Engineer TLC: A Leader in Green Building Design
A devotion to energy savings and respect as a ‘trusted advisor’ characterize ENR Southeast’s Design Firm of the Year
In 2009, the construction and engineering industry was in a freefall, yet Kim Shinn, the chief sustainability consultant with TLC Engineering for Architecture, was focused on a much smaller problem: How to give a presentation that wouldn’t put his audience to sleep.
Shinn, whose Orlando-based firm is a mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineer, remembers thinking that the next time he sat through another slide-by-slide snoozer on a technical topic would be “too soon.”
An industry peer, Kirk Teske, then chief sustainability officer at HKS Architects, Dallas, had cajoled Shinn into co-presenting a session on energy modeling that would make what would prove to be its “national debut” at the then-upcoming 2010 GreenBuild Conference. Earlier in 2009, HKS had sought to boost its own understanding of energy modeling by hiring TLC—led by Shinn—to train several key staffers on the methods, means and overall importance of producing these critical project simulations.
Teske was trying to forge a new sustainability-based culture within HKS at the time, and “TLC very much helped” do that. And though he doesn’t believe TLC Engineering for Architecture could have been considered what he calls a “Tier 1” engineer back in 2009, in hindsight he now realizes the company was on its way. The company has since emerged as a force in health care design and sustainability and a trusted and influential early-stage project adviser.
Impressed by what TLC had taught his own firm in 2009, Teske was now asking Shinn to educate a broader audience. Shinn, wanting to engage rather than bore attendees, thought about playing a game.
And that’s when the Wizard Show was born.
First unveiled at that 2010 GreenBuild, the program is an audience-participation game of sorts in which attendees are grouped into teams as they compete over a live building model, with the end goal being to engineer the most energy-efficient building possible. The model, says Teske, is always of an actual building, but one that simply and barely meets existing building and energy codes.
Given the ability to change materials, the scale of windows, shading, building positioning and other design choices, audience members compete against each other in real time. And, critically, says Shinn, they make plenty of poor decisions along the way.
“They learn from their mistakes,” he says. Even today, as the focus on energy savings grows more intense, architects and engineers are still making poor design choices, Shinn finds.
For instance, many architects who participate in the Wizard Show will try to “super-insulate” a building located in the South. In this region of the country at least, Shinn says, that choice can sometimes end up elevating a facility’s energy use by trapping heat within the building envelope.
“You don’t know these things until you run the simulation,” Shinn says, explaining a main takeaway point for participants. “There are no valid rules of thumb.” So project designers need to run the model.
Shinn and Teske’s envelope-busting presentation approach proved a huge hit at that 2010 conference. And since then, the two “wizards”—assisted by others —have educated thousands of industry professionals by encouraging them to have fun making mistakes, and thus teaching them with the error of their ways. The approach even inspired the Harvard Graduate School of Design to replicate the teaching technique, with the university noting in a white paper on the subject students’ preference for game-based learning, but also the potential to create energy-modeling cultures within schools of architecture, according to a Wizard Show primer provided by Teske.
Just as important is the shift in industry mind-sets that the still-going Wizard Show has been able to induce. And on that score, Teske gives TLC the credit.
Speaking on both the Wizard Show and TLC Engineering for Architecture’s own internal approach to educating clients—which includes both architects and owners—Teske says: “They educate and communicate and lead projects with architects in a way that helps everyone understand the impact that architectural decisions make on the energy consumption of buildings.
“Without question, TLC Engineering for Architecture has done more to educate the architectural profession on the impacts of architectural decisions on energy consumption” than any other firm he knows, Teske adds.
And it all started, Teske believes, with the engineering firm’s own corporate culture, which reflected even then a deeply held commitment to sustainability and the need to educate the industry.
“They were very smart and understood before most other mechanical firms that an integrated design process was the way of the future,” Teske says of TLC’s approach, even before the dog days of 2009. “They recognized that we needed to move away from this system of the architect designing the building and throwing it over the fence for the mechanical engineer to throw some systems in it to make it work.”
The holy grail, says Shinn—who today prefers the title of “chief sustainability wizard”—is not simply to use the latest energy-saving technology on a project, but to first engineer a building that requires less energy to operate. And to accomplish that goal, TLC is focused on convincing clients that MEP engineering should drive, or at least greatly influence, a building’s architectural design, and that this work should occur earlier in the design process.
Teske, now HKS COO, says that approach transformed the MEP engineer. “They moved out of the commodity world of engineering and moved into thought leadership to become a leading-edge firm,” he says.
The term “trusted adviser” is mentioned frequently by TLC leadership, as Michael Sheerin, president and CEO, and Jason Heffelmire, Gulf coast regional leader, both did in a recent interview with ENR Southeast. And it’s a role that the firm emphasizes to clients continuously. Among the most important—and numerous these days—are TLC’s health care owner clients, who collectively provided a major burst of assignments that propelled the engineering firm’s Southeast revenue to an increase of approximately 30% in 2015.
One longtime and ongoing health care client is Baptist Health, Jacksonville, Fla. The organization’s seemingly non-stop building program has helped it stand out during the downturn and now recovery. Today, the Baptist group is working with cancer-focused group MD Anderson to build a co-branded cancer facility in Jacksonville.
“We have been undergoing phenomenal growth,” says Sam Dean, Baptist’s director of plant operations. As the health care organization “really kind of exploded in the early 2000s,” he says, the group has kept TLC busy with MEP design work, and usually “well in advance” of any other project team members. “We have ongoing projects with them constantly.
“They are a very strong voice on all of our projects,” he adds. “They impact the architecture of these new buildings” due to their focus on energy consumption.
TLC became an early member of Baptist Health’s energy committee, established roughly six years ago as a way of reviewing and examining methods for saving energy, and dollars, across the group’s entire network of facilities.
The MEP firm’s “strong voice” is heard both inside and out of the sustainability committee, Dean says. TLC’s strong reputation with the Agency for Health Care Administration—the state agency regulator—has enabled Baptist Health to break new ground on energy-saving approaches. Of particular note, he says, is the introduction of variable-air-volume (VAV) mechanical systems into its facilities—an approach not previously allowed by the state without special permission.
While noting that TLC led much of the effort to obtain the needed permission from the state, Dean says the end result is producing big savings for the health care organization. The first use of VAV on a Baptist facility is netting an estimated $350,000 in annual savings, he says.
TLC is well experienced with the approach, having implemented it on the $385-million Martin Army Community Hospital (MACH) at Fort Benning, Ga., completed in 2014. (The MACH project earned ENR Southeast’s Best Health Care Project award in 2014.) There, the use of VAV, versus conventional constant-velocity systems, was estimated to reduce the building’s overall energy usage by 30-40%, according to officials with Turner Construction, the project’s general contractor.
Other, architectural clients note TLC’s influence on projects during the early design stages.
“TLC is right there with us helping the owners to define the project, make sure it’s right-sized, and that it can work before it’s even been funded or blessed as a real project,” says Chuck Cole, president with Orlando-based HuntonBrady Architects, a health care specialist.
The focus on energy savings is proving beneficial at this point in time, Cole adds. “Right now, the role of the MEP engineer on expansions on existing (health care) campuses is critical. And TLC is there to help us identify those big-ticket items that can greatly influence the project and its solution.”
While many in the industry are now paying more attention to energy savings, Shinn still sees many engineering firms adhering to what he considers an old mind-set of running the energy model at the end of the design process, an approach that he likens to a lost opportunity to appropriately, and most effectively, influence design.
This corporate-wide focus on early influence stems from TLC’s top leadership.
“There was major investment in keeping on the cutting edge of technology, plus fostering our team,” says Jason Heffelmire, Gulf Coast regional director for TLC. Heffelmire also notes the benefits of utilizing the talents of digitally savvy younger staffers, while backing them up with veteran engineers who can provide critical perspective.
In that difficult 2009-2010 period, says Michael Sheerin, chairman and CEO, TLC focused on making the necessary investments in technology to enable the engineering firm to claim a position on the so-called “bleeding edge” of industry innovations.
“Having the infrastructure internally to be able to do that was going to be key,” Sheerin says. And as the industry’s dog days have since turned brighter, TLC’s reaping some rewards, he adds.
“By the end of it all, we were probably a lot stronger than others,” Sheerin says. As a result, he adds, “We’ve been able to more quickly step into roles of importance on a lot of projects, and (we’ve become) good partners with the people who would make the decisions.”
The firm’s current project portfolio offers proof. In addition to the numerous health care projects TLC is working on, it’s also busy in the transportation sector, with assignments including the All Aboard Florida passenger rail system’s stations as well as mechanical design for Orlando International Airport’s $1.8-billion south terminal project and multiple contracts at Tampa International Airport’s ongoing $1-billion reconstruction effort.
Moreover, the company reports 2016 is off to a promising start, with some indicators tracking slightly ahead of 2015, so far.
For these and other accomplishments, ENR Southeast recognizes TLC Engineering for Architecture as its 2016 Design Firm of the Year.