Engineer climbs to new heights

Sunondo Roy, the vice president for CCJM Engineers, talks about his past experiences as a multidisciplinary engineer and how these experiences have shaped him.


Sunuondo Roy, Vice President for CCJM Engineers.Who: Sunondo Roy, PE, LEED BD+C

What: Vice president, CCJM Engineers Ltd.

Where: Chicago

About: Roy is a multidisciplinary engineer committed to integrated, sustainable design of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems. He worked at various engineering firms, including The Austin Co., A. Epstein and Sons, and Grumman/Butkus, before launching his own consulting firm, Sun Engineered Systems. After 11 years at Sun, he joined the Chicago office of CCJM Engineers as vice president.

Q: You spend a lot of time managing day-to-day activities at CCJM. What’s your greatest challenge?

A: In the current market, our biggest challenge is in converting marketing effort to active projects. The market is extremely tough and companies are tripping over themselves to cut their own throats to get jobs and keep the staff billable. It’s not a climate that bodes well for individual companies or the profession. In this environment, there’s tremendous pressure to keep the staff focused on high-quality design while also keeping a close eye on maintaining profitability on tight project fees. Fortunately for us, we are managing well with a diversified corporate strategy.

Q: What surprises you the most when you are engineering systems in Chicago-area buildings?

A: One of the most surprising things we consistently find is that there are a lot of uncomfortable people (with space heaters, sweaters, personal blowers, etc.) in what the “average” person would say is a comfortable environment, and other people seem to be outwardly working happily in buildings where we find it terribly uncomfortable (stuffy, stale, poor lighting, etc.). In these situations, the engineering effort includes number crunching and some psychology. In some instances, if the occupants are convinced the built-up environment is not good enough, all the science in the world can’t convince them otherwise. We spend a good portion of our “design” effort showing the occupants in simple, lay terms what was causing the perceived problem and that after the renovation, the environmental parameters are acceptable by industry standards.

Q: You are a member of a lot of professional associations. What have you learned from these relationships?

A: The building sciences community is relatively small. Over the past 20+ years, I have repeatedly run into former colleagues and friends of friends all the time. Sometimes as competitors, other times as potential clients. Ultimately, that teaches you to be professional and civil with everyone you meet. You can disagree, just don’t be disagreeable. You never know who you’ll need to partner with.

Q: What tips would you give to a junior engineer who wants to design systems for educational facilities?

A: Remember your time in classrooms and labs as a student. Remember when you couldn’t stay awake during a lecture? It wasn’t always the professor or subject matter that put you to sleep. Poor ventilation, lighting, acoustics, and even ergonomics of the room all affect one’s ability to remain alert and engaged in the learning process. We, as designers, need to pay special attention to ensuring effective ventilation (adequate outside air as well as good air distribution throughout the learning space), maintaining acceptable system acoustical levels to not create a distraction to the learning process, uniform but also task-specific lighting at the learning surfaces including desks and whiteboards/chalkboards, and integrating current information technology practices as well as enabling the capability to easily upgrade to emerging technologies. On top of all that, the systems have to be balanced between first costs and energy-efficiency for lower lifecycle costs. As a designer, one can’t focus on one of these aspects and let the others go by the wayside.

Q: How do you balance your professional and personal life?

A: The one lesson you learn as a business owner or principal in a firm is that your clients are always expecting you to be available when they have a problem. If they are running a 24/7 facility, they will expect you to be available when trouble hits the fan. Unfortunately, this does cause some conflicts with maintaining a stable personal life. A couple of strategies have helped so far: First, always try to respond to client communications as quickly as practical. It doesn’t mean you have to solve the problem, just let them know you’re aware of the problem and that you will address it as soon as practical. Usually, this preemptive step only takes a few minutes of time and buys you much more time to respond in detail. Second, have a solid team beside you to share the burden. As in the medical profession, it’s good to create a rotating on-call team of senior personnel who can “triage” the situation until the team can respond. With these two strategies in place, I can spend time with my son as Cub Master of his Cub Scouts pack, realize work isn’t that stressful while riding with my daughter as she practices driving, spend time with my wife on the daily chores as well as the exciting trips we try to take a couple of times a year, and, every now and then, get away from everything on mountain climbing forays.

Q: What or who led you down your career path? Did you have a mentor?

A: My father is a structural engineer by training and was always my mentor on all things technical. When I was growing up, he would always talk about interesting projects he was working on. A couple of times, he took my brother and me to construction sites and we walked around the jobsite checking out not only the structural work, but also the rest of the site. I always found the excitement of construction sites appealing. Because he was an engineering manager at a Chicago-area A/E firm, we would always discuss not only all aspects of engineering and trends in building sciences, but other technology issues in the news. Although he’s retired now, I still run issues by him to get his opinion on how to approach a situation or technical challenge.

Q: If you could speak to a 20-something version of yourself, what would you tell yourself? What would you do differently?

A: I would co-opt the North Face clothing company motto of “Never stop exploring.” Although you’ve finished college and think your days of studying are over, your days of learning never stop. Technologies are always changing, as are design challenges from internal as well as external forces. One of the things my father taught me was to collect interesting articles from all sorts of journals and magazines. As he said, you don’t need to know everything, but you should be able to find a resource when you need it. In the “old” days, that meant I had a drawer full of reasonably indexed manila folders with articles I had ripped out of magazines. Some I had read, others seemed interesting so I kept them “just in case.” Now, with the Internet, you don’t need to keep the manila folders, but it is good to keep a set of electronic folders with PDFs of articles and equipment catalogs covering all sorts of topics. We keep a folder on our server called ”design guidelines” where everyone is encouraged to store interesting articles, spreadsheets, etc. However you do it, the bottom line is that you have to keep up with technology and keep continuously improving yourself.

Q: How would your coworkers or clients describe you?

A: All I can hope for is that others think I am trustworthy, knowledgeable, a person of integrity, and someone with a sense of humor to boot.

Q: What’s the No. 1 thing needed to make a relationship successful?

A: Trust.

Q: What life adventure is still on your list?

A: The Seven Summits. Denali is next on the list.

Q: What one word best describes you?

A: Determined.

Q: What do you wish you knew more about?

A: Everything! As the saying goes, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know!

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