Smith has been with the company since its first year of operation in 1983 and elevated to his current position in 1991 after holding several project engineering and project management positions.
A recent chairman of the International District Energy Association, Smith has traveled around the world on behalf of the IDEA exchanging knowledge on areas such as lowering emissions and greenhouse gases.
ExecutiveBiz recently caught up with Smith to discuss RMF’s work with public sector clients, the company’s commissioning and growth plans, and modernizing federal buildings through tools such as energy modeling.
ExecutiveBiz: What kind of work do you provide government clients at RMF Engineering?
Bob Smith: There are a couple of very big parts of our business line. One focuses on buildings themselves, new and existing buildings. They can be for uses such as office, research or healthcare and we touch on a lot of different areas. One, for example, is the new medical examiner’s facility at Dover Air Force Base.
We supported a design and build team on a project intended to process, identify and appropriately treat the remains of service men who come back from war, the deceased. That was a very highly specialized laboratory“‘type facility. Very unusual. There are not that many like it.
On the other hand, a lot of our work is in the energy sector. The other major part of our business includes campus energy plants. Some of these have been for the modernization and expansion of the U.S. Capitol Power Plant.
It serves over two dozen major buildings and millions of square feet. From the central location we provide all the heating, cooling, and in the future, a large portion of the electrical power needs from that Capitol Power Plant, which is over 100 years old now.
The type of project we probably get the most notoriety for is the campus energy plant and distribution systems. Those plants generate heating, cooling, and power. There is usually an associated distribution system that’s underground, sometimes in tunnels, that feeds every connected building that may be at that campus.
We’ve always enjoyed the government and institutional type facilities because they’ve given us the most freedom to really employ quality“‘type systems design. You know, they’re not necessarily in it for first cost.
Colleges, hospitals, and government facilities generally use life“‘cycle costing and life“‘cycle analysis to determine the right system and the right way to build a building, so that it’s the most sustainable.
So, those areas of practice allow us to do what we consider to be our best engineering work. We’re able to do things that really have a lot of meaning, a lot of substance, quality products and systems.
Redundancy is always a big deal. You’ve got to have that N+1, sometimes N+2 for very important type applications for the government, specifically DOD or intelligence“‘type facilities. We’ve designed a lot of redundancy, a lot of cross connects, and put in features that we wouldn’t be able to do in the commercial side.
Bob Smith: Commissioning is probably the fastest growing, and there are a lot of reasons for that. One is in the building and construction industry. Owners have learned that their buildings, their facilities, and their plants don’t necessarily perform the way that they were originally intended to.
Somewhere along the way, there was a disconnect. Whether it be the hand off or finishing a facility, they find that things were left incomplete.
So, we’ve developed a niche business in commissioning, and that means we’re completely independent and objective. We don’t work under the direction of the building contractor, we don’t work as a designer, we work for the owner and our job is to verify, and validate that everything works.
Our guys have been doing this a lot. We’ve been doing this on hundreds of projects now, and it’s a requirement for any building that is Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED, certified.
If it’s going to be a LEED“‘certified building that is silver, gold, or even platinum, part of the proof is that it has to be commissioned by a third party who has no vested interest in forcing the outcome to anybody’s favor.
It really gives it a very good objective opinion that it’s doing everything it’s supposed to do. We can say “this power plant really is as efficient as everybody says it is, and here’s the proof.“ So, this is something we’ve learned to do successfully.
We’ve performed commissioning domestically, and we’ve taken this expertise overseas at diplomatic facilities for the federal government, and we're able to do this in non“‘English speaking countries. It’s been a challenge, but it’s also been exciting.
Our president Duane Pinnix has been leading our effort and he has been doing a marvelous job of overseas building commissioning.
Bob Smith: Often times, we’re asked to do what is called a condition assessment of a facility, and it may be an occupied building or it might be one that hasn’t been used in a long time. It’s a top to bottom evaluation of the useful remaining life of the building and its potential.
Would it be smarter for me to demolish this building and replace it, or should we try to renovate and try to do everything we can to make it perform like a new building? Can an office building be repurposed for another use like multi-tenant residencies?
It’s always a debate, because oftentimes, the cost to completely modernize a facility and make it like new can reach or exceed the cost of starting from scratch. It’s a unique proposition every time where there may be several parties involved in determining the value and condition of a facility to determine that recommendation.
Do you tear it down or do you rebuild it? Which is the most cost effective?
We’ve heard both sides of the argument, and one of the biggest problems that you run into, specifically in federal facilities, is trying to renovate and modernize a facility that’s occupied. When it’s occupied, it gets very difficult. Schedules are very long. It gets costly, and oftentimes at the very end, you really don’t end up with what you had hoped for.
There are physics involved where things like floor“‘to“‘ceiling heights and shaft space, and room for some of the infrastructure equipment, the generation equipment, just never lends itself to be adequate for you to make that building what you want it to be. So, it’s always a unique debate and one that we see goes on a lot.
Sometimes we may do those condition assessments that may go for millions of square feet around an entire hospital, for example. We'll tell them which buildings are good, which buildings are bad, what equipment is going to last for 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, and how to prioritize those things. If you’re developing a capital renewal plan, where do you start? What do you do first?
And how do you mitigate risk if you’re relying on underground utilities that are 30 or 40 or 50 years old? How do you begin to put some type of an estimated remaining life or some type of a risk value on what’s underground?
Could these things fail tomorrow, and what would we have to do to mitigate that risk, and if we had this amount of budget for capital renewal and repair, how do we use it in the smartest way so that we mitigate the risks in the most responsible way?
One of the things that has been especially useful is energy modeling. We can model a building using a variety of sophisticated computer simulation programs before anybody puts anything down on paper to design a building.
If an architect says “˜I’d like to use this type of glass, I want to orient the building so it faces this way, it’s going to be this many stories, I’m going to make it out of this', we can develop a model, even before anybody draws anything.
That can steer you in the direction of knowing where that building’s going to go if it’s objective in terms of LEED certification. It is a new tool that we didn’t have years ago, and it’s been very useful for decision making.