Kristy Walson From Mechanical Engineer Degree to Designing Buildings: A Career Path You Can Take

 In Being an Engineer Podcast

Kristy Walson

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“My final takeaway would be, as you are designing, keep an eye on the holistic side of things keep an eye on how does this impact the greater community and climate change and energy and, and all those things because when you take the holistic view in mind, you’re always going to end up with a better design at the end of the day. – Kristy L. Walson”

Who is Kristy Walson?

Kristy Walson earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech and a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Michigan.

Kristy Walson, PE, LEED Fellow, BEMP, is a mechanical engineer by trade who also happens to be a sustainability consultant. From idea through occupancy, Kristy specializes in energy modeling, energy audits, utility analysis, and sustainability advice. Meanwhile, She works as the principal and senior sustainability consultant at TLC Engineering Solutions, a firm that helps customers decrease their environmental footprint and apply sustainable practices throughout the lifecycle of their facilities. She is an expert in energy modeling as well as LEED administration. Kristy is also in charge of commercial building HVAC design and smoke control analyses.

As a result of her hard work, She has been named a 2020 LEED Fellow by Green Business Certification Inc. Great Job Kristy!


design, sustainability, engineers, energy, building, podcast, climate change, engineering, leed, carbon emissions, industry, tlc, college, systems, moments, side, mechanical engineer, tool, team, consultant
Aaron Moncur, Kristy Walson, Presenter, Kristy Watson, Rafael Testai

Presenter 00:00
The being an engineer podcast is a repository for industry knowledge and a tool through which engineers learn about and connect with relevant companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. Enjoy the show.

Kristy Watson 00:16
I was listening to a couple of your podcasts, I was like This podcast is a great way to get some exposure because I noticed you have a bunch of different engineers, some with the same discipline type who are all doing very different things. And maybe that’s a good exposure to understand the various career paths that are available.

Rafael Testai 00:38
Hello, everyone, welcome to the being an engineer Podcast with your co host, Rafael Testai. Today we have another very special guest, Kristy Walson. She’s a mechanical engineer by trade, and a sustainability consultant by nature. She specializes in engineering, energy modeling, energy audits, utility analysis and sustainability consulting for from conceptual design, through occupancy. She’s abnormally excited about energy reduction in existing buildings. And what really attracted me to have her as a guest on the shows, as you heard her background, her degrees from Virginia Tech, and mechanical engineering. But right now she’s designing buildings. So very interested in that transition. Kristy, welcome to the show.

Kristy Walson 01:44
Thank you for having me, of course.

Rafael Testai 01:47
So we’d like to start out by asking, how did you decide to be an engineer?

Kristy Watson 01:52
Oh, goodness, well, it was a bit of a circuitous path. For me. Anyway, I think it is this way for a lot of engineers. I, you know, early on, was always inclined towards stem. So that inclination was there. I like to build things with my hands. My dad was a big kind of handyman use tools. I knew how to use tools at a young age. So So there was that part of it. And when it came time to decide what I was going to do for college. Yeah, I went back and forth between a few things and finally landed on engineering, and mechanical engineering, because primarily, it’s, it’s probably the most flexible engineering, there’s a lot of options, although many different pathways have lot options. So I went to Virginia Tech and a mechanical engineering degree. And then you have to decide what you’re going to do for the rest of your career at the end of college. And, you know, it’s not always clear what all the pathways are. Sometimes that, you know, you’re kind of just on this headlong I’m gonna graduate, and then realize, oh, I have to do something. So I had grown up on a boat, and decided to go get a master’s degree in marine engineering and naval architecture from the University of Michigan. So I have that master’s as well. And I worked in the marine industry for about seven years out of college. And it was fun, and lots of hands on stuff. And, you know, I love boats, but there was something missing. For me. I had always been very environmentally conscious and sustainably minded, but it didn’t have a name when I was in college, and it wasn’t a major when I was in college. And I know I was sitting there one day reading a magazine and learned about the LEED rating system, which is a sustainable certification. That’s basically the most widely spread sustainable certification at this point. And learned that engineers were doing things to help buildings get LEED certified. And it was kind of like a light went off. And I was like, Oh, this is what I want to do. And I hadn’t been seeking another career, but it kind of just happened that way. And kind of one thing led to another I joined the local US Green Building Council chapter, make contacts there and got a job offer at TLC, which is one of the leading sustainably minded engineering firms in the country, and happens to be headquartered in Orlando where I was, and kind of that was 15 years ago. The rest is history at this point. But that’s how I ended up becoming an engineer.

Rafael Testai 05:03
What a wonderful story. There’s one thing that stood out to me because there’s a lot of young listeners that are still in college trying to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And even older people, that journey never ends, we, we may want to change in our direction as to what we’re doing with our careers. And I’m thinking about the magazine that you were reading. And maybe in today’s day and age, maybe it could be an article online, how everything’s online now. But maybe the take home point is you want to expose yourself to lots of ideas and technologies are being developed to see if something resonates with you. Would you agree with that?

Kristy Watson 05:40
I totally agree. And actually, as I was listening to a couple of your podcasts, you know, universities do a great job of educating and preparing students for earning their degree and for what may be coming in their career, just giving them the tools and the toolbox to perform the tasks that are needed. But they don’t necessarily do a great job of telling graduating seniors, you know, what job opportunities are available. A lot of mechanical engineering students don’t even realize that HVAC design, which is the mechanical design of a building is a very, like, accessible pathway to available to them as a mechanical engineer. So, you know, I think that exposure is definitely critical. And I was listening to a couple of your podcasts, I was like, This podcast is a great way to get some exposure, because I noticed you have a bunch of different engineers, some with the same discipline type who are all doing very different things. And maybe that’s a good exposure now in the day of podcasts, you know, to understand the various career paths that are available.

Rafael Testai 07:05
Yeah. Well, thank you for the shout outs while being on the podcast. I agree with you, please. So our listeners can look up online, you said, the mechanical design of a building? What’s the name of that?

Kristy Watson 07:19
Well, it’s HVAC design. So you’re designing the air conditioning, the cooling and the heating systems in the building. And you’re also largely in charge of the controls in the building, which is the building automation system. And that is basically our primary ubiquitous tool for energy savings in buildings, right now, there’s other means to energy savings, but the controls at the end of the day, cause the building to operate when it’s supposed to operate and to not operate when people aren’t there. And that’s all part of the mechanical engineers design.

Rafael Testai 08:02
Very interesting. I am one of the people that she mentioned that I wasn’t aware that a mechanical engineer can do this. Yeah, no idea. That was the case. I’m wondering, what kind of magazines do you read nowadays? So do you recommend people will read your blogs, so they can expose themselves to more in addition to this podcast?

Kristy Watson 08:24
So I you know, I guess it depends on what phase of your life you’re in and what you have, what time you have available? You know, for me, it’s podcasts are the amount of time commitment I’m available to put to something. So I would go, you know, research and look for possible podcasts to listen to but I, you know, I think primarily the internet, you know, so widespread in it’s available access to information. And I think even just like the mirror, Googling, you know, what career paths are available that mechanical engineers, you know, that could get you down the right road? It’s, it’s all about adding information that you didn’t have before, right. So now that you know that HVAC engineering is a thing, it’s in your brain, and you know, it’s an option. It’s all about just building that list of options that you have and then going with whatever resonates with you.

Rafael Testai 09:36
Yeah, I agree. It’s like a mental library of career opportunities. That’s right. Okay. Well, actually, when my first major in college before I chose molecular biology and genetics, my degree, my my first major was sustainability. And I see a lot of sustainability. Yeah, I see a lot of the word sustainability in your, your LinkedIn And the first class in sustainability, they will always define the first slide, the word sustainability, what it means? Could you define it for us?

Kristy Watson 10:09
Well, it’s changed over time, I will say that. And the terminology that we use in the sustainability world has evolved over time. So in general, when I use the word sustainability, my intent is to reference doing things. So whatever the thing is, I’m talking about, let’s say, HVAC design or building design, doing that in a way that reduces and optimizes all of the things that you need to use to make that building. So you’re going to use energy, you’re going to use water, you’re going to use materials, those are the three big things that go into a building. And, you know, you can’t use zero energy in a building, you can offset your energy with renewable energy and become net zero. But a building has a purpose. And that purpose requires power and energy. So I’m using the word optimize is is what I like to say. So if to me sustainability would be optimizing the uses and the materials that go into a building in my line of work, to to make that building have the least amount of impact on the environment as possible. And then if we’re really, if if the owner, or the developer, whoever, whoever is really committed, then offsetting the remaining use. So the energy that you’re using offsetting that with renewable energy, if it’s water, consider rainwater harvesting, and using non potable water for certain applications, and really optimizing and then offsetting the impact of that building.

Rafael Testai 11:59
What has given you the most sense of pride or fulfillment from a building design jobs that you’ve done?

Kristy Watson 12:07
So for me, because I have kind of shifted gears here in the last few years and have moved my thinking from less of a micro building by building perspective to more macro, global warming, climate change perspective. To me, the buildings that have the most square footage that I’m able to impact are the most important ones for me, because at the end of the day, buildings use a very large amount of energy, and they’re a high percentage of the emissions that goes into the carbon emissions and the global warming that does create climate change. So I worked on and I’m still working on our Orlando while it’s Orange County Convention Center, it’s over 7 million square feet of conditioned space. We TLC, my group, within TLC got the LEED for existing buildings and operations and maintenance certification. For that building, we were the consultant that did the work to get that building certified. And we continue to be a consultant for them. We just wrote their sustainability action plan. And so that that’s one project that I’m most proud of. I would say the biggest point of pride for me though, is my work with the University of Central Florida. They’re a top five in Student Count university in the country. They’re located here in Orlando, we work very closely with them. We do a lot of their designs, we also do a large amount of their sustainability consulting, I’ve been the lead facilitator on almost 20 buildings that are LEED certified just for them. So and they are walking the walk. And it’s a pleasure to work with them. And they’re currently working on some even bigger things right now, that are going to have a really big impact, I think on our area and on our region.

Rafael Testai 14:30
So you’re the first person that like I said, that I made that’s doing this and I wonder from your mechanical engineering degree where we learned the freebody diagrams, the thermodynamics, the calculus, the CAD, do you use any of that math that I just mentioned, or physics in what you do daily now or now?

Kristy Watson 14:50
Every day? Every day? Good? That makes

Rafael Testai 14:53
me feel better? Because I’m also I’m working on getting my second degree in mechanical engineering and I’m going through all the classes I mentioned, how do you use what I just explained every day? Any insights you could give us?

Kristy Watson 15:04
Absolutely. So, HVAC design, all those things you’re learning in thermodynamics and fluid design, our HVAC design. And so we use a lot of thermodynamics in HVAC and mechanical design, in order to get the, you know, calculate the load the heat load in the space, so we know how much cooling needs to go into it. And so that would be us coming up with a load calculation, right to size our equipment that goes in the building size, the air handling units, and the things that cool the air and heat the air. But what I do is I take it another step further, because those items, load calculations and equipment sizing, those are all done with the peak scenario in mind, the worst case scenario, worst case for cooling, worst case for heating, but the actual operation of the building doesn’t operate at peak all the time. So what I do in my field, on the sustainability side, is we then take that design, and we create an energy model. And we use the energy model as a tool throughout the design process to inform the design engineers, how to optimize the systems in the building to bring that energy use down and really make this a smart building, not just a building that runs on peak. And that’s the operation of a building is where the energy use comes from, not necessarily the Peak Design. And as I mentioned earlier, I think the controls of the building, the building automation system that goes into the building, you know, a simple example is, if you have a nest thermostat, that’s a building, or that’s a control, right? So you can set it, put schedules on it. If it’s smart, it’ll sense here, you know, motion, and turn on the air handling unit to occupied mode, when you’re around, it’ll learn your patterns, these are all the things that a building automation system can do. And these are all the things that you want the building automation system to do to reduce the energy use in a building. So I use that real world data to create an energy model from our design and anticipate the energies in that building, then informed the team how to bring that energy use down to an optimize number.

Rafael Testai 17:41
Very well explained. This is a good moment to remind our listeners that they’re being an engineer podcast is brought to you by pipeline design and engineering, pipeline partners with medical and other device engineering teams who need turnkey equipment such as cycle test machines, custom test fixtures, automation, equipment, assembly jigs, inspection stations, and more. You can find more us on the web at Team pipeline that us I’m here with Christie Watson and I want to follow up on what she was just saying, what are maybe the three top software’s that you use for these calculations, so use?

Kristy Watson 18:18
Sure so um, so for the load the heat load calculations, real popular software that we utilize at TLC is the train Trace software, it’s actually developed by train, which, you know, they manufacture and provide commercial HVAC equipment and residential HVAC equipment. So you know, it is developed by the vendor. But it’s proven to be a very reliable heat load Calc, platform. And then on an energy modeling side, we utilize ies V Pro, for energy modeling software, it’s the capabilities of ies are very heavily weighted toward the controls in the building, which like I was saying, is where you fine tune your system. So that part of the appeal of using VE PRO we have in the past as well. And sometimes, if I need to do a real quick look, use E quest, which is a free online tool. The only downside about E quest is that it’s a government funded tool. And if there’s no funding, it doesn’t get updated. Its capabilities are there though, for most systems, and so it’s an easy way to do a kind of a quick sanity check on a design or a potential design.

Rafael Testai 19:46
Okay, very good insights. Well, when I when I went to college for my first major, I only did one semester which was sustainability. The reason one of the main reasons why then follow through with sustainability was that Every sustainability class that I went to, it was very sad, very depressing, because the professor would say, this is the current status of the planet, every, all the animals are dying, like all of our consumption and the class bell rings. And I’m like, Okay, what are we gonna gonna do about this? And like, well just just write an essay about how bad things are. And that’s all we ever did in all the classes. So I can’t take this anymore. I’m a Solutions person. Did you ever feel something like that?

Kristy Watson 20:29
Well, first, that’s just sad. state of affairs now. You know, those of us in this industry in the sustainability industry, don’t get me wrong, we have our moments where we’re like, oh, my gosh, the icebergs are melting, all the polar bears are dying, we can’t do a thing about it. What are we doing? But it’s, you know, I think engineers are almost an ideal scenario for tackling climate change and tackling sustainability in a way because we do have that functional, logistical way of looking at things. And so, you know, I’ll have those moments, but I’m able to set them to the side and forge ahead. And you know, those moments also help you reframe what you’re doing. And if if you’re doing the right thing, right, so, and then I have to say this, I mean, I have three children, three boys, and I teach them about sustainability and energy as well, because, you know, I can do stuff in my career. And as I grow, I my reach grows and expands. But there’s nothing like teaching the next generation how to functionally and logistically mitigate climate change as they move through the world. It doesn’t have to be about guilt. And it doesn’t have to be about all the things that you don’t have control over. It’s about the things you do have control over. And the message that you can spread. So I do. There are those moments believe me, but we all have them. Whether or not you’re in sustainability, I think everybody has those moments. So we get past him and we keep doing the work.

Rafael Testai 22:28
That actually is a perfect segue from the next question, which is, how can the engineering community as a whole contribute to climate action? This is your chance to tell everybody?

Kristy Watson 22:41
This is my moment. I am very excited. Thank you for the question. It’s all come to this. Yeah. Now. So the engineering community has immense power in this fight against climate change, you know, mitigating climate change. And the reason is, we get to touch all the systems that have a very large impact on climate change in general. So if you look at a pie chart, of all the things that contribute to climate change, and to carbon emissions, because it does mostly all come down to carbon, there’s other greenhouse gases. But carbon is something like 85% of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. about it, and I’m going off memory here. So about let’s just go rough numbers, about 40%. Of that whole greenhouse gas emission number is building operations. So all of our old buildings operating incredibly efficient, inefficiently, the new buildings that we build without energy in mind, those are all adding up to about 40% of the problem. And then another 11 to 12% is in the manufacturing of building materials. So surprisingly, and then the other parts of the pie are industry. And as you can imagine, fleet so like cars on the road, and things like that, because that’s the picture we always envision when we think of carbon emissions or cars down the road. But between the building operations and the building materials were over 50% and my the industry that I’m in the AEC, architectural engineering and contracting industry, the construction industry, it has the ability to make decisions surrounding that 50% or slightly over 50%. So between the materials that go in the building And the amount of energy that a building uses, and the types of systems that we put in the amount of lighting we put in. And even the choices on a holistic scale, do we really need a new building? Or can we utilize an existing building all have an incredible impact on that 50%. And so, you know, we have the innate power to be, first and foremost, good advocates and consultants. In this arena, in this energy arena, we have the ability to largely what happens is, the architect is designing the building, and we are reacting to the design of that building with our systems. But we have the ability to turn around and advocate for more energy efficient design on architectural side, different selection of materials on the structural side. And when you look at the pie, and that 50%, that’s just such an enormous opportunity to reduce carbon emissions.

Rafael Testai 26:12
Wonderful. Okay, so now all of our engineers, we know what to do to contribute to climate action. My last question of the podcast, we want to clarify, so TLC, is your the company you work at? Correct? So what steel sees process for optimizing energy use in their designs?

Kristy Watson 26:32
Sure, yeah. So first and foremost, for early energy modeling. We like to do an energy model. Before we even know what ideally before there’s even an idea for a building, you know, we generally know the square footage that’s needed to accommodate the programming that the owner has developed. And we have an idea for the space, maybe that it has to go in, like if they have a land already, and they know how much acreage they have. But in an ideal world, we would be able to do an energy model and run various iterations and ideas in the design. Before that building has even really been conceived. And and thought about too much. And that gives us opportunity to present ideas that aren’t within the box of design. A lot of times, the reality is, is that we typically as engineers, do not get involved in a project. And until after at least, a schematic rendering or an idea has happened for this building on the architectural side. So then we take that and do an energy model real quick, you do not have to have all the information to do an early energy model. You can do it based on very, very early data. And you you run iterations and provide the design team a roadmap for their design. I also like to hold an energy charrette, when, when the project timeline allows for it, to have all the consultants including the owner in the room to discuss ways to reduce energy, it’s amazing how productive a meeting like that can be when we all get together, it’s the power of collective knowledge. You know, in a in a room together, typically we walk in thinking this building and the systems are going to look one way and we walk out and they they look a lot different when we leave when you when you take energy into consideration. And then we’d like to hold the design accountable. So we’ve created this roadmap. And as the design progresses, and the various drawing milestones go out, we update the energy model and hold the design accountable for the energy target that was created in the energy charrette. And and if it doesn’t hit it, we come back to the table, and we have a conversation about you know what happened and and then what can we do to bring the energies back down to our target number. And ideally after the fact once the building is built and occupied, we would go back and calibrate the energy model one more time for the actual occupancy of the building. That tends to happen less than I would like because once the building owner is in the building, they’re running their business, you know, and they they’ve got other things in mind other other you they have to run their business and it’s not engineer Right, or energy optimization, so, but where we can we like to come back in and calibrate that model to validate the design? And what we designed to actually accomplish the goal.

Rafael Testai 30:12
Wonderful. Well, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. Are there any last words for our audience? They like for them to know?

Kristy Watson 30:21
Sure. Well, if you’re thinking about being an engineer, an engineer, it is a it’s a very fulfilling career path, at least for me. And, you know, I don’t think anyone 1020 years ago, would have anticipated an engineer being in sustainability or environmental, you know, systems. So there are so many paths that you can take an engineering degree opens up the, you know, bigger picture. But also, you know, my final takeaway would be, you know, as you are designing, you know, keep an eye on the holistic side of things keep an eye on how does this impact the greater community and climate change and energy and, and all those things because when you take the holistic view in mind, you’re always going to end up with a better design at the end of the day.

Aaron Moncur 31:26
I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design, and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Team Thanks for listening.

Rafael Testai 31:59
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About Being An Engineer

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