Ask an expert: COVID-19 advice from Ruairi M. Barnwell

Both engineering and business topics are covered in this Q&A with Ruairi M. Barnwell

By Ruairi M. Barnwell, HBDP, LEED AP May 8, 2020

How is COVID-19 affecting consulting engineers? Consulting-Specifying Engineer chatted virtually to ask engineers and building experts about how coronavirus is affecting them. Hear from Ruairi M. Barnwell, HBDP, LEED AP, Principal, DLR Group, Chicago. Ruairi M. Barnwell is a principal with DLR Group. He is an expert in high-performance building design. He was a 2013 Consulting-Specifying Engineer 40 Under 40 winner.

Have building owners or clients approached you to assist with changes or updates to their building to help protect against COVID-19? What services can you offer?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: I think most building owners realize that there is no silver bullet to protect against COVID-19 and that it will be a multilayered strategy and approach. Most of the requests we are responding to at the moment are building owners looking for direction on best practices to follow and an assessment of risk exposure with installed systems, particularly older HVAC systems that don’t have the capacity, controllability or resiliency to maintain higher levels of ventilation, higher filtration rates and longer hours of operation.

From an engineering standpoint, what other markets or building sectors do you anticipate will grow due to the changes occurring due to the coronavirus? Is there a new engineering sector you plan to focus on to meet these needs?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: DLR Group’s Building Performance Analytics practice has been steadily evolving over the past five years or so, but has been somewhat of a niche market up to now. Our clients with newer and more sophisticated systems have already been proactively deploying fault detection and diagnostics and system level analytics to optimize energy use and maintain a high level of occupant comfort and indoor air quality. We expect this to quickly evolve into mainstream as systems analytics become standard practice and required by code.

We anticipate that operations and maintenance teams who were already stretched to the limit during normal operations pre-COVID-19, will be overwhelmed with trying to adjust existing systems with inherent limitations to new operational guidelines, in addition to supporting questions and complaints from more demanding occupants. The data-rich reporting that deeper analytics provide O&M teams will be critical to validate building performance, and allow an optimized, analytics based, proactive approach to maintaining building systems and responding to occupant requests.

The coronavirus has required several facility managers to remotely control all aspects of their building systems (lighting, HVAC, etc.). What building automation or controls projects are you working on to meet these needs? How will this impact future design?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: We are working on several large building automation systems modernization design and commissioning projects that were ongoing before the pandemic. Now that we’ve been hit with this crisis, owners are seeing an even greater value proposition in investing in better controllability of their building’s systems and indoor environments. Better controllability leads to a better ability to perform meaningful analytics to optimize building operations, energy use, indoor air quality and occupant comfort.

The future of design will be greatly impacted by more mainstream deeper analytics and a higher level of transparency of building performance data than ever before. Design teams will be held more accountable to post-occupancy data and outcomes, and will take on a higher degree of risk than before, but in turn will also be compensated for the more holistic integrated design process necessary, to deliver the next generation of smart, high-performing buildings.

What might other engineers/building professionals need to know when tackling COVID-19 projects?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: COVID-19 won’t change our approach to engineering fundamentals, but it will amplify the need to apply these fundamentals on every project, to ensure high-performance design and smart building operations.

How has your staff/team adjusted to the new work-from-home environment? What tips or suggestions do you have to help other firms remain connected while working remotely?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: As a firm, we entered our new work-from-home environment in a good position, given that we’ve always had a flexible work-from-home policy, and many of our 1,200 employee owners were set up to work from home at some point in the past. Our technology and online video meeting capabilities via Zoom were already in place to support us from the moment we went to shelter-in-place. With this shift and our need to overcommunicate while we are separated from the office, we quickly received feedback of Zoom overload and virtual meeting fatigue after the first week or so of working from home.

My personal work-from-home tip would be to not over-rely on video conferencing and remember that phone calls still work. I try to sprinkle in a couple of touch-base phone calls every day with teammates from around the firm, where I can talk and walk, and go to the park, or around the block, and still have an engaging conversation with some fresh air, versus being inside sitting on video calls all day.

Is your firm conducting any travel to visit clients or projects? If so, what types of projects are you working on?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: Our commissioning team has been restricted somewhat with no traveling to other cities. However, we are visiting local projects for critical tasks like functional testing. Our design teams are also still engaged with on-site activities where there are critical tasks such as above ceiling punch lists that need to occur to facilitate a smooth process to support the essential ongoing construction activities.

What engineering or technical aspects of the job are now being done remotely?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: We already had the capability to perform remote commissioning and have been developing a standardized firmwide approach for a “connected commissioning” process before the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e., integrating analytics into the commissioning process to allow us to use analytics software such as Skyspark to monitor equipment operations post startup, and to ensure systems readiness to eliminate wasted trips. The pandemic has elevated the priority of this initiative and we are integrating this approach into all of our commissioning projects moving forward.

We have the equipment and software up and running for virtual walk-throughs and we had been beta testing this approach pre-COVID-19. However, we weren’t at a place where we could consider rolling this out as a firmwide approach just yet. I think this will be one of the key initiatives coming out of this crisis as we look to minimize travel as much as possible for the foreseeable future.

What supply chain issues are you experiencing? Is your firm dealing with any challenges with materials or products from manufacturers or suppliers?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: The only issues we’ve had so far has been ordering field monitoring equipment such as indoor air quality sensors from China. We had a large order get held up for a few weeks longer than expected, but we were able to pivot and accommodate that delay into our project schedule.

What financial implications do you think this will have on the engineering industry as a whole?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: Clearly it may have a negative impact in the short term as projects go on hold or are canceled, particularly in sectors where the full effect has still to be determined such as retail and hospitality, and as companies reevaluate their portfolio footprint in the wake of changing workplace habits.

I personally believe this will have positive long-term implications for the wider engineering community, with increased client expectations for professionally engineered building systems, an industrywide shift away from chasing code minimums, and more emphasis on an outcome-based compliance approach, with continuous analytics for building performance validation rather than a static plaque on the wall.

If new construction slows, the financials implications to the engineering industry should be offset by a renewed vigor and a basic necessity to upgrade existing building systems. Building systems retrofits that may have been driven by energy savings return on investment pre-COVID-19, will be driven more by occupant comfort, health and well-being in addition to a more holistic approach to systems resiliency.

Do you expect to see pent-up demand hit once shelter-in-place restrictions have been lifted? How do you think business will trend three to six months after?

Ruairi M. Barnwell: Yes, we are already seeing that happen even now while working remotely. Building owners are very anxious and interested to learn about their existing systems readiness for a return to work with new guidelines to follow, and to establish a playbook and position on what work needs to be done as soon as possible to assure building occupants are returning to a safe environment.

Once we are through the initial surge of assessing a building’s readiness and modifying systems to meet new guidelines, we will be deep into a wave of building automation systems upgrades, and major HVAC systems retrofits.

Author Bio: Ruairi M. Barnwell is a principal with DLR Group. He is an expert in high-performance building design. He was a 2013 Consulting-Specifying Engineer 40 Under 40 winner.