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December 2012
Engineering Sustainability
By Zenda Douglas

     Modern society takes a lot for granted. We expect that when we flip the switch, push the lever, turn the knob, key in the numbers or press the button that the lights will come on, the elevator will open, phones will ring, the room will be heated or cooled, the toilet will flush, and, if we are threatened, alarms or sprinklers will get our attention. Few people stop to think about how these and many other more complex systems work in the buildings that we inhabit. As long as it’s all working, it’s all comfortably out of mind.

     Not so for the engineers and designers of Optima Engineering, a full-service electrical, mechanical and plumbing engineering firm, who not only spend their talents designing electrical and mechanical systems, but also work to make sure that they function in the most environmentally friendly and most cost-effective manner.

     “We support the built environment industry by designing systems most people never see,” says Keith Pehl, Optima Engineering’s founder, president and chief electrical engineer. “It’s not just about having these systems work; it’s also about designing an environmentally sustainable building. We call them high-performance buildings; designed to use the least amount of water, electricity and natural gas.”


Sustaining Growth

     Started in 1992, Optima Engineering has built a reputation as a leader in the sustainable movement. “It’s one of the things that make us stand out from other firms,” says Pehl. The firm has completed over 150 green projects in the past few years. “Sixty to 70 percent of them are LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the recognized standard for measuring building sustainability), but all of them were done with a focus on sustainability,” says Pehl.

     “There are a lot of things we do that just make sense that the owner doesn’t necessarily ask to be done—solar thermal water heaters, for instance. Sometimes they argue; mostly they thank us. We go in with the presumption that we are the experts in this. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t do it,” says Pehl.

     Pehl earned his own LEED accreditation in 2004 when LEED methodology was gaining interest around the country. “I pushed my staff to seek accreditation as well. They pursued it first; embraced it later,” chuckles Pehl.

     Ronald Almond joined Optima Engineering in 1994 as a partner and continues to serve as vice president and chief mechanical engineer. Together, he and Pehl have built their staff to 35 members. Among them were Brian Thompson and Steven Daley, both of whom arrived in 1997 and have now become stockholders and managing principals in the firm taking on the day-to-day operations.

     “Our new positions and focus free up Keith and Ron to spend more time examining new innovations and trends, as well as on business development,” says Daley.

     Optima Engineering has a significant presence within the Charlotte skyline. “We’ve worked on most every building in uptown Charlotte at some point or another,” remembers Pehl. The firm has completed over 10,000 projects since it began.

     “Seventy percent of our business is in the Carolinas but we are registered in 40 states,” confirms Pehl. Often, out of state work is driven by client expansion. Pehl and Almond attribute their success to the acquisition of talented people, diversification and deliberate growth.

     Many well known names comprise the list of buildings, sites and facilities which carry sustainable infrastructure designed by Optima Engineering: Carowinds, Capitol Broadcasting Company, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, UNC Charlotte, Wells Fargo, NASCAR Plaza, Time Warner Cable, zMAX Dragway, Elevation Church, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS)—the list is lengthy.

     “Projects are generally complex and can take a year or more to complete. Then we offer ongoing support to maintain the sustainability of the building,” says Pehl. “Take Carowinds—it’s a city from our perspective. In the summertime, there are more people there using infrastructure in any given day than the population of most towns in North Carolina. We’ve just finished eight projects out there. They’ve been a client for the past 20 years.”

     Historically, most of the firm’s clients were architects—around 80 percent. Now, architects make up about 50 percent of clients due to the impact of the recession on the building industry. The firm has become heavily involved in mission critical work including data centers, hospitals and medical offices. “Mission critical work is typically contracted directly,” explains Almond. “We actually have an architect as a consultant on our team in many instances.”


Becoming Mission Critical

     Mission critical work involves buildings which require uninterruptible electric power and cooling systems, largely centered on the functionality of many servers, computers and other technologically advanced equipment.

     “My big passion for several years now is called net-zero energy buildings—buildings that consume a certain amount of energy over the course of a year but produce the same amount of energy, as well,” offers Pehl. “It starts with efficient design and ends with solar panels.”

     “There are currently only 29 buildings in the United States that perform at net-zero. Optima is currently working on North Carolina’s first such building—Sandy Grove Middle School in Hoke County. This one will actually produce 15 percent more energy than the building consumes,” says Pehl. “To me, that’s where we go as a society.”

     Coincidentally, Pehl adds, the military is extremely interested in this technology so they won’t be dependent on the utility companies and vulnerable to security and reliability issues.

     “It definitely helps to work with like-minded architects and builders because it’s not just the design but also the methodology,” says Pehl. “To build a clean building you need a ‘bring less on/ throw away less’ mentality.” The aim is for a dust free site which protects duct work and electrical systems.

     “You have to realize that there is a lot of cost savings involved,” says Pehl. “We do a lot of education for our clients.” Many efforts, such as recycling, result in side industries. Pehl cites the development of a sheetrock recycling plant which lowers the cost of sheetrock: “You can pay by the pound to throw things in the landfill or get paid to deliver it to another building site.”

     Optima Engineering designs dashboards for buildings which monitor and display energy usage by the minute, hour, day and week, etc. “It shows you exactly where your problems and issues are, the number of kilowatt hours being used,” says Pehl.

     The firm’s work supports Duke Energy Carolinas’ Envision Charlotte program which is a national model. The kiosk uptown displays the results collectively for all the buildings in uptown. The purpose of the program is to reduce electric usage through awareness of usage. The goal is to see a 20 percent reduction in five years.

     “The information affects your behavior,” attests Pehl, who likens the experience to his car, a Toyota Prius, which provides drivers with mileage efficiency information. “I used to be a very lead-footed driver. Now, if I’m not getting 50 miles per gallon, I’m mad. The dashboard has slowed me down. The dashboard does the same thing with a building.”

     While there is an upfront cost to having a building dashboard, it’s very insignificant compared with savings, according to Pehl. “If it costs $55 million to build a school and the electrical system is $5 million of that, the dashboard will likely cost about $20,000. If they save five percent of their electrical costs, they have paid for it in six months.”

     The work of the 35 Optima Engineering employees is divided about half and half between electrical and mechanical engineering (including plumbing and HVAC—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Approximately half of the staff is comprised of engineers.

     Optima Engineering has taken on an increasing role in consultation and education. Once per month existing and potential clients come to the firm’s office to attend Optima University, a lunch and learn program which teaches about sustainable building and design. Accredited by the American Institute of Architecture, architects can earn needed continuing education credits.


Growing Together

     “We’re not the stereotypical geeky, pocket protector-wearing engineers holed up in their offices,” says Daley, with a smile. “There is a strong emphasis here on communications, both written and verbal; we try to bring every client along on sustainability and that requires teaching.”

     Both Pehl and Almond thought they were going to become architects. For Pehl, the moment of truth was when he went off to college at North Carolina State University and saw the solar house installed there.

     “I’ve always been fascinated by solar energy,” says Pehl who went on to earn his degree in electrical engineering. Pehl practices what he preaches in his personal life. His home in Denver, North Carolina features solar roof panels and a geothermal heat pump which uses wells in the ground. He also installed solar panels on the roof of the LEED certified building that houses the Optima Engineering offices on South Tryon Street in Charlotte. The firm, which owns a portion of the building, has occupied space in it since 2008.

     “I’m a little too optimistic sometimes. My partner, Ron, grounds me,” says Pehl. “He wasn’t sure about the panels on the roof but six months after we put them up and were receiving a check every month from Duke Energy, he said “We need to expand this.””

     Almond earned an associate degree in architectural technology but couldn’t find a suitable job. “No one was hiring so I went to work as a draftsman for a mechanical engineer. I was soon hooked and went back to school at UNC Charlotte for a degree in mechanical engineering.”

     A high school internship in mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineering solidified Thompson’s interest in the field. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with a degree in electrical engineering.

     Daley’s interest in engineering stemmed from childhood. “I skipped the fireman and astronaut phases. I always wanted to be an engineer.” Daley completed his degree in mechanical engineering at Ohio University.

     Optima Engineering’s leadership has strong ties to the community and participates in numerous programs to give back. Some of these are: the ACE Mentoring Program, West Charlotte high School/Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology; South Mecklenburg High School Engineering Advisory Board; Friendship Trays; and the Make a Wish Foundation.

     Pehl credits diversification as key in weathering the economic downturn of 2008-2009. Plus, the firm’s core product was, and still is, mission critical work which was never really impacted by the recession, according to Almond.

     “The firm’s focus on sustainable building has allowed us to weather the storm economically better than some others,” echoes Thompson. “I see that sustainability is not going away with rising energy costs. People will always be looking to save money.”

     The firm is doing more adaptive reuse projects now and pursuing net-zero usage through mixed use buildings in urban areas situated to share energy. Plus, the sustainability industry has created the need for maintenance over time which increases business.

     “We do a lot of sustainable work in the Triangle Region so we’re planning to expand to Raleigh next year,” says Pehl. The firm is also considering Greenville, S. C., and Atlanta, Ga., as additional office sites.

     The partners have been diligent in raising a second tier of leadership and developing a succession plan. “You see so many firms where engineers work until they’re in their 70s and 80s and then shut the door,” says Pehl. “That’s not us.”

     “I’m very proud of the way our firm has evolved over the years to be a leader in the field,” says Almond. “We grew slowly and did a good job along the way.”


Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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