Engineer Spotlight – East

Q&A with Karl Yrjanainen of HDR Inc.

PE: What was it about plumbing engineering that appealed to you? Can you tell us about your journey? KY: I grew up around the construction business working for my father who was a small custom home builder/remodeler. I was his cheap laborer cleaning up his construction site and doing odd jobs and errands at the site. He constantly encouraged me to go to college and get a degree. I liked working on cars and mechanical things so I decided to go into engineering. I received my Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering at Fairleigh Dickinson University located in New Jersey. 

Before I graduated college I landed a part-time job working for a local MEP firm as a draftsman. AutoCAD had just started being used, and there were other full-time employees doing that. Once I received my degree, I started doing HVAC drafting and quickly moved to doing my own design and drafting on small light commercial projects. Those projects were small enough so I was able to move on to doing plumbing, fire protection and electrical design as well.  While I was there a more senior plumbing designer started to mentor me in plumbing and fire protection design. I continued to cross paths with him, even to this day. We continue to work together with the New Jersey chapter of ASPE. Over time, we each mentored each other as colleagues since we were involved in similar projects. 

As I moved to a larger firm, then known as CUH2A, I had to commit to working in one discipline, so I became a plumbing and fire protection engineer. I felt it was more interesting to me than the other trades, but having that early varied experience, I understand that it is important to coordinate with other trades. CUH2A exposed me to larger and more complex projects in the pharmaceutical laboratory industry. 

As I continued my career I worked for a few other firms like Kvaerner, Foster Wheeler and R.G Vanderweil, but ultimately came back to CUH2A since I truly felt it was the best company for me. In 2008 we were acquired by HDR, which continued to provide more varied project opportunities. I have been fortunate to work on a wide variety of complex projects that continue to be interesting and challenging.

PE: How long have you been in the industry, and how has your vision evolved?

KY: I started in the industry in January of 1988, so I have about 29 years in the industry. I have held positions from being a draftsman to running a department of 16 plumbing engineers and designers. My vision at the start was to work my way up the ranks in each position and learning from doing my job, from my peers and supervisors. I gained insight from engineers and non-engineers who learned with a combination of education and experience. 

Early in my career, my goals had been to become a licensed engineer, get an MBA, do large projects and become the department head and shareholder of the firm. The owner of the company at my first job insisted I get my EIT as soon as possible and then get my PE. That was one of the best pieces of advice I have received over my career, and I continue to pass that on to other young engineers. 

I ended up achieving all my goals, except completing the MBA, through hard work and the help of others. During my career I have seen that younger employees are not patient and want to become a manager immediately after college. I interview college grads for my company, and they indicate they want my job as I speak to them. It took me about 25 years and a lot of hard work and time to reach this level in my career. I think somehow they are getting unreasonable expectations of what it takes to move ahead in engineering. Ultimately they become unhappy as to how slowly they are gaining experience and moving up the corporate ladder that they believe they need to move to another company to move ahead faster. Most companies are willing to let an employee try to push themselves, but it does create quite a bit of pressure and stress. I think they need to understand there are no shortcuts that will get them ahead quickly.

PE: What current projects are you working on, and what is unique about them?

KY: I am continuing to work on the world’s largest biocontainment laboratory project for the government. It is nearing completion of construction and is being commissioned. It has been the most complex and longest running project I have ever worked on. We started the project back in 2006, and it should be completed in 2017. The building contains BSL-2, BSL-3E and BSL-4 laboratory spaces, ABSL-2, ABSL-3E and ABSL-4 vivarium spaces as well as support and office spaces. These spaces employ many technical enhancements, allowing researchers to work together safely and effectively to respond quickly to critical emerging biological threats, including the world's deadliest pathogens. 

Biocontainment facilities such as this have a number of systems that are separated by containment level. This facility literally has miles of piping for all the systems. The systems need to have redundancy and reliability to assure safety and containment. It is rare to use off the shelf products, most things are customized to suit the specific needs of the containment space. In addition to reliability, corrosion and chemical resistance are extremely important due to the cleaning and disinfectant chemicals used daily. It definitely is one of the highlights of my career. 

Another project I am currently working on is a large addition to an existing 1.6 million square foot laboratory office facility for a Midwest consumer products company that was the first large laboratory project where I was a lead plumbing and fire protection engineer on one of the wings of the building. It is rare to visit a past project and get real feedback on how well the systems you designed have worked for nearly 20 years. The facility operated so well for them they called us to work on doing the addition. That type of experience is really great and makes you feel like all the hard work over the years has been for good reasons.

PE: Please take us through some of your note-worthy achievements. Why are they important to you? 

KY: I believe I have had several in my career. The one I am most proud of right now is a biocontainment laboratory project for the government. It has been the most complex project I have ever worked on as well as the longest duration. I did not do it all by myself; it was a team of 12 engineers and designers I had working with me to complete the design and documentation of the plumbing, piping and fire protection systems. Building design, like sports, is a team effort. We need leaders, workers and even cheerleaders to keep up moral. I can honestly say the project team I had working with me at that time had some of the best people. I had worked with many of them for years and others a relatively short time, but they each had their roles to play, did an excellent job on complex projects and met deadlines. It was a collaborative process.

Another achievement that I consider notable was my time as the president of the New Jersey chapter of ASPE. I was president for four concurrent years and continue to be involved on the board as the vice president, Legislative. During that time I made good connections and had strong interactions in the plumbing industry. I gained more exposure to others  through meetings, seminars, conventions, region meetings and other activities. It helped me become better at marketing my own abilities and allowed me an outlet to share what I have learned with others in the industry. The people who are involved with ASPE indicate they want to be involved by just showing up. If we can get them involved to do even one thing, I consider it a win. If we can repeat that, we can continue to develop a successful chapter and society.

PE: What are some of the obstacles you have encountered in your professional life, and how have you overcome them? 

KY: I would have to say the way the industry has been changing to make engineering a commodity market with work going to the lowest bidder is a huge obstacle. It drives schedules to become shorter and hourly budgets to complete projects to be reduced. In doing this, there is less time to mentor others and allow engineers to research different alternatives to achieve the best design for a client. It forces us to copy one method of designing systems that is repeated to streamline the design process and meet budgets and schedules. Engineering is getting more complicated due to more complex codes, concern for water and energy savings, reducing first and operating cost and the implementation of BIM. Since implementing BIM, we as engineers have to model things more accurately starting earlier in the design. Our fees should be increased because we are doing more work up front. As we hand over the design model, a lot of the contractor’s work has been done, and their fees should be reduced. In effect the money is moved from the construction end to the design end, front loading the project. 

PE: Are you involved in any community work/mentorships/charity? 

KY: The company I work for has a Design 4 Others (D4O) program, which was started by CUH2A and continued once HDR acquired us. I volunteer my time as needed for various projects over the years. Employees volunteer with D4O and other industry sponsors to design and implement critical-need facilities for communities with limited resources. We offer expertise to support communities around the world toward common goals that make a difference by providing architecture, engineering and planning services for no compensation; because together we maximize individual efforts — creating a larger collective contribution. Because disease knows no borders, D4O’s work matters to us all. Eradication is the end goal, but to get there, we need to work with the local population, within the framework of their culture and resources. We are learning to modify the design of facilities to be locally sustainable. 

I also consider my work to support ASPE as my community/charity work. I have been a member for the past 19 years. I contribute my time to the local New Jersey chapter, being active on the board for the past 12 years. I have been involved on the national level with ASPE committees for the past seven years. I want to give back to the industry that has allowed me to become successful by sharing my knowledge at the local and national level. 

In addition, I have taught a class, Environmental Systems II, for the Drexel University department of Architecture and Interior Design for the past 18 years. It is on plumbing and fire protection systems design for architects. I get to share my experience with young architects to help them to understand what they need to do to incorporate plumbing and sprinkler systems into the buildings they design. 

Finally, for the past five years I have volunteered my time with the New Jersey State Plumbing Subcode Advisory Board to provide commentary on code changes being proposed for the state code. 

PE: What are some things you have in the works for next year? 

KY: One of my goals is to mentor others in our company to write articles, win design awards or do technical presentations to help elevate them and our company’s engineering group. Engineers are not trained to be marketing people; we tend to be reserved and do not do a good job of promoting ourselves or our work. We are trained to listen and evaluate how to solve problems; we think the marketing is best left to others. By doing this, it is usually not done as well as it could be since engineering is complex and technical. I have been working on getting out there to promote myself and my abilities over the past 12 years, and I am trying to pass along what I have learned to others.

PE: What change would you like to see in our industry, and how do you think that can be done?

KY: What I have heard and seen that is lacking is good mentoring of employees. At HDR we try to mentor employees everyday though interaction on projects. We have more formal mentoring relationships that an employee can sign up for, but I feel the informal daily interaction has worked for years and will continue to do so. When I was younger I was assigned a mentor, but I found it was kind of awkward and forced. The natural daily mentoring seems to be most effective for me. It may not be as quick as the younger staff would like, but engineering is getting more complicated due to rapidly changing codes and technology. Even at my level, I complete 40 hours a year of continuing education to maintain my licenses and certifications as well as stay current or try to lead the industry. 
You never stop learning and have to work at it by taking classes and collaborating with others in the industry. This is one way that being a member of ASPE has helped me make contacts outside my company. It is important for young engineers to understand the value of being actively involved with their trade associations and for companies to support those employees. With the past downturn in the economy, many companies decreased or eliminated training budgets. They need to re-establish and possibly increase those budgets and use them to encourage employees young and old to get involved.

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