to build the frame.
Now imagine starting two puzzles at once and mixing all the pieces together. Where do you start? How do you determine which pieces are needed and which are not?
That’s what many of the most complex projects are like for our SHP engineers. While engineers of all specialties require a keen understanding of specific technologies and possess essential skills to ensure that building systems operate safely, efficiently and in accordance with building codes and standards, they are also uniquely adept at tackling complex problems. We spoke with three of our engineers at SHP (Sam Bohman, Daryn Meadows, and David Hammitt) about their work on an ongoing project, the distinct challenges they face, and the thrill of “putting the pieces together” without missing a beat.
Let’s start with the basics. What role do each of you play at SHP?
Sam Bohman: I am an electrical engineer, so I deal with the design and development of electrical systems within a building. I handle the electrical distribution system design from the point where power enters the building, down to every last receptacle. I also design the lighting layouts, lighting controls, and fire alarm systems for each building.
Daryn Meadows: As a plumbing engineer, my work is similar to what Sam does electrically, but within a different set of systems. I handle the plumbing distribution system design from building entry to user/equipment points of use.
David Hammitt: I’m a mechanical engineer at SHP, specifically around HVAC systems. I’m responsible for the design and documentation of HVAC systems for various SHP projects and helping find the most efficient solutions for our clients.
You’re currently working together on a quite tricky renovation project. How’s it going?
SB: We’re working on a K-12 renovation project here in the Cincinnati area—and “tricky” is the right word. It’s an old building, with several additions and renovations conducted over the years. The original building is from 1912, with documented major building additions and sections constructed in 1929, 1948, 1964, 1968, and 1991.
DH: Another complicating factor is that half of the building is still going to stay operational during the renovation. So, in addition to renovating, we have to ensure that school can remain in session while the other side is being completely gutted and renovated.
SB: That certainly adds some complication to the design. We have had to look carefully through the existing drawing sets to determine which systems serve each building area, and which elements are even still around today that we can use.
With a project this complex, what is the first step?
SB: We always do an initial survey of existing conditions. We’ll get drawings of the building which should document the original elements like electrical, piping and equipment, plus whatever has been added or changed over the years. But it’s never really that simple, especially with older buildings. We frequently find conditions that have been changed by maintenance personnel without being documented well – or at all.
DM: As part of the initial survey, we physically walk the site to see things for ourselves. That helps with understanding what has changed from the drawings, and determining what elements are “real” and which ones no longer exist—or exist but are no longer functional. Getting a feel for what is there gives us our base point, and then we can start working on a new design. We’ll make a Revit model with the existing elements, determine what’s getting removed, then start designing new from there, oftentimes from the ground up.
How do you “design from the ground up” in an existing space?
DH: It’s a lot of problem-solving, for sure—figuring out what has to come out, what can stay, and how to best use the building as it stands now. In this K-12 project, for instance, the old cooling tower is on these old metal rails; we’ve had to investigate whether those can support new HVAC equipment or if we need to add extra support. Another big thing is that the building doesn’t have forced air, just window units. Since we’re adding more equipment to the building, we need to think about where it can be placed so it works within the existing walls, without degrading the façade or putting it on the roof.
DM: Building codes and safety regulations are something we have to keep in mind, too. When David says “putting it on the roof,” this is actually in reference to a code restriction we were considering on this K-12 project. We’re always considering how different codes play into the design. It’s an exciting challenge.
You also have to consider how the space is going to be used in the future, right?
SB: Right. Electrically, making this school “future-proof” is a big concern. With the technology included in today’s classrooms, the power load is simply a lot greater than it was 50 or 60 years ago. We need to provide more power to the site than was previously available, but we’re also adding extra capacity to account for their needs down the road.
DH: From our perspective, a lot of our decisions come down to longevity and setting our clients up for success. We just had this conversation about the school’s mechanical systems; we chose a model that takes up more space, but it lasts much longer—and it’s a lot simpler to work on. The district can replace components as needed, which helps them stay within their maintenance budget. The other option was a highly engineered system, where if one component failed, they would have to replace the entire thing, which they don’t have the budget for.
You obviously have your own specialty areas, but it’s clear you also collaborate closely to make sure the building is safe, efficient and functional. How would you describe that process?
SB: One of the unique aspects about SHP is that we have engineering and architecture under the same roof, which enhances our coordination and collaboration. On this project, in particular, the engineers were involved very, very early on.
DH: There’s also a lot of communication with the clients to really know what they want and need. We’re their advocates, after all; we don’t want to give them a design they can’t maintain or afford.
How do you balance all of these different needs and limitations?
DM: It’s like a puzzle, really. We have to get creative and make sure everything fits. There are definitely some head-scratching moments where you think, “How am I going to make this work?” But when you find a solution, it feels amazing.
DH: It’s challenging, but a lot of fun. There are many constraints we have to design around, but that affords us the opportunity to be creative and think about innovative design solutions. As engineers, we’re working with codes, with local permit officials, within the constraints of the existing building. We want to make sure it’s affordable for the client, and energy efficient, and that it can be built on time—and we also want to make sure our architects and our clients are happy. It’s challenging, but it’s what I love about my job.
SB: I really enjoy the brainstorming involved in the early stages of a project, because there are so many different pieces to the puzzle floating around—some you’ll need, and some you won’t. You get to play with all sorts of combinations of pieces until you find all the edge pieces and finally have a frame. Once that frame is there, the rest is a lot easier to piece together.