The future of HVAC design

By David C.J. Peters, PE, Southland Industries, Dulles, Va. October 1, 2009

As I retire at the end of a 54-year career in the HVAC industry, I can’t help reflecting that my timing is a bit off. I find myself envious of the young mechanical engineers who are entering the design business. Why? Because for the first time, the emphasis is truly on good design for low energy use.

I know there have been lots of good energy-efficient designs in the past, on numerous lucky projects, but for the most part, for the run-of-the-mill jobs it’s all been empty talk—and when the chips are down, the high-efficiency components and systems are the first to get the chop. That is, until now.

This energy-efficiency trend has been growing for several years now, but there is a sea change happening in our business that I believe is here to stay. There has never been anything quite like it in the past—the meteoric rise of the U.S. Green Building Council and its LEED programs; green initiatives by government agencies driven by EPAct and various executive orders; and above all, the awareness of climate change as a challenge to the human race.

The challenge ahead of our new engineers isn’t just to design for energy efficiency, because that’s always been possible by throwing money at the problem. It’s that the need has never been greater for energy-efficient and cost-effective building systems and equipment. To achieve high efficiency and low cost, solutions have to be innovative for any application—from the smallest strip mall to the most monumental government building.

In today’s environment, young engineers are much less likely to be exposed to the mediocre designs that unfortunately have been dictated by business conditions over the years. Such solutions will no longer be acceptable; only brilliant ones will. The bar has been raised a notch in our business, and that’s nothing but good news for all concerned.

But to achieve these “brilliant” designs, and to have the resources to design, construct, and operate them, there has to be a team effort by all the design disciplines, as well as the owners, end users, and contractors. The mechanical engineer is in a unique leadership position, principally because he or she “owns” the building’s energy simulation model and can advise the entire team on the energy effectiveness of their proposed design solutions. In spite of the fact that the mechanical systems generally are not the largest users of energy in the building, there is no doubt that their design has a major influence.

Another evolution has been going on for HVAC designers in the latter portion of my career, and that’s information technology, IT. You might think that IT’s the replacement of paper-and-pencil drawings (which I still use, by the way) with 3-D models that are worked on by (almost) all of the design disciplines. Well, that’s good stuff, and so is the Internet and all the new models. But the IT I’m talking about is that young engineers are listening to us retiring engineers. They’re catching on that for all the computer resources they have, what they’re missing is the one thing we have that computers can’t provide … wisdom.

So, even though my timing is a bit off, my 54 years in the business have been memorable and I feel that I’m leaving an industry that is in pretty good shape for the next generation. But what a time to be a young mechanical engineer! Shine, stand up, and be counted!

For further reading, check out David Peters’ covery story feature, " Mechanical and HVAC design goes underfloor ".


Author Information
Peters is retiring as senior vice president, engineering, at the Dulles, Va., office of Southland Industries, after 23 years with the company. Previously, he was with Carrier Corp. Peters started his career in the U.K. with a design-build mechanical contractor.