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Manalee Jayant Nabar

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Name/Title/Company: Manalee Jayant Nabar, lead mechanical engineer, WSP

Age: 32

Educational Experience: Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, University of Florida; executive MBA, Quantic School of Business and Technology; bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Mumbai University, India

Professional Credentials/Accreditations: Professional engineer (P.E.), state of California and certified Passive House consultant (previously held), Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)

Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: Board of Governors, ASHRAE Golden Gate Chapter; Young Engineers in ASHRAE (YEA) Developing Leader Award; ASHRAE Region I YEA Outstanding Performance Award; 2016 ASHRAE Leadership U Candidate; and 2017 ASHRAE Region I LeaDRS Candidate

What does your day-to-day job entail?

Keeping projects moving and clients stress-free. A typical day is equally divided between design work and construction administration for projects being built. It’s a great feedback loop, where I can use my experience from projects in construction to projects in design.

About 10% of my time each month is spent on project sites conducting progress check-ins and punch walks. Another 5% is spent in business development meetings, either with external consultants/contractors discussing project feedback or potential new clients discussing upcoming opportunities.

What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?

My dad is a mechanical engineer, and growing up, whenever I had questions about how things worked, he walked me through it methodically, most of the time asking me questions leading me to the answers rather than answering directly. This routine practice helped me think analytically about all things I was curious about. I think this made me lean toward math and science (especially physics) in high school. I loved the time spent experimenting in labs, whether it was measuring the moment of inertia of a wheel or studying the refractive index of glass with a prism.

While preparing for a competitive engineering entrance exam in grade XI, I was introduced to deeper concepts in physics, which included statics and dynamics. The first time our professor drew a free-body diagram, I felt a fascination like none before. In every practice problem schematic, it felt like the answer was right there before my eyes — all I had to do was assign the forces in the correct directions. It was in those moments that I knew I wanted to spend my undergraduate years immersed in engineering theory, research, and experiments. I wasn’t done with statics and dynamics, so mechanical engineering it was.

What has been the most rewarding/proudest aspect of your engineering career?

As some of my successful projects come to mind, it’s not the moments of accolades that flash before me. What’s vivid in my mind are the everyday victories that led to the successful completion of the projects.

For example, the time when we realized our tenant improvement (TI) project would need to have condensate pumps on chilled beams throughout the open offices because the base building’s air handlers weren’t supplying air that was dry enough. We had to come up with a solution to wring out all that extra moisture from the air.

Or the time when a project needed to have continuous thermal insulation at the envelope, without exception, and we needed to figure out how to properly insulate around the ducts from individual apartment energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) as they poked through the exterior concrete. It was a total of 308 8-inch diameter holes in an otherwise pristine thermal envelope.

We joke around in the industry that projects sometimes have “fire drills.” These are true to their name but also provide immense learning opportunities for coming up with a 100% constructable solution under a time crunch. Having had my share of fire drills, I don’t look forward to them, but the satisfaction received from delivering a perfect solution at the end of it is undeniably rewarding.

What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example? Why aren’t there more women in engineering? How can we increase the number of women in engineering?

This is a very layered question with multifaceted perspectives depending on where you are in terms of your personal life and professional growth. I’ll share the barrier I’ve felt most recently: maternity/parental leave!

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I reviewed the federal, state, and company policies relevant to my upcoming leave. Being a California resident, I received one of the most competitive paid leaves in the country. In addition, my company has supplemental parental leave as part of our benefits. Even with all of that, my return to work felt too soon, as my daughter was only a few months old. Make no mistake, compared to what’s currently available in other states throughout the country, I was thanking my stars. However, researching how much paid leave is afforded in some other countries, we have great strides yet to make. Currently, the U.S. is one of the six countries around the world with no national policy on paid maternity leave.

This shed light on one of my consistent observations throughout my career. There are quite a few women in the architecture, construction, and engineering (ACE) industry right out of college — kudos to the fantastic STEM outreach programs all over the country. However, when I look around for veteran women in executive positions, that ratio diminishes rapidly. When I recently had a chance to meet a female mechanical (HVAC) engineer with 30 years of experience, who is also a mother of two, my excitement went through the roof. It was the first time I’d met someone with that profile!

If we don’t have enough experienced women in the workforce, what’s that saying about the level of mentorship available for younger engineers? By no means am I saying this is the only reason why we don’t have more female leadership in ACE companies, but it’s one of the major factors to consider. Having a national policy on parental leave will help retain more women in this industry and thereby increase representation.

How many years have you been active in the engineering sector? What’s changed the most in that time? What’s changed the least?

I have been working in the HVAC industry for 10 years now.

I wouldn’t call it a change, but there has been a consistent progressive focus on decarbonization and sustainability throughout the years. When I started working in the industry, there were a handful of states that were incentivizing energy-efficient buildings. Since then, codes have gotten stricter. LEED, Passive House, and other energy efficiency standards have gone through periodic updates, and there is generally increased awareness on sustainable building design. What was considered energy efficient 10 years back then just meets today’s code. It’s an exciting time to be a built environment engineer and be part of the change.

And, while there has been progress, we still struggle with coordination between different trades during design and construction. There are many software and tools available, but there is still a lot of room for improvement to get us the perfect product with a high degree of confidence.

You’ve designed projects to the Passive House standard. Tell us about this approach and its benefits and challenges.

Passive House, as the name suggests, starts the design with a heavy focus on the passive elements of a building. Is the envelope robust enough? Is the thermal boundary continuous? Is the air barrier continuous? The standard focuses on keeping the inside environment constant with very slow reaction to outside weather elements. Once the building envelope is optimized, then you focus on continuous ventilation with heat/energy recovery and active heating/cooling. There is a common misconception that Passive House projects are much more expensive than regular projects. You do spend more on your envelope than a traditional building, but your mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems’ costs are expected to offset a lot of those costs due to much lower thermal loads. My experience was with affordable multifamily high-rise projects in New York City, where the premium was anywhere between 0%-6%.

Benefits are in the form of reduced utility bills, lower carbon footprint, and comfortable indoor environment.

Challenges are maintaining continuous thermal and air barriers throughout the building. To put the air tightness requirement in perspective, for commercial buildings, PHIUS requires the building to have a maximum leakage of 0.11 CFM75/ft2 when tested at 75 Pa pressure differential. Per IECC 2021, this requirement is 0.40 CFM75/ft2. To ensure this criteria is met, a thorough design review is required where you trace the architectural details at each transition of elements (wall-window, wall-roof, etc.) with a pen. When you can trace the whole building without lifting the pen, the design complies! During construction, especially for larger projects, a floor-by-floor test is required so that any deficiencies from one floor can be rectified in the succeeding ones.

Lastly, a benefit disguised as a challenge is integrated project delivery (IPD). This is an unsaid given for a successful Passive House building. I was surprised to see the general contractor at our schematic stage design meeting for my first passive house project. However, it soon became clear how invaluable their inputs were from a constructability standpoint. When the architect was working on a tricky air/waterproofing detail, or the mechanical engineer was reviewing the energy recovery ventilator install in each of the 154 apartments in the building, the contractors were able to be a part of design solutions based on their field experience. Working on those projects was a wonderful time in my career!

You’re an active member of ASHRAE. Can you share the positions you’ve held and why you hold that organization in such high esteem?

My journey with ASHRAE began as a student member of Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ISHRAE) while pursuing my undergraduate degree in Mumbai, India. It continued with active involvement in the student branch at the University of Florida. When I moved to New York City for my first job out of college, I joined the local chapter as a YEA member. Lorey Flick, then chapter president, inducted me to the board of governors, and I held multiple chapter positions, including sustainability chair and chapter technology transfer chair (in charge of yearly programming). I got involved with the San Francisco (Golden Gate) Chapter in 2020 in similar roles and currently am a first-year board member of the chapter.

ASHRAE is a volunteer-run organization and the extent of technical advancement it has achieved over the years is a remarkable feat. I hold the organization in high esteem because whatever I have given to it, it has given me back tenfold. Be it networking, genuine friendships, or technical backbone for my work. If you have an opportunity to talk to any ASHRAE veteran, you will see the dedication they have toward the work that they do and how much they want to share their experiences with young engineers. When I was a Leadership U candidate shadowing under Patricia Graef, then society vice president, it gave me an insight into how important decisions were made and how democratic the entire process was.

Personally, I love the fact that ASHRAE keeps me informed of the latest technologies and best practices I can employ on projects. The reach to experts all over the world is the icing on the cake.

What drives/motivates you every day?

Design is a very daring process, where you try out great/novel ideas. Construction is a very humbling process, where the constructability of those ideas is tested. My motivation is to perfect my designs and to have a zero request for information (RFI) project (ambitious, I know, haha).

My other motivation is to be a role model for my daughter and other young children, emphasizing the importance of work ethic and putting your best foot forward.

What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?

In my current role, I design a lot of projects that are very energy-intensive, like labs and health care. My aspiration is to combine my previous energy efficiency experience with these project types — say the first Passive House hospital in the U.S. One is already in operation in Frankfurt, Germany, so there is precedent.

What’s one thing no one knows about you?

I would like to keep it that way ;)

List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe precisely how they’ve shaped your success.

My first mentor has been my mom. She’s a research scientist in the field of radiopharmaceuticals. Growing up, she always encouraged my sister and I to pursue our passions and goals with full vigor. She believes that’s the way it should be for anyone; your gender does not dictate that ability. There were no glass ceilings to break in our house.

Growing up, I’ve had the privilege of being mentored by some amazing teachers — Mrs. Pamela Fernandes, who taught me about self-worth and holding one’s own. Mrs. Sohani and Mrs. Shirwaikar, who were my science subject tutors through high school, and are STEM idols.

I’ve already mentioned some of my ASHRAE mentors above. Special shout out to Jason Alphonso for keeping me involved in the organization after grad school via the SmartStart program and Devin Abellon, who has been a friend and nudged me to stay involved with ASHRAE through major life milestones.

I’m thankful to each and every one of them for contributing to my successes so far.

What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?

Quoting Dr Seuss here, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.

Do not lose yourself to prove you deserve a seat at the table. You deserve it, and your work will prove that. Clients look out for results, and if you’re the one providing them, you will be their go-to professional.

I’ll share a recent experience where I was out on a site visit, and I suddenly got conscious that maybe my earrings were a tad bit too long. However, I brushed away the thought with a pep talk and reminded myself that I’m here to do my job. The site visit went extremely well and at the OAC later I worked through some tricky project issues together with the owner and construction team. What anyone would remember from that day was how we solved the issues at hand and not any person’s appearance.

Be your biggest supporter and soon you will see magic happen!

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January 2024