John Gautrey is a partner and principal at IBE Consulting Engineers, who have worked with many of the west coast’s—and the world’s—top architects, including Gehry Partners, Morphosis, Hodgetts + Fung, Michael Maltzan, Daly Genik, Randall Stout, Tighe Architects, Rios Clementi Hale, Richard Meier, and Coop Himmelb(l)au, among many others. AN’s Sam Lubell sat down with Gautrey to discuss MEP, sustainability, and the future of construction.
The Architect’s Newspaper: You seem to be the architect’s choice for MEP (mechanical, engineering, plumbing) on the west coast. How did you develop such a list of architects to collaborate with? What are you doing right?
John Gautrey: I think some of it is historical. Alan [Locke, the company founder] and I have been in LA for 25 years. I was trained at Arup and learned that engineering is there to facilitate the architect’s vision. We wanted to get back to those roots. We’re there to help them in any way we can to achieve their architecture. It’s not about imposing on it but helping shape it from an engineering perspective to make it better. You never get the perfect solution, but we can investigate it until we see that it will work. Anything is possible if you want to pay for it—not in terms of fees, but in terms of construction costs.
With sustainability being such a priority, MEP has all of a sudden become sexy. What are some of the innovations in MEP that get you the most excited?
The buzz seems to be about stacked devices, radiant systems, and chilled beams—things that are hydronic based not air based. The tradition has been to blow a lot of air at things, but to use water rather than air is a lot more efficient. You have less big things running around the building—big ducts and big fans. The challenge, as always, is that it’s new. It’s not usually a challenge with the architects, but the owners. Sometimes they’re reticent to do something new. The responsibility is on us to explain the pros and cons. There are people out there that are prepared to take that leap. There are people out there who want to take the leap not to follow some proscribed system.
What is the biggest mistake people are still making with regards to MEP? How can you change it?
LEED—anybody can walk down a checklist and include this and that. But if it makes no sense for the building, does that make the building more sustainable? No. For us, sustainability is doing the right thing for the owner of the building and for the environment the building is in. Following a prescribed checklist doesn’t necessarily lead to that. Still, LEED is fantastic in creating awareness about what sustainability is. It’s phenomenal what the USGBC has accomplished. When I talked about sustainability ten or twelve years ago, people were laughing me out of the room.
How do you see things changing in MEP in the next few years?
The rest of the world is getting rid of air conditioning completely. Just open the window. Wear a t-shirt. You have the ability to control your own environment. You get used to it. I never had air conditioning in a building until I moved to the U.S. Ultimately, I don’t think you’ll have a choice.
What are the future alternative energy sources?
You need to implement the right systems for the right locale and not just force something on it. Geothermal, while great, is a difficult one because it’s very climate driven. And there’s an assumption that PV panels are great, but I think a lot of people implement them just to say “I’m green.” I don’t think you should look at sustainability like that. Is it right for the building? Is it sustainable to put materials into a building even if they don’t achieve anything?
Solar hot water is underutilized. It’s 100 percent efficient. PV, on the other hand, is 14 percent efficient. We’re going to realize that we’ve got to invest in making PVs better, and they’re going to get better all the time. Wind is great in the right location. We’re looking at wind power for High School 15 in Los Angeles with CO Architects. It’s a perfect site for wind in San Pedro. It’s got a constant nine mile per hour wind. You need a big site as well because of safety concerns.
What about self-generation?
Carbon neutrality is the next thing we’re all going to get into. That comes down to regulation, which is very hard to change. So initially it’s going to have to be building by building. To make any building energy efficient, you need to start with the building form. If you’re not prepared to do that, you’re not going to make an energy efficient building.
Let’s talk more about that. How can engineering change architecture?
We can all throw energy at a building to make it more efficient. But to maximize it, the form and materials and site have to be taken into account. Then you look at your systems. Lighting, mechanical, how the building works, how you layer the building. Can you organize your building to allow the transitory spaces, which you’re not in for very long, to be at the perimeter? Can you create buffer zones? You can start letting the internal layout inform your energy in the building. With the Morphosis Federal building in San Francisco [IBE did the feasibility study], the air conditioning is in the middle and the outside is naturally ventilated. The ventilation informs the design of the building.
What is the biggest mistake architects make?
Not involving us early enough. By the time we’re involved it’s too late to inform how the building is going to be set up. By the time you’ve got an architectural concept and the others have signed off on the site, there’s not a lot you can do. Maybe you can add some shading devices. But if we had been there earlier we could say you should have turned it like this or we could get more daylight inside the building. We like to be there on day one. I think most of the architects we work with appreciate that.
What upcoming projects are you excited about?
Personally, I like doing museums. I’m very exited that BAM (The Berkeley Art Museum) came back, even as a different design. They’re using the print works [building] now: changing it and adding to it. That presents a whole new set of challenges. Trying to control a museum environment within an existing building is tough. I’m also excited about Michael Maltzan’s performing arts center for San Francisco State. No two planes run in the same direction. To understand the balconies and shapes, you can’t figure it out from a 2D plan. You don’t have a choice but to work in 3D.
I like to be challenged by my architects. I need someone to question what I’m doing. It makes it more interesting. I get bored if there’s a simple solution right away. Ultimately, it should be a solution that you implement with the architect. I would have loved to have finished the BAM project with Toyo Ito. That was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was so intricate that just to route a duct took a long time to figure out.
Is there sometimes tension between you and your architects?
Sometimes you can’t avoid it. You just need to be willing to be involved and be available to discuss issues. If you communicate bad news it keeps things smooth. Communication is king.