Johanna Brau started out her career “on the high seas” after graduating from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Engineering. She wanted to be a marine engineer like her grandfather, who was a merchant marine for 36 years.
As a Third Assistant Engineer for Interocean American Shipping, Johanna spent more than 3 years being responsible for the proper operation, inspection, maintenance, and repair of ship systems and equipment. That equipment, not unlike commercial buildings, included the ship's service generators, air compressors, pumps, air purifiers, evaporators and, beyond that, engine service lubrication system and vacuum sewage and water systems, and included some experience in electrical and refrigeration maintenance and repair.
When not hands-on with equipment, Johanna provided supervision, instruction, and coaching of unlicensed members of the ship’s engine crew, maintained equipment operating records, and developed and revised work procedures for system maintenance and testing.
That’s a pretty sound foundation for a newcomer to building commissioning!
Johanna got tired of “half of a life, 2 months on and 2 months off.” She wanted the regularity of a land job. Her dad had an associate who thought commissioning would be a great fit, and he arranged for her to have an interview.
“Well,” she says, “it was not a great interview.
I wasn’t entirely sure what commissioning was, and I didn’t understand the intent of the questions based on my background. For example, when asked to provide an example of a time that I needed help, I told a story about working in a very hot generator room during the summer, where I suffered from heat exhaustion and needed to be helped out of the room.” Northeast Chapter president Brad Jones was one of her interviewers, and he enjoys telling this story.
She was hired, following a second interview with another maritime graduate who had worked at the company for several years and assured her that her education and experience would serve her well in this field. She had found her dream job — on land, always changing, great projects, different people, lots of experience. Working at that first firm for 6 years was a great start; Johanna says she wouldn’t change anything, but she definitely climbed a learning curve.
She says she stumbled and fell at the beginning, didn’t quite understand construction. “I read all of a Volume 1 commissioning specification before I realized I needed to compare the submittals to the information in Volume 2, you’d think the division titles would have been a clue.” She found herself doing research constantly, reading guides, manuals, articles, looking things up before asking questions — something she still does to this day. “Thank you BCxA library.”
Sebesta was primarily a commissioning firm that provided some design, with a more O&M background. She recognized a lack of experience in design. To gain this experience, her next company was primarily a design engineering firm, where she was able to provide commissioning, special inspections, and construction administration services.
Johanna moved to Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates, Inc. a year and a half ago, where she is the Commissioning Engineering Manager. The greatest draw to F&T for her was the company culture, which has increased in importance to her over her 13-year commissioning career, and she has “an awesome junior team of two younger guys” whom she values highly, saying also they have been very genuine in their support for her as a mother of two during this pandemic. “Everyone has their own struggles, especially in this time of COVID, it is so important to be supportive of one another.”
“I seriously love what I do and the people I work with,” she says. Being the owner’s advocate, and the advocate for everyone, including construction team, contractors, Johanna likes being in the role of intermediary, getting calls from facilities people, and being the go-to person where she can engage with clients during design.
What she doesn’t like is the dilution of commissioning, in many cases, to a cost-based competitive environment, or commissioning as a transaction instead of a relationship that provides real value. She believes it’s critical to work person to person, leave every project by going deeper and asking for feedback. It’s important to grow the relationship, find creative ways to stay within scope and budget.
Johanna has developed her own continuously improving, comprehensive OPR template that helps to cement the owner relationship and confirm project details — she says it’s much more complete than the minimum LEED requirement — and she is willing to share it.
As usual we asked, “What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?”
“My husband and I had a ‘surprise’ wedding. I wanted to elope and he wanted a big wedding. So we decided on something else entirely. We invited guests to my husband’s ‘30th birthday party,’ since that’s a big one. No one knew until they arrived, and my then-fiancé made a speech thanking everyone for coming, and placed a wedding cake topper on the cake, revealing that they were all there to be the guests at our wedding!”
Today (October 16th) is her daughter Zoey’s 9th birthday, followed by Johanna’s own birthday the next day. The weekend will be spent celebrating the birthdays with husband JR and younger daughter, 3-year-old Cassidy. “Work-home balance is my biggest struggle,” she admits. “I love both parts of my life.”
Happy Birthdays, Johanna and Zoey!