Ask the engineering expert: How LAN is handling COVID-19

Jeffrey R. Thomas Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. addresses the engineering and business aspects of dealing with COVID-19

By Jeffrey R. Thomas June 11, 2020

Learn from Jeffrey R. Thomas, PE, CEM, CEA, CHC, Vice President, Business Group Director, at Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc., Houston. Consulting-Specifying Engineer sat down with him virtually to discuss engineering and business trends during the coronavirus pandemic.

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?

Jeffrey R. Thomas: Our teams have adjusted very well to the new work-from-home environment. My team is split across three geographically diverse regions with supervisors and resources separated by distance. This environment helped us transition to working from home with very little disruption. We have (always had) virtual weekly meetings of the discipline groups to review project progress and to discuss upcoming projects and how best to tackle them. My project managers also meet virtually every Friday to discuss overall project performance and resource allocation and utilization for the upcoming week.

The key, not surprisingly, is communication. Where managers used to manage by walking around, we now must set up and attend more virtual meetings, make phone calls or use other team communication tools to remain in the know. We also must ask more specific questions. Whereas we used to check in on production staff, see what they were producing and make suggestions, we now must ask them to show the work in progress.

Additionally, the production staff must have the resources they need to be successful. In our case that meant allowing people to take computers and monitors home so they could do their work. Our firm already had a robust information technology infrastructure, which has been invaluable during this time.

Finally, everyone needs a little more communication to let them know what’s going on and to assure them they are still valuable members of the team. We must attempt to provide some replacement for the normal office socialization that we have lost.

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

Jeffrey R. Thomas: Yes. We have projects under construction that require our presence as well as assessment and evaluation projects that require our employees to be on-site. Just recently, I attended the construction kickoff meeting for a project in the Houston area. We all arrived on-site and stood in a large circle with our masks to discuss various aspects of getting the construction started. We’ve also had teams evaluating buildings at a community college system in central Texas. Our assessments are used by the system to formulate their capital improvement plans for the coming year(s).

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

Jeffrey R. Thomas: We recently completed a virtual value-engineering project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Normally, this would have been a weeklong face-to-face meeting with the VE team from Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc., the USACE and the engineer of record.

Due to COVID-19 precautions, LAN setup a series of online meetings where the VE materials could be shared with all parties. Our VE specialist ran the workshop with very little modification to the original agenda. The USACE was very pleased with the materials LAN provided and our ability to provide a creative means to conduct the study.

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

Jeffrey R. Thomas: The engineering industry as a whole will be affected differently depending on the client base. Many cities, counties and states are stress-testing their budgets and re-evaluating the projects they will be doing based on the new projected revenues caused by the COVID-19 precautions. However, conversely, many entities are receiving or expecting infrastructure stimulus funds and will continue projects unabated or will add or change the mix of projects depending on the funding.

Parts of the engineering community will be hit by the slump in the oil industry and that will affect the tax base and budgets as well. Projects tied to the bond market for funding, such as school districts, will also likely slump while investors pull back and wait to see how things will shake out. We would also expect commercial real estate projects, tenant fit-outs for example, to slow as tenants figure out how to adapt their office space needs to the new WFH or work-from-anywhere paradigm.

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

Jeffrey R. Thomas: While we haven’t had specific requests related to COVID 19 protection from clients yet, we are ready to offer any assistance should they call.

LAN offers the full range of architecture/engineering services for our clients in the building space. We can provide design services for clients who wish to modify their buildings and systems. We can provide common sense solutions based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing, adjusted traffic patterns, etc.

We work with building owners to help them understand and implement suggested guidelines from these agencies as well as best practices recommended by Building Owners and Managers Association or International Facility Management Association for commercial spaces. We are also looking for best practices to come from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and American Society for Health Care Engineering for health care spaces. Our certified health care constructors and certified health facility managers will help our clients interpret and implement those recommendations as well.

For hospitals and health care facilities, do you anticipate further demand for specialty or pressurized environments?

Jeffrey R. Thomas: For all facilities, not just health care, pressurization and air mix requirements are likely to change with recommendations from ASHRAE, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or others. I would expect the ratio of outside air to return air will change and/or supplemented with guidelines about processing return air before reintroducing it into the supply stream.

This is where ultraviolet disinfection will likely play a major role. As we learn more about how UV affects the virus, we’ll know more about how to sterilize the moving air in HVAC systems. I also anticipate some unique sterilization methods to appear as engineers take a more in-depth look at the problem. The challenge, of course, will be to minimize the energy use while providing the necessary treatment for the air supply.

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

Jeffrey R. Thomas: Building automation controls already have the capability to be controlled remotely. Historically, cybersecurity was the limiting factor. Since building staff was already on-site, it was simpler to isolate the control network, with a few monitoring ports activated, and let the control occur from a central command center within the facility. Remotely controlling facilities from anywhere requires a wholesale paradigm shift by the owners with respect to cybersecurity.

Future design projects will no longer be limited to installing controls and enabling an internet portal. The design team will need to include a networking specialist and a security specialist to ensure the building operations remain secure when it goes online. I also expect contingency planning to get much more complex. It’s one thing to have maintenance go down the hall to manually override a faulty control system and something very different if they’re miles away.

Author Bio: Jeffrey R. Thomas is vice president, business group director, Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc., Houston. He's an electrical engineering expert with nearly 30 years of experience as a project manager, energy manager, auditor and certified health care instructor.