MEP Engineering Firm Transitions to Sustainability
At Clackamas High School,
Interface engineers incorporated daylighting, photocells to sense
light, and occupancy sensors to turn off lights in unoccupied rooms
- Credit Stephen Cridland
Interface Engineering began life 35 years ago in Milwaukee, Oregon, its
founders probably had no idea what it would become. They originally
started with two separate firms, mechanical and electrical, and they
merged shortly afterwards to become a traditional
mechanical - electrical - plumbing (MEP) engineering firm designing systems
for buildings. Simple enough.
Fast forwarding, though, the founders have retired in recent years, and
the company has seen a big transition. As Andy Frichtl, a principal and
senior mechanical engineer, tells it, "We bought out the original
founders of the company, and now about ten principals have taken the
reigns and taken the firm in some new directions. Sustainability is one
of the new directions we're heading in." Indeed, a sustainability
movement, with a focus on green building, started five or six years ago
and has given the firm its present-day signature.
Combining this new trend with the original foundation has proven
successful, as Interface Engineering ranks among the top 40 MEP
engineering firms in the U.S. in terms of annual sales. The
employee-owned firm employs about 110 electrical and mechanical
engineers, designers, drafters, and support personnel. The new partners
moved headquarters to Portland, Oregon to be closer to their clients,
and Interface has added offices in Seattle, Washington; Salem, Oregon;
and Sacramento, California.
Interface has groups that cover commercial, educational, residential,
retail, industrial, hospitality, cultural, and institutional facilities.
Most of their work comes on the west coast, but they also do work in
other areas of the U.S. and overseas. "Just in the last six months,
there have been more opportunities for us to grow overseas in different
areas, and I think that will continue," Frichtl reports.
Services offered by Interface vary from conventional mechanical and
electrical engineering to a wide variety of specialties. Frichtl
explains the sustainability approach by saying, "We're a fairly
progressive firm. We're looking for the latest, most innovative ways of
doing things, but not necessarily ones that cost more. We're looking at
finding ways of doing more with less, spending less money but also
saving energy and water."
Traditional electrical engineering services include things like power
distribution systems, power quality testing and monitoring, PLC-based
electrical control systems, motor controls, and process instrumentation
systems. In recent years, this has expanded to include photovoltaic
systems for generating solar energy and on-site power generation.
One specialty that has become most visible for Interface is designing
energy-efficient lighting systems. They showcased this at Clackamas High
School in Clackamas, Oregon, where the firm provided electrical,
lighting, security and access, and telecommunications infrastructure
design for its new two-story, 268,000-square-foot building, which opened
Daylighting emerged as a central element in the architectural design and
energy conservation program at the school. Photocells sense light and
tell lighting controls to dim the electric lighting whenever daylight
provides sufficient light. Controls also include occupancy sensors to
turn off lights in unoccupied classrooms. Software turns off most lights
when school is not in session or the building sits unoccupied. With such
measures, they reduced overall lighting energy demand by 57 percent
compared with Oregon building code. This also allows natural ventilation
to work better by reducing building heat gain from lights. Initial
results indicate the building uses 44 percent less energy than a similar
building designed to code.
Engineer David Chesley (left) discusses a
project with Andy Frichtl, principal and senior mechanical engineer.
Courtesy Interface Engineering
As much as possible, Interface engineers incorporate energy efficiency
and other sustainable design factors into the mechanical and electrical
design of each building they design, keeping an eye on life cycle as
well as first costs. "On things that just make sense, we automatically
do those," Frichtl says. "It depends on the client. Some of them have
large goals, some of them don't have any goals at all, and we just bring
stuff to the table and say 'it makes sense to do this even though you
havenıt told us you're interested.'"
Interface's approach falls under the mantra of integrated design, which
considers a building's design, structure, and systems as a whole and
optimizes their interaction. This involves cross-disciplinary
collaboration, especially between architects and engineers, and as a
result, distinctions between these disciplines have blurred. And whereas
in the past, engineers typically specified oversized systems to cover
worst-case scenarios, sustainable designers today lean toward smaller,
more optimally-sized systems, realizing that a building may not have to
maintain design conditions every hour of every day.
On the mechanical end, Interface's services include energy life-cycle
cost analysis and computer energy use modeling, and they design systems
for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC); plumbing; water
and wastewater distribution and collection; cogeneration; heat recovery;
and compressed air. An exciting project is taking shape at South
Waterfront, a former shipyard along the Willamette River just south of
downtown Portland. Oregon Health Sciences University is expanding their
campus with Building One, a new, 360,000-square-foot, 16-story building
to serve as a mixed-use facility for wellness, medical research,
clinics, surgery, classrooms, and retail. Interface's team, led by
Frichtl, has provided HVAC, plumbing, electrical, power distribution,
lighting, and fire alarm systems design.
Building One uses variable-air-volume air handlers and
variable-frequency drives on pumps and motors to match supply with
demand. Ventilation systems use carbon dioxide sensors and occupancy
sensors, so spaces are fully conditioned only when used. Heat recovery
systems capture waste heat from laboratories, general exhausts, and
locker rooms. Upping the sustainable ante, the building also boasts an
array of solar panels, natural ventilation, radiant cooling, rainwater
harvesting, and a microturbine-based energy-generation plant, which will
harness 80 percent of the thermal energy it generates as a byproduct.
Now under construction, Building One
at Oregon Health Sciences University
will feature a host of HVAC, energy
conservation, lighting, and water
conservation measures and serve
as a showcase - Credit GBD Architects
"It's not a typical project, but it kind of paves the way showing people
you can actually do something like that," Frichtl relates. "You get
incredible results, and it costs less than a traditional building. It
was really an interesting project." It stands about 20 percent complete
now, and upon its completion in 2006, they expect Building One to
achieve energy savings at 61 percent greater than what Oregon code
requires while cutting upfront costs 25 percent.
With successes like this, Frichtl sees the demand for sustainable design
increasing. "We're at 30 or 40 percent of our projects being sustainable
right now, and I see it growing. I don't think the price of energy's
going to go down. I think it's just going to continue to be more and
more important fo0r everyone, and water conservation as well, air
quality, all those things. That demand has got to increase." Thanks to
the overall path Interface has taken since its beginning, he can say,
"We're in a growth mode right now, and I think that will continue."
Company: Interface Engineering
Consulting mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineering firm
Location: Headquarters in Portland,
Oregon with other offices in Salem, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Sacramento,
Contact information for submitting resumes:
E-mail to Beverly Markstrom at
Outlook for hiring engineers:
"We're always looking for good employees. Our demand is always high," reports
Andy Frichtl, a
principal and senior mechanical engineer. "Over time, we want to keep growing.
We owe that to the stockholders. We want to give opportunities to other people."
What they look for in engineers: "It isnıt just the technical capabilities," Frichtl says. "If somebodyıs really passionate about something, they're going to
excel in it. We're looking for that kind of energy from people." As for
experience level, they hire at all levels -- entry all the way up to potential
partners. They may branch out and open new offices."