In search of thermal delight

In search of thermal delight

0214 TACTICS1
Paul Schwer, President of PAE Consulting Engineers
// Photo by Carl Kiilsgaard

BY AMY MILSHTEIN

For somene who’s never heard the term “geek chic” before, Paul Schwer certainly embodies it. With graying hair and a goatee too trim to be trendy, Schwer, president of Portland-based PAE Consulting Engineers, accents the front pocket of his blue dress shirt with a single red pen. But behind his glasses, Schwer’s eyes sparkle when he talks about the future of sustainable building, the culture of engineers and how they can change the world.

“I’m still an idealist,” he says. “I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. Just look at the Bullitt Center. People can no longer say it can’t be done, because we did it.” The world’s largest living building, the Seattle-based center will generate all of its electricity with solar panels, gather all of its water from rainfall and compost all of its waste to meet the rigorous demands of the Living Building Challenge. More arduous than LEED certification, the challenge requires a structure to have net-zero energy, waste and water over a minimum of 12 months of continuous occupancy.

Putting the design/build team together for the center took an unusual route. Instead of the traditional RFP process, the Bullitt Foundation, a philanthropic organization targeting eco-friendly initiatives, asked engineers to recommend architects and architects to recommend engineers best suited to the project’s demands. This peer-to-peer vetting generated an impressive list — after all, there are quite a few green engineering and design firms out there — and an unusual outcome as the engineers and architects were chosen independently of each other. 

Perhaps it was 45-year-old PAE’s history as a leader in sustainable design that put it at the top of the heap. The company claims over 110-LEED-rated projects, 23 of them reaching the highest level of LEED Platinum. “Today if a client wants to build to LEED Silver, it’s kind of ‘ho hum,’” Schwer says. “Luckily we have a lot of aggressive clients. They want us to shoot for a Living Building but will settle for LEED Platinum.”

A combination of growth and a unique corporate culture has seen the firm thrive through the recession. As the company is privately held, Schwer would not reveal revenues; however, he did share that the firm achieved double-digit growth in the last three years. Fueling that growth was a decision Schwer made in 2010 to reach outside of Oregon, partnering with a San Francisco engineer from Alfa Tech who launched the San Francisco office from scratch. But Schwer kept his expectations realistic. “California is a large economy, so we didn’t need a big part of it to be successful.”

The move paid off when PAE was named mechanical and electrical engineer of record on Facebook’s new Frank Gehry-designed San Francisco headquarters. Already besting California’s stringent Title 24 energy use codes by 20%, the building will feature the country’s largest active living roof. The firm is also working on the headquarters of E&J Gallo Winery and the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado.

Schwer calls himself an “energy geek,” but don’t be fooled: He’s a master communicator as well. A rarity in the insular and admittedly nerdy world of engineers, Schwer believes that communication is the key to success as the building industry changes in unexpected ways. “Today we collaborate not only with architects and designers but with chemists and biologists. We’ve moved from providing indoor air quality to talking about indoor environmental quality and how an interior affects cognitive performance.” Schwer realizes engineers are more than just problem solvers. “We need to be collaborators and interpreters.”

To grow this skill, the company mandates in-house training sessions called PAE University. These classes teach engineers how to communicate intricate solutions to a non-technical audience. “Some firms have only one or two people on staff who can speak at conferences,” Schwer says. We have 15 who give 50 speeches a year.” He also insists that junior staff sit in on big meetings and trusts them to communicate with clients. 

PAE’s commitment to their employees extends beyond the workday. Of the staffers who leave for other firms, a large percentage come back, a group Schwer refers to as “re-treads.” PAE “is a family-oriented firm,” says the 50-year-old, who joined the company in 1994 and was named president in 2005. “My wife and I left New York 20 years ago because we wanted to live in a city that encouraged a better work/life balance. If I want to kayak in the morning and come in at 11, that’s OK. If I need to leave early to coach my son’s soccer team, that’s OK too.”

The firm continues to expand in a way Schwer describes as organic. With 20% of their projects already in the state of Washington, PAE has taken space in the Bullitt Center and just opened a two-person satellite in Eugene. In Portland, Schwer is typically at his desk on the 15th floor of downtown’s Yeon building for 10 to 11 hours at a clip. From this vantage point, he sees more than a sprawling view of the city; he sees a world that is demanding more from the built environment and the people who create it. 

“We’re looking for more than thermal comfort. We’re shooting for thermal delight.”