US Handiss Spotlight - Kirby Lee

Handiss Spotlight: Kirby Lee – Mechanical Engineer

Kirby is a Mechanical Engineer with twenty years of experience in HVAC Design and seven years of experience with clients, project management, and construction administration. He is specifically specialized in energy modeling, audits & building, and COVID-19 assessments of HVAC systems. His focus markets of expertise are commercial, residential, governmental, K-12, higher education, churches, as well as some experience in healthcare and labs.

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Q: Can you tell us what it’s like to work for the government as an engineer vs. working for a private company?

A: Government Engineering versus Private world can have multiple lenses on it.  In the MEP world and based on my experience, the Government Role has more of as a focus of the Owner’s Representative lens.  This aspect of government means the focus is more on delivery of project then actual practice of engineering like in the private sector.  I do know that Civil Engineers in the Public Works / Transportation / Water Management sectors get to practice engineering in a more traditional sense versus MEP being an Owner’s Rep role.  My perspective on this was that I enjoyed the private sector significantly more overall.  In private consulting world, you can use your engineering knowledge developed over the years to solve problems for clients using your expertise.  In the owner’s rep role, you procure services of design professionals, pay them to solve the problems, and hold them accountable to the scope / schedule / budget of the project in question. 

Some irony about this description is that my last day with the City of Durham was Friday last week, and I am taking a role with Johnson Controls back in the private sector.  Government work is slower pace / less pay / more security, whereas private world has higher pay / pace / less security.  Not to say I didn’t like working for the City, but the role was not the right fit given my desires in life at this time.  Maybe something I look at later in life near the end of my career.

Q: Why did you choose HVAC and Energy Modeling as your career path?

A: My father and grandfather were HVAC contractors and business owners.  Being both in HVAC and an Entrepreneur were goals of mine at a young age. At age 13, I got to work in my dad’s warehouse and learn all the in and out of the HVAC world from the contractor’s perspective.  At age 16, I got to fabricate ductwork and get hands on training that most engineers don’t get at all.  And beyond age 18 to my time in a university, I was working in the field as a laborer installing and putting ductwork out in the field on projects.  I knew being a professional engineer in the HVAC world was something I wanted to do but had no idea the path it would take me. 

One of my first opportunities doing consulting engineering work was not traditional design but an energy model for a middle school as an intern for a local engineering firm.  All the precision of the inputs and process to build an energy model is a skill set that is also needed as a young designer in the MEP world.  Energy modeling is also a very long process of gathering information from many aspects of the project.  It’s the ultimate team effort on a project since each part of the design team plays a part in the success of the building’s performance. After being taught a very specific process to check for quality control with load calculations / energy modeling, I really enjoyed learning all the details of how much impact each discipline in design could make buildings perform better.  That love for energy modeling has spanned 20 years now and I still love it as much today as I did the first time, I got the chance to work on a model.

Q: You do COVID-19 assessments of HVAC systems. Can you tell us more about that and about how COVID-19 has impacted your profession?

A: My exposure with COVID-19 came from the time at the City of Durham were there was a direct need to look at solutions to mitigate airborne contamination in public facilities.  Being a Professional Engineer means taking the oath to “always protect the welfare of the public”.  As soon as the ASHRAE task force guidance came out, I spent hours doing a deep dive into all the aspects of it to look at ways to get buildings ready for the public.  It was enjoyable to see teammates looking to me to help solve a major issue and using my engineering skill from the private sector to help the public.  A lot of the calculations involved in COVID-19 review for ventilation specifically come from the energy modeling / load calculation angle so it was something I could use to an advantage. 

The biggest battle with the COVID-19 world for HVAC was Bi-Polar Ionization.  While ASHRAE has consistently and repeatedly supported UV Lights to disinfect the air, BPI fractured the HVAC world offering an alternative.  Notably ASHRAE and the CDC do not support this technology as a solution yet due to being unproven, untested independently, or peer reviewed.  But this didn’t keep BPI reps going to owner trying to sell this product and causing a fracture point between vendors and design engineers.  I am sure that BPI might be an option to look at in the future but there are several concerns that need to be addressed before it should be considered in a occupied building for an installation.

Q: What do you like most about your profession?

A: The part that I enjoy the most about engineering is the problem-solving aspect of the job.  People come to MEP engineers to design solutions for their specific needs.  Not every project is the same, so you are required to constantly grow either to learn more knowledge or new tools to help with clients needs.  An emerging part that really connected with me over past 8 years was also learning about communication / relationship aspects of the projects with people involved.  Being an engineer means as much about solving the client’s problem in addition to being able to communicate effectively so they understand what the solution means for them.

Q: What do you like the least about it?

A: The part that I like the least specifically is that sometimes people treat the MEP world like a commodity world where anyone can do the job.  Everyone’s experience in engineering is unique so assuming all engineers think the same or have a similar skillset is a flawed mentality.

Q: Do you think there’s room for innovation in mechanical engineering, or in the AEC industry as a whole? Anything you’re looking forward to?

A: HVAC in general in terms of fundamentals is still the same as it was 50 years ago to be honest.  How that technology is used is where the real innovation is taking place.  I think the innovation is also partially driven by the clients needs as well so they understand how the new items in the HVAC market affect their bottom line.  I see Energy and Whole Building performance being a more relevant items for owners in the future.  Most private owner’s focus a lot on first cost of the AEC world with a lot of public entities thinking about long term ownership.  I think with energy cost and utilization being a bigger topic in recent years there will be a shift into more sustainable design with a higher-level focus on low energy or net zero buildings.  More focus on Energy means more energy modeling which is fun part of engineering for me.

Q: Has remote work made it easier or harder to do your job?

A: I think remote work has helped and hurt at the same time.  The helpful part is the simplicity of not having to go anywhere which is a savings of money and time.  That extra time is more time to spend on other things or with family.  People are starting to figure out with technology out there about 95% of work can be done at home.  I think the quality of the time working at home is better as well with less distractions versus being in an office.

The hurt part of the remote work is too many communication tools and not having things lost in translation.  Sometimes you might need to run over to someone’s office to get a quick answer on something that might not always be an option remote.  Important conversations can get diluted in a remote scenario when either side of a conversation doesn’t grasp the gravity of a critical issue that came up during a day.  Remote is not a good fit for anyone that has to learn a new role or having to do something from scratch with a unlearned skill.

Q: Any words of advice to aspiring mechanical engineers building a career in the AEC industry?

A: I would say my advice is to keep focus on growing and developing yourself everyday with skills to help peers, clients, and your company be it’s best for others.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help with issues that come up.  Also try to learn the soft skills of the business world in addition to technical topics to keep a balanced profile for career options long term.  Things like Emotional Intelligence / Communication / Public Speaking as just as important as learning how a HVAC chiller works.

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