Renovating Mechanical Systems: Creative engineering solutions save equipment & money

Sometimes transitions have to happen quickly. Continental Resources purchased Devon Energy’s old 19-story building in downtown Oklahoma City in 2011. As Devon employees were moving out, Continental employees were already moving in to get to work in their new space.

By the time FSB was contacted to evaluate and renovate the building’s engineering systems, it was already operating as the oil and natural gas company’s headquarters.

“The systems were very outdated—nothing had been changed since 1981, when the building was finished,” Principal Brian Sauer said. “In a perfect world, we would have a year with the building unoccupied so we could renovate the systems before it was occupied. In reality, for many companies that timeline doesn’t make financial sense. It’s our job to find creative solutions.”

FSB has a particular penchant for unique, technically challenging projects. The cross-discipline firm attracts designers and engineers who appreciate big-picture client objectives and enjoy combining their experience with colleagues with different backgrounds and expertise. In an engineering system renovation, the goal is simple: leave the client with plumbing, electrical or temperature components that can be functional, and replace those that are not. The solution is sometimes very complex, though.

“Our firm understands that there is no one solution for renovating a building’s engineering system,” Sauer said. “Every building is unique.”

71 degrees by 7 a.m.
At Continental, FSB began its evaluation of the building’s existing mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems as Continental employees settled into their offices. The team spent about a month poking their heads above ceiling tiles, shining flashlights behind walls and interviewing longtime members of the building maintenance team to develop an understanding of which components were worth salvaging and which ones were worn out or outdated. According to Sauer, in any renovation, evaluating is the first and most important step of a remodel.

“If an engineer doesn’t want to come to your building and inspect prior to renovating it, then you should probably think twice about your engineer,” Sauer said.

The FSB team learned the building’s controls for air and water temperature were very poor and not calibrated correctly. For Continental, replacing the HVAC system entirely was off the table because the building would need to remain occupied throughout the renovation. Instead, FSB found a creative solution to swap out the outdated control system first brought in with the components that would serve as the “brain”, then ran a “spine” of wires from the mechanical rooms on the top floor to the rest of the building. One floor at a time, the engineers transitioned the HVAC system over to the new control system. Because the HVAC needed to be off at times during the renovation, large portions of the floor-by-floor transition were completed at night or on the weekends.

“We had a rule — 71 degrees by 7 a.m.,” Sauer said. “One of our mechanical engineers stayed onsite full time for six months, and each morning before employees arrived to work, he would lead the renovation team in troubleshooting any spaces where the temperature wasn’t keeping up. Sometimes it was an airflow problem, sometimes faulty sensors or controls. By 7 a.m., we would make sure the temperature was comfortable so Continental employees could focus on their jobs.”

Floor by floor, the 19-story downtown office building’s engineering systems were upgraded from their worn-out, dated 1980s control system to one fit for a modern work environment. Not only did Continental save money by repairing rather than replacing the system, they saved time and allowed their company to continue operating uninterrupted.

Salvaging pieces of a system is never the easy route for an engineering team to take — it’s much faster and simpler from a design perspective to remove everything and replace it. In many cases, such as with the Continental renovation, the owner stands to save a great deal if engineers take the time to complete a conditions assessment ahead of the renovation.

Bringing modern systems to a historic renovation
Another project that benefitted from a thorough initial assessment was the Oklahoma State Capitol building. The century-old building’s systems had been modified, many did not work and no good records existed of its air handling, plumbing or electric.

“There are about 600 different pieces of mechanical equipment in the Capitol that we catalogued,” Principal and Director of Mechanical Engineering Aaron Campbell said. “We had a team of about 20 people visiting regularly for 3 months, and we went room by room inspecting equipment and determining its age and condition. Then, we would make a recommendation about whether it needed to be replaced or reused.”

The assessment efforts resulted in 8,000 pages of documentation. Every engineer and architect on the cross discipline team used iPads to record their findings into one database, so measurements and information were easily transferred into the firm’s Revit modeling software. This enabled the team to create an intelligent building model of the Capitol’s existing systems, and simplified the design process for engineers and architects.

“By putting in the effort on the front end to evaluate and catalog the condition of equipment, we estimate that we’re going to be able to save about $5 million in mechanical components,” Campbell said. “The engineering effort that we put in allowed us to keep building occupied.”

FSB’s capabilities to integrate engineering and architecture, combined with its large staff’s capacity to carry out detailed assessments prior to completing a design means the firm is perfectly equipped to take on the hard, out-of-the-ordinary renovations.

“The more challenging and technical the project is, the better the fit is for FSB,” Sauer said.

To learn more about how FSB can help with the engineering design on your next project, contact Aaron Campbell at or 405.840.2931.

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