COVID-19 has changed engineering practices; CannonDesign’s Paul R. Kondrat shares insights

From smart buildings to test-and-balance to health care facilities, Paul R. Kondrat from CannonDesign provides feedback on the many ways the coronavirus has changed engineering firms

By Paul R. Kondrat July 6, 2020

Engineering firms have adjusted to working in a COVID-19 environment. Consulting-Specifying Engineer connected virtually with Paul R. Kondrat, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Co-Director, Engineering, CannonDesign, Boston, to look at how engineering firms must adapt.

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?

Paul R. Kondrat: Absolutely, we have had many discussions with clients to make changes. As an omni-channel firm, we have many ways in which we can help. Whether it is consulting on operational adjustments, designing negative pressure rooms in hospitals, designing upgrades to technology and video conferencing systems or implementing ultraviolet lighting or constructing modular solutions, we have the expertise to solve just about any built environment challenge.

The real challenge is to make changes that are based in science and will produce positive outcomes. It is very easy to make knee-jerk reactions and waste precious capital investment dollars.

What HVAC, test-and-balance or air balancing challenges have you encountered? What unique challenges are you solving?

Paul R. Kondrat: For one, certified testing and balancing agents are very busy people right now. They are understandably in high demand, which can impact the completion of projects. As far as unique challenges, we are working across our markets to help our clients to drown out the noise and find the research-based facts to help them move forward. The most immediate needs have been revolving around returning to our buildings. We have developed a guidance website and have been holding panel discussions in major cities to provide people access to various people in communities.

For hospitals and health care facilities, do you anticipate demand for specialty or pressurized environments? What else is changing in these buildings?

Paul R. Kondrat: What we are synthesizing from speaking with our health care clients is a demand for more flexibility. Being able to switch rooms or areas, to be exhausted and under negative pressure when needed, but not giving up the energy efficiency of returning that air to systems when the surge is not happening is a common theme. We need to thoughtfully balance safety and energy efficiency. It is very easy to just say everything needs negative pressure and should be 100% exhausted, but that comes at a tremendous energy penalty that would be irresponsible environmentally.

There is much discussion related to patient flow, especially in the outpatient setting. How do you take a potentially infectious person that may not have any visible symptoms and prevent them from spreading disease? Easy, don’t bring them in in the first place. Part of the answer is technology. Telemedicine is here to stay. The technology infrastructure and space to support telehealth will definitely change.

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?

Paul R. Kondrat: The forced use of remote tools like Zoom, GoTo Meeting, Microsoft Teams, etc., has allowed people to become very comfortable with working more remotely. Many of those individuals would not have otherwise adopted the technology.

The next evolution that can transform our industry is the application of digital twins. It will revolutionize the design experience allowing us to more easily collaborate and be able to test virtually before we build. We were pushing a big rock up a hill to make this take off and gain acceptance before. This pandemic will push the rock to the top so we can roll down the other side. We have been heading in that direction for quite some time, so now its time for us to, as we say at CannonDesign, “Go there!”

The need to bring high-speed internet access to every nook and cranny of our cities and towns will further push demand for 5G. I recently facilitated a panel discussion on post-COVID returning to work in which a virtual museum director said, “High-speed internet access should become a right in our future.” If access to health care is becoming more virtual, access to education is becoming more virtual and cars will start driving themselves, he was spot on. Expanding on our current clients in the technology space will be a focus.

Lastly, there are some flaws in our supply chain in the United States that need improvement. As our population continues to grow, there will have to be major infrastructure investment over the next several years to make those improvements happen. At the same time, we don’t have enough skilled trades people to meet the demand. Our construction models need to switch to more modular-based solutions to get the greatest efficiency from our skilled trades. We have made significant investments in modular construction over that last several years that will continue to grow.

How do you keep your engineers and subject matter experts updated on the latest technologies and tools? How will these professionals enhance their engineering skills in the “new business world”?

Paul R. Kondrat: Surprisingly, most of the innovation that happens still travels through word-of-mouth and relationships. Developing connections in our business networks that connect us to the greatest minds in our industry keeps our engineers and subject matter experts up to speed. To pass that knowledge on, we have an internal education network that our employees can share and learn from.

Do you think the demand for smart building technologies will change over the next six months? If so, how will you meet this increased demand? If not, how will you continue to work with clients to stay connected to their buildings and engineered systems?

Paul R. Kondrat: Yes, we have thought for some time that the demand for smart buildings would change, this should accelerate that change. We have an internal armature for promoting innovation and collaboration across our firm called “Amp.” Employees can apply with a business proposal to the program and, if selected, are given the resources to research, develop and test ideas in a structured framework with the opportunity to bring their ideas to market. We are working on some exciting offerings in this area to help our clients proactively help them stay in tune with their building assets.

Author Bio: Paul R. Kondrat is the co-director of CannonDesign’s engineering practice and a member of the board of directors. With a background in mechanical engineering, he brings a comprehensive understanding of the full spectrum of engineering disciplines. His expertise is designing systems for complex institutional projects, helping clients improve building performance, enhance automation and attain sustainability goals. With Kondrat’s focus in practice leadership, he is passionate about mentoring and growing emerging professionals for future firmwide engineering leaders.