What engineering changes lie ahead? Bala notes COVID-19 impacts

Bala Consulting Engineers provided input on how consulting engineers can prepare their business and engineering practices during and after COVID-19

By Charles B. Kensky and Matthew F. Ezold May 27, 2020

Leaders from Bala Consulting Engineers responded via email to questions from Consulting-Specifying Engineer about COVID-19 impacts on the business of engineering and technical implications. Participants include:

  • Charles B. Kensky, PE, LEED AP BD+C, executive vice president, Bala Consulting Engineers, King of Prussia, Pa.
  • Matthew F. Ezold, CTS-D, director of digital planning, Bala Consulting Engineers, King of Prussia, Pa.

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?

Matt Ezold: Bala’s staff has adjusted well. Our culture has always been mobile and agile, working from other offices or remote locations as our normal practice. The leap to 100% of staff working remote had a few normal speed bumps to overcome but our productivity has remained strong. Continuous communication, via virtual meetings, with internal and external team members has been very important.

Since our shift to working 100% remote we have held biweekly companywide town hall meetings virtually and attendance has consistently been over 90%. Prior to this pandemic, these meetings were held at each individual office but the overwhelming positive feedback from our new virtual town hall meetings has prompted us to continue them virtually long-term.

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

Chuck Kensky: Travel has been limited to essential project sites only. We hold virtual meetings with vendors and clients.

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

Chuck Kensky: Bala has conducted several virtual surveys with assistance from our clients and contractors utilizing video conferencing apps such as Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp. Most recently, we conducted a survey and investigation of an air handling system in Louisville, Ky., that simultaneously linked up team members in multiple states including California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

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

Chuck Kensky: Tenants, landlords and owners will modify their facilities as needed to adapt, which will require engineering input. Building codes will adapt to include some pandemic measures as well, which will help drive some facility modifications. Many of our projects in design have continued, but some in construction have delayed due to forced shutdowns. Ultimately, it appears that activity will remain even and could potentially increase as the economy begins to start.

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?

Chuck Kensky: While many people would like to get out and resume normal activities and businesses would like get up and running at full capacity, a slow start may be in order so as not to trigger a larger infection and spread of the virus. Initially, demand will be for improvements to accommodate de-densification of facilities, modifications for select HVAC and plumbing systems and optimizations or adaptations of technology systems to enhance the safety within buildings. Continuing demand will depend upon financial stability of developers, institutions and companies as they return to normal business operations.

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?

Chuck Kensky: We have had several landlords and tenants reach out to us for advice. They found great value in our white papers addressing COVID-19 impacts to facilities. We are providing studies and recommendations for their systems to help them make decisions on what can be deployed to improve indoor air quality within their buildings and spaces. Once decisions are made, we develop the engineering designs and provide support as the contractors install the decided systems modifications. In addition, Bala has the ability to commission modifications made and develop updated operating procedures to guide landlords and tenants on how operate their renovated facilities.

Matt Ezold: From a technology systems perspective, our clients have a significant interest in body temperature detection systems and expansion of their remote communication capabilities. Our recommendations and info on body temperature screening can be found in our thermographic screening paper.

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

Chuck Kensky: The higher efficiency filtration levels are a large challenge for the existing fans and airflows. These higher efficiency HEPA filters add pressure drop to the systems which decreases airflow and may require more fan horsepower to maintain previous airflows. Also, trying to keep the spaces positively or negatively pressurized in relation to common areas is a challenge when working with existing systems. The greatest challenge is analyzing existing systems and developing remedies that work within the limitations of the current systems. Working within the confines of the existing infrastructure will save money for our clients and allow them to reoccupy their buildings much faster.

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

Chuck Kensky: For the most part, hospitals are way ahead of office buildings when addressing COVID-19 impacts because they handle infectious patients regularly. Their isolation wings already maintain the proper pressurizations. Converting regular hospital space into isolation wings can be more of a challenge. This conversion can be handled by adding fan filtration units exhausting out of the hospital rooms and adding in temporary isolation barriers in the corridors. We also anticipate that long-term care facilities will look to convert specific rooms or wings to have the ability to be placed under negative pressure with increased ventilation airflow. 

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?

Matt Ezold: Modifications will be needed across all sectors. Our technology practice anticipates requests to reconfigure workplace designs to provide better distancing options and allow high-quality remote collaboration between office and remote staff.

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?

Chuck Kensky: Most new building management systems can be operated remotely. The changes to the sequences of operation to extend hours of operation, increase outside air and defeat demand control ventilation, purge sequences, etc. are the immediate changes. We see the potential that this will jump-start adoption of smart building technologies to meet this demand. Buildings that lack remote monitoring and controls will look to shift to cloud management and remote operation centers, which will require improved building networks. However, we are cautioning clients to let the dust settle a bit before diving into changes.

Author Bio: Charles B. Kensky, PE, LEED AP BD+C, executive vice president, Bala Consulting Engineers, King of Prussia, Pa. Matthew F. Ezold, CTS-D, director of digital planning, Bala Consulting Engineers, King of Prussia, Pa.