Take someone with an instinct for science, a sincere regard for natural resources, and a talent for making things work. Add a natural ability to gather people for solving problems together, and a passion for organizing and transforming just about anything to meet a vision of something better. Mix it all up with a sly (described elsewhere as “snarky”) sense of humor, and there you have him:
BCxA’s own Tom Poeling.
We talked with Tom about how his career evolved into one of supportive leadership, in his professional role as Project Support Director at U.S. Engineering Construction, and in his voluntary role in BCxA as chair on several committees, formerly a Southwest Chapter Board member, a BCxA International Board member, and a recent President of the Association.
Tom shared early and current experiences from his life and work that broke new ground for the industry, also noteworthy for anyone considering commissioning as a profession:
What inspired you to seek energy-focused engineering and commissioning?
I took a science class in middle school that introduced me to the concept that our energy sources are finite, and that we needed to be good stewards of the resources available to us. Those early classes, along with growing up in Colorado, really drew me towards a career in energy conservation.
I was fortunate that my first full-time job after earning a mechanical engineering degree from Colorado State University with was with a company (EMC Engineers, working with former BCxA presidents Carl Lundstrom and Bill McMullen) that was focused on energy efficiency in buildings. I started my career running whole building energy models and performing energy audits on federal government and institutional buildings. I was introduced to building performance, mechanical systems and controls, which was good training when the demand for commissioning services started in the late 1990s.
Then, since our company was already focused on energy conservation measures in government and institutional facilities, commissioning was a natural evolution of a process meant to ensure that buildings performed as expected.
In my personal evolution, I made a career switch 8 years ago, moving over to the construction industry. By then, as a result of years of building commissioning, I had a different view than most of how buildings come together, due to my project experience.
What challenges did you face coming into this profession?
No Prototype for This Market. Back in the late 1990’s, the playbook on how to execute building commissioning was barely forming. ASHRAE Guideline 0-The Commissioning Process didn’t exist until 2005. We were relying on resources from organizations like the BCxA and its program manager, PECI, to help us build our commissioning processes. We were trying to figure out how to conduct pre-functional and functional test procedures, build out our system libraries, and determine what would be considered best practices.
EMC was an early adopter in how to execute the process, so it was not as big a leap for us as for others – it was similar enough to dig deeper into what we were already doing. I was fortunate in the 1990s to have mentors such as Carl Lundstrom, Dennis Jones, Don Davenport, Eric Young and Steve Nixon who viewed commissioning as a strategic initiative and supported it as a way to grow the business and provide premium value to our customers.
Commissioning as a practice was a new and fairly unrecognized market, but it was a way to prove energy efficiency and building performance. As different organizations were beginning to figure it out, utility programs in the Pacific Northwest, California and Rocky Mountain areas were supporting commissioning for existing buildings. Schools and universities in the West were also buying these services, and things picked up speed in the early 2000s as LEED was influencing the market.
Commissioning took energy audits to the next level — and provided additional services that took us beyond audits and analysis. Now we were putting hands on new systems with building automation systems and meters, preparing trend logs (trending was not as user-friendly as it is now). Tools were manual then so we had instant feedback, e.g., “if I apply this input, I should expect this output and, oh, yeah! This really works!” That was exciting!
Special Projects. EMC became involved in the second wave of utility retro-commissioning (RCx) projects for federal government projects in southeast Asia. One memorable project involved partnering with Merrick on RCx services for the majority of larger buildings at the Osan Air Base in central Korea. Overall, the program involved testing and analysis of over 80 buildings. The management of a multi-million dollar program and dealing with logistics halfway around the world presented a tremendous challenge to our team.
Commissioning these projects required a mix of experienced field and analytical staff; running whole workload building forms, pulling drawings and information. Nothing was digital, we had to go through mountains of paperwork. It was not easy…we were building energy models, doing economic analysis, digitizing materials. There were a couple thousand issues on the Issues Logs that needed prioritizing. We had 20 people working on the Osan project and multiple companies, with a completion deadline of 18 months.
One of the great benefits of that experience was that I had the opportunity to dig deep into both the local culture and the integrity of military life. It was a wonderful time to be in Korea, living in the hotel on the air base, and touring the country on the weekends. It was one of the best experiences of my life, I’ll never forget it.
Commissioning: The Next Wave. As recognition grew, major utilities such as Southern California Edison became involved in commissioning. EMC Engineers opened a Los Angeles office to support that program. We began serving large customers and RCx programs at scale, on campuses, and with dozens of buildings at a time. It was a groundbreaking process and the learning curve was steep and often painful. The process evolved to where we were providing construction management services to oversee the implementation phase of the RCx process. It was very rewarding to take the RCx process all the way to the finish line and to prove the value of the process by seeing the results at the utility meter.
The Evolution. Best practices continue to evolve. Technology continues to evolve. Technology within the construction field has traditionally lagged behind but is now growing and changing exponentially, in terms of things like how to do more with less. Things that we talked about 25 years ago are now starting to manifest themselves because of technology, which is great news. Technology is on one hand very integrated but is also very disposable because it changes so fast.
Right now, a major focus is to gear up to address policy requirements that improve building performance, which will be challenging given the scale of what needs to be done. Back in the 1990s, we used to talk about how “one of these days building performance will be front-page news.” Well, here we are.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
The funny thing about commissioning is that when things went well, nobody fully appreciated the value of the consulting service. We felt even decades ago that we needed to document the benefits of the commissioning process in addition to pointing out the issues. We thought it might be valuable to compare building performance with and without the influence of new construction commissioning, but we seldom had the time to run that theoretical exercise.
Then we had the idea to update the Value of Commissioning Study. Connecting the BCxA to Berkeley Lab and their resources made it possible to execute the research and develop conclusions with metrics, validation and proofs. I love engaging with the commissioning community. We always knew that updating the landmark study would be well received in the industry. It was a challenge to build the two simultaneous market and data studies and get the results published in a peer-reviewed journal as a collaborative building science document. We are proud that we rallied the community and are able to brag on ourselves a bit. We took that idea and brought it to life, and the BCxA members are connected to its legacy.
Overall, my proud moments come at the completion of projects, often along with dozens of stories and their heartaches. I love driving past a completed project and thinking, “I was a part of that building. I love good outcomes -- we’ve left our mark, our legacy on the industry.”
Thoughts and advice for entry-level commissioning candidates?
The best advice I received when I was getting into this industry was to talk to as many people that I could within the business, and learn more about how they got to where they are and how they became successful. I wasn’t necessarily asking for a job; I was interviewing people that were farther along their career path and asking them basic questions such as:
- How did you get started in the business?
- Why do you like what you do?
- What would you do differently?
- What advice do you have for candidates that are starting out in your business?
I look for people who want to learn, and I try to understand peoples’ passions, which may or may not be building science or construction, environmentalism or economics. I like to see that they are making their own investment in themselves, if they are willing to spend their own resources (time, money, talents), then they’re a worthwhile candidate.
What is on your agenda to accomplish?
I would like to play a role in helping communities improve building performance at scale in order to meet sustainability goals. The State of Colorado’s objective is 30% by 2030, which applies to thousands of buildings.
In the past building performance has been identified within specific markets, standards, rating systems, customer culture and sustainability values. Now, those standards will be applied to every type of building. Some are set up to succeed in this endeavor, some are going to be challenged. Our goal is to be the trusted advisor for our clients to help them make the right decisions regarding their facilities over the long haul.
My strength lies in pulling together all the stakeholders, including financial, technical, vendor, trades, owners, managers, etc., and figuring out how to get everybody to buy into a strategy to achieve the long-term goal. It starts with explaining the why, building a plan, securing the right team, getting some short-term wins, and continuing to prove your strategy over time.
CxP role due to the pandemic?
The question is, how to simultaneously deliver healthier buildings and still meet energy and carbon reduction goals? Traditionally, the solution to solving simultaneous problems within buildings has been to add more complexity, which adds for risk to proper and efficient long-term operation. Commissioning will continue to be the bridge between the owner’s intentions (hopefully defined in the OPR) and the design, construction and operations teams. Meanwhile, building technology will continue to evolve and commissioning will be necessary to address those risks. Commissioning will always be one of the strongest risk management strategies to ensure that buildings operate as intended.
What no one knows about you?
Three years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to buy a franchise that prepares ready-made meals. Actually, my wife runs the business, I just do what she needs me to do. It has been an interesting experience to be a small business owner in a pandemic. The business model has been flipped upside down with the pandemic and now most of our customers pick up their meals or have them delivered.
I have a deeper appreciation now for the challenges of running a business, from marketing to clients remotely, to hiring employees in a tough market, to supply chain issues, to facility upkeep. In the end, this isn’t much different than the issues that small consultant or construction companies have to deal with in our industry. But it ultimately comes down to serving the customers, and that makes it all worthwhile. Check out the company at www.dreamdinners.com.