2018 Engineer of the Year Christine Ness
Christine Ness is a fire protection engineer and project manager at PDC Engineers in the company’s Anchorage office.
She earned a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Bradley University in Illinois and studied fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachussetts. She earned her Alaska FPE PE in May of 2014, and today uses her expertise in facility life safety hazard analysis and fire suppression and detection systems design to keep facilities and people safe throughout Alaska and beyond. Nominated by the Alaska Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction, Ness was named the 2018 Engineer of the Year during E-Week last February. Alaska Business is pleased to share a little more about this exceptional woman and her vital work below.
Alaska Business: What drew you to engineering?
Christine Ness: I’ve always been a tinkerer. I come from a long line of tinkerers, engineers, techs, engineering techs, whatever you want to call us. One of my mom’s favorite pictures from when I was teenager is of me sitting next to my first car. I’ve got on a cocktail ring and long nails and engine oil all over the place. From the time I could see over the fender of Dad’s ’50 Chevy, I wanted to know how things work. The fun was understanding how things went back together after I took them apart. I always knew I wanted to be an engineer. My childhood friends even remarked about how good I was at fixing things.
AB: What brought you to Alaska?
Ness: A change of scenery. I had been working in Virginia Beach since 2006. In 2013, a recruiter from Illinois, of all places, called me up and said: “Hey, how’d you like to work in Alaska?” And so I had some personal clearing of the decks. I was ready for something different so I moved here in October 2013. I promptly found a wonderful Alaska man and got married. He’s brilliant. He keeps me challenged and motivated every day.
I found my love in Alaska in many ways. I have always lived near a river, lake, or ocean. I love to go fishing. If sleep allows, I will go out at God-knows-what hour of the morning to sit and throw a line into the water just because there’s nobody else around. I have been noted by friends to be on walk-abouts when the weather is mild, camping in the back of my old Tahoe. My first spring in Alaska, I camped on Nikiski beach with friends over Memorial Day. Waking up to the waves just beyond the back tires was pretty incredible.
AB: How did you find your way to PDC?
Ness: A few months after getting married in the spring of 2015, I found the job that I thought I’d always wanted and went to Japan. I realized after two months that my marriage is much more important than any job and came back to forgiveness. Two months after that, PDC Engineers offered me a position. I find PDC interesting due to its diverse clientele and projects. Also, it is an employee-owned company and it is, especially during earthquakes, a pretty supportive family.
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AB: Tell me a little about the work you do.
Ness: Fire protection engineering is suppression, detection, notification, and passive architectural design. I combine these approaches into one solution. There are trade-offs in building codes that allow flexibility: if you install a sprinkler system in a building, you generally don’t have to build it as fire resistive, or if you install a fire detection and emergency notification system, you can have a slightly longer evacuation path, for example.
Challenging projects start out with: “Well, we’ve designed this building and we want to build it. However, we just found out we need to include sprinklers because the fire marshal said so [she smiles].” The Army Corps, for instance, is an excellent client because they recognize the need to comply with building safety codes and plug design and systems cost into the schedule and budget on the front end.
AB: Typically when you’re working with clients, do they have a plan they want you to implement or just a problem they need you to solve?
Ness: I’ve learned what questions to ask at the front end. A project could be new construction or a renovation. Each one of those has its own sequence of what I need to follow. For example, the F-35s coming into Eielson will occupy existing 1950s era buildings that needed updating to accommodate the new flight crews. There’s a particular building that’s long and has four hangar bays. Jets enter on one side and continue out the other side. Having that type of configuration in new construction, you would expect to have hangar doors that slide out of the way like barn doors or bi-fold doors. However, the existing hangar doors tilt up and then cause interior systems obstruction. The project went into construction before someone said: “When the hangar doors are open, they will extend into the hangar. We can’t put this up there, can’t put that in there.” You have to design for both of the doors to be open at the same time. I have to think of ways to accommodate existing facilities so the client does not have to upgrade expensive items like hangar doors. New construction brings in a whole set of requirements that don’t apply to existing facilities undergoing a minor upgrade.
One of the projects I’m working on is at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It’s an existing building. They’re adding on a whole new wing with server rack rooms and some office space. I had to consider the existing building that’s been there twenty to thirty years and how to feed the new building sprinklers with the existing system valves. I also needed to work out if the existing fire alarm system will work in the new building. I provided fire suppression system design, including hydraulic calculations for a new dry-pipe zone and extension of an existing two-zone dry pipe sprinkler system. The sprinkler systems were pressurized by a nitrogen generator instead of air to support longevity. I designed a clean agent suppression system for the server rack rooms with early warning aspirated smoke detection. I paid special attention to suppression options rated to -60 degrees Fahrenheit, offering minimal water hazards, and immediate automatic response.
AB: How do you use a creative approach to problem solving?
Ness: Renovation projects require creativity to make things work with what’s existing, yet meet the level of safety that the code requires. I will spend days with it creeping in and out of the back of my mind: “Oh no, this problem is still bothering me, there’s something not right.” I’ll just keep going back and back and then finally, ding! “Okay—we’re good, I feel good about this solution.”
AB: In your day-to-day work, what do you find the most challenging?
Ness: Making a project work within a budget, and keeping track of that budget. The usual challenge is having enough money in a project budget to do what we need to do properly. I can usually make things work within whatever space I have. The remaining bits I can work through and meet requirements.
AB: What do you find most fulfilling about your work?
Ness: That I am making things safer for people and hopefully they’ll never know it. They’ll never need to depend on it. But if something does go wrong, the system works properly and keeps people safe.
AB: Do you have any advice for someone looking to enter your field?
Ness: Keep asking questions! Look for mentors: find people that you respect, just in general, and start figuring out, first of all, why do you respect them? How can you emulate them? Ask them what drives them from day to day. Does that work for you? Start implementing that in your own life. Get involved in STEM activities; get involved in programs like the National Association of Women in Construction. I get involved with programs that support young ladies getting into construction fields. I’ve demonstrated to the Girl Scouts how a toilet works. One asked, “You’re a fire protection engineer, why did you do that?” Well, because I can’t bring a fire in here to show you how that works! [she laughs]. Girl Scouts are always very excited and ready to be knowledge sponges. They are encouraged to ask questions, but they also know when to listen.
AB: Is there a dream project you’d love to work on?
Ness: I’m already doing it! Honestly, variety is what I need and look for. That’s why I’m here. I’ve been building on what was already a strong discipline of engineering within PDC, and it’s getting stronger. I’ve been marketing the heck out of PDC since I got here.
AB: You like to be busy?
Ness: Yes, my husband says I feed off that. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy learning.
AB: If you had a pile of money to apply to any project to benefit Alaska, what would it be?
Ness: This isn’t necessarily specific to my discipline, but why can’t we look at alternate training topics to bring our labor force in Alaska in a new direction, like tech? We’ve got people all over the state that are excited about being able to do pipeline work, drilling, mining, and all the different stuff that goes in with the existing industries. But an alternative industry that expands the skills base for the state of Alaska? I see a state that could benefit from expanding into another industry or set of industries to diversify our skill set as a state. If I had a pile of money for a project, I would like to pursue research and development in fire protection engineering, perhaps working with existing cold-environment research sites like the one at Fort Greely. Cold weather equipment testing generally goes to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and rarely goes further. However, there are plenty of places around the world that regularly see temperatures well below that. Why not look at dry chemical and gaseous clean agent applications that work in a remote environment that gets very cold too? One of my first jobs was with Underwriters Laboratories. I loved being able to think about how a product might fail and pose hazards like overheating, electric shock, or physical injury and how to test for those. Then how to help the client improve design to prevent product failure.
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