A Larger Role for Engineers?
Dallas played host once again to BuilConn last month, a show geared toward the proliferation of intelligent, interoperable buildings. Last year, one of the main questions was what role M/E/P engineers should play in guiding the overall building-automation process. In talking to Paul Ehrlich, president of the Building Intelligence Group and a program manager with Clasma, Inc.
Dallas played host once again to BuilConn last month, a show geared toward the proliferation of intelligent, interoperable buildings. Last year, one of the main questions was what role M/E/P engineers should play in guiding the overall building-automation process.
In talking to Paul Ehrlich, president of the Building Intelligence Group and a program manager with Clasma, Inc., the show's organizer, the answer was a little clearer this year, in part, thanks to the BuilSpec series of seminars. Ehrlich was one of the key presenters of the seminars, which toured 11 U.S. cities last year. The goal was to educate engineers on getting in tune with building owners and IT staff in terms of looking at buildings from an enterprise level—as opposed to merely a systems level—and give them the ammunition they need to take on a more significant role in determining the overall goal of a building. While attendance wasn't quite what he and the other organizers were hoping for, Ehrlich did say that he received much positive feedback from attendees, and mentioned a couple of consulting engineering firms that have become involved in technology services.
Still, he noted that while a handful of firms are embracing the idea of automation and integration on an enterprise level, the majority of the field is still focused mostly on building systems.
"You ask people what they think of their buildings, and they say they're just awful," he said. "As an industry, we need to ask ourselves how can we do things better? The M/E/P engineer can be the advocate for better buildings, [but needs] a direct relationship with the owner to do this."
Furthermore, he said engineers need to begin thinking more about increasing their knowledge of all things IT. The major challenge in them not doing so, he said, is the fact that M/E/P technology is much more static than IT. As such, engineers have become conditioned to their traditional roles, making the leap to a more advanced role much more difficult. "The building industry is exceedingly cautious and conservative," he said. "The last thing people want is to put in bad equipment, so the industry doesn't change very quickly." That being said, he admires firms that have looked for ways to innovate buildings and systems, including those that have embraced LEED and assisted in elevating the green building concept.
Aside from boning up on IT knowledge, Ehrlich said that designers should consider that overseas competition is growing, noting that there are plenty of eager, tech-savvy designers outside of the U.S., especially in Asia. "Look at the graduation rates between U.S. engineering schools vs. Asian schools," he said. "It's something like a 10-to-1 or 100-to-1 ratio. It really makes you think about where the industry is going. The U.S. [engineering industry] must think about what it needs to do to elevate itself. Outsourcing is happening whether we like it or not."
Considering what is at stake, Ehrlich urged engineers, particularly managers, to ask themselves several questions. "If you're a classic M/E/P firm, who is your competition? What will your relationship be with building owners? Where will you be in five years?"
The bottom line, he believes, is that if engineers don't become more tech-savvy today, thus differentiating themselves and allowing for a closer relationship with owners, it's just a matter of time before someone else takes their place.