Dewberry tips for handling COVID-19 engineering issues

Four Dewberry experts provide business and engineering trends for handling coronavirus requests and issues

By Dewberry July 1, 2020

Consulting-Specifying Engineer connected with four experts from Dewberry to learn more about how the firm is handling client requests, business aspects and engineering challenges while dealing with COVID-19. Hear from:

  • Peter Andersen, PE, Electrical Discipline Manager, Associate Vice President, Dewberry.
  • Don Burroughs, PE, Associate Vice President, Dewberry.
  • Alex Harwell, CHC, Associate, Dewberry.
  • Ken Wehner, PE, LEED AP, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Dewberry.

How are engineering or technical aspects of the job being completed remotely?

Don Burroughs: Regarding meetings, most owner, architect and contractor meetings have been remote. Some hospitals are still proceeding with onsite inspections, but require social distancing, check-in procedures and personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves. We have participated in a few virtual inspections, where the contractor was onsite using a phone or tablet camera to allow designers to see the work.

Alex Harwell: Regarding design, most work can be done remotely with good reference drawings and existing site knowledge. Where these may be lacking, we have not found an effective replacement to physical presence. Effective engineering design work, especially in renovations and existing conditions, requires a spatial and technical awareness of a site that no amount of remote reference material or replacement seems to supplement.

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

Peter Andersen: For K-12, university and government work, we are making client and project visits. Our clients are typically located close enough so that we can visit them in a day without requiring overnight stays or long-distance travel. Mostly our work includes projects deemed essential to core missions in the construction administration phase. However, some new design projects continue to surface.

Harwell: Yes, where project scope necessitates physical presence and client policy and preference allow, we have been strategically performing site visits to support critical projects and clients. This has included helping hospitals prepare for COVID-19 patient care in the form of ventilation system modifications, supporting critical hospital system repair and replacement projects and selected renovation projects key to the facilities mission. PPE, social distancing and general transmission precautions are followed and visits are logged internally and reviewed/approved by supervisors to confirm need beforehand.

What financial implications do you think COVID-19 will have on the engineering industry in the next three months? Six months? Twelve months?

Andersen: Our K-12, university and government team had a strong first quarter in 2020, working through the backlog of a banner 2019. We expect our financials to contract slightly over the next three to six months but have cautious optimism for the next year and beyond from our diverse core client base being less impacted by COVID-19 than some other market segments. Industrywide, we assume most engineering firms will be similarly affected, with less diversified firms more affected.

Harwell: For health care, we believe the impact will be most acutely felt over the next three months in most markets where patient COVID-19 surge was relatively small and revenue loss from nonCOVID-19 services contraction was significant. This is likely to be highly geographical and dependent on the particular health care sub-market that firms are tied into. Short-term, over the summer and into early fall, we are likely to see a general slowdown or pause in midsize to large capital projects.

Reductions in overall patient population and associated revenue from COVID-19 impacts have significantly impacted health care system finances. Many systems are slowing, pausing or fully canceling design and construction projects, taking a wait-and-see approach to how the health care landscape as a whole may impact their plans and protecting cash reserves. Projects likely to continue during the short term are those critical to hospital operations, such as necessary equipment replacements and small- to midsize renovation and addition projects that have a direct and reliable positive impact to revenue or market share. We are seeing this happen in the North Carolina health care marketplace already.

The next six months are very likely to be dependent on whether a resurgence of COVID-19 occurs in the fall or the crisis is in relative check. Should there be a significant resurgence, it is likely hospitals will continue to take a conservative approach to traditional past projects moving forward. A second significant wave is also likely to result in hospitals taking a deeper dive into long-term pandemic resilience actions than they may have to date.

If we do not see a significant resurgence in COVID-19 in the fall, hospitals will likely feel more comfortable opening the taps back up and proceeding with traditional capital projects as planned and they are likely to have a backlog at this point. Provided the system was/is in a good cash and market position, they are likely to bounce back. Base health care demand is still out there and the funding vehicles have largely not changed, which should result in a restoration to life largely as before.

In down markets, retrofit/renovation and maintenance/repair/operation tend to increase. How is your firm working with clients and building owners to keep this conversation going (and keep the money coming in)?

Andersen: Retrofit/renovation projects for repeat clients has been our mainstay work, so we are certainly hoping to see an increase in these types of projects. We have started to shift our thinking toward helping our clients find ways of using what they have (in terms of their built environment) to the best of its ability rather than major modifications.

Harwell: A significant portion of our work has been in this area of engineering consulting. We focus on building relationships with facility engineering staff by helping them solve difficult and complicated system issues. It is a large part of what has made our firm successful and we intend to continue to focus on facility engineers and their concerns. This naturally lends itself to repair and renovation projects, especially those related directly to facilities engineering.

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?

Andersen: Yes, we’ve had a few clients ask for COVID-19-related HVAC system master planning and design changes; primarily health care clients, but also a few in the K-12 and higher education market segments. We offer COVID-19-related mechanical, electrical, engineering and structural engineering services in master planning, facility condition assessments, consulting and design.

Burroughs: We have been actively assisting hospitals develop negative pressure areas for COVID-19 patients and temporarily convert those areas to 100% exhaust.

Harwell: Yes, several hospital systems have reached out to us to assist them with making modifications to existing systems in preparation for COVID-19 patient cohorting. This has largely manifested in analyzing existing systems to convert areas to full exhaust and negative pressure. We have also assisted facilities in triaging existing systems and areas to identify the areas with the least cost/impact modifications for patient isolation.

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

Burroughs: For hospitals, the increased ventilation to make up for 100% exhaust in some areas has greatly increased cooling loads. Because this pandemic hit during mild weather, we were able to activate those ventilation changes initially without additional cooling equipment. We are now assisting hospitals in developing strategies for supplemental cooling in order to precondition this large increase in outside air.

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

Burroughs: Yes, see previous comments on work we are currently doing. Going forward we will be helping hospitals develop built-in measures that will allow them to quickly activate areas into negative pressure zones with increased exhaust. We are also looking at other supplemental measures in designs to improve reduction of viral transmission, including increased high-efficiency particulate air filtration and the use of ultraviolet lamps in the HVAC system.

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?

Andersen: While many other markets could demand COVID-19-related changes, we expect we are already engaged with the majority of our clients who are actively pursuing changes.

Ken Wehner: In line with our health care projects, we are also analyzing long-term care facilities. We know nursing homes have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward, we believe the design and operation of long-term care facilities will change to provide more flexible operational options and improved safety.

Harwell: There is certainly a need for reevaluation of nursing and long-term care facilities for the elderly population. These have been the hardest hit in nearly every community. Funding challenges are a perennial issue, especially for those facilities caring for a majority of Medicare and Medicaid patients. However, there may be changes to regulatory requirements and/or new funding sources to overcome this challenge. This sector has the highest need for better solutions to protect their patient populations; to help create a safer nursing environment through engineering design would be wonderful.

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”?

Andersen: We have an internal COVID-19 task force comprised of senior technical leaders at the highest levels. We meet often to discuss COVID-19 news related to national technical societies, including ASHRAE and the American Society for Health Care Engineering. Discussion topics include COVID-19 transmission modes and factors, such as relative humidity; new COVID-19 mitigation technologies; client mitigation requests; and other various issues.

Burroughs: We are fortunate in the health care group to have several staff that have always been very active in national organizations and committees such as ASHE, ASHRAE 170, Facilities Guidelines Institute and ASHRAE 90.1. These leaders were able to share with us the latest information coming from these committees on the virus and preventing transmission. This has continued throughout the pandemic and will continue in the future.

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?

Andersen: Our core clients typically do not have a work-from-home/transitory staff. We do not see increased demand for smart building technologies, as we understand that term, in our core clients, beyond those that may consider low-hanging fruit COVID-19 mitigation HVAC changes. Again, we see clients maximizing what they have until a more certain economic “new normal” is established.

Burroughs: This was already growing in the health care market as many new standards require regular logging of temperature, humidity and pressure conditions in a variety of critical spaces. This need will no doubt expand for the added temporary isolation areas developed for future pandemics.

Peter Andersen is an electrical discipline manager and associate vice president at Dewberry.

Don Burroughs is an associate vice president at Dewberry.

Alex Harwell is an associate at Dewberry.

Ken Wehner is a senior mechanical engineer at Dewberry.