Name:Nancy Kohout

Title: Principal/Mechanical Discipline Leader, SmithGroup

Age: 48

Educational Experience: Bachelor of science in mechanical engineering (BSME), Ohio State University

Professional Credentials/Accreditations:Professional engineer (P.E.), LEED Accredited Professional - Building Design and Construction (LEED AP BD+C)

Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards:Chair of Women in ASHRAE subcommittee for the Illinois Chapter of ASHRAE; treasurer of SmithGroup’s Toastmasters chapter; and leadership advisory council member, SmithGroup


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

I spent many hours helping my father with projects in the garage and I’ve always had an interest in architecture. My high school physics teacher, Mr. Eberst, saw potential in me and always challenged me with the most difficult questions. Since I had both an interest and a talent in physics, my mother encouraged me to try engineering. She was right — I loved engineering.


What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?

I love problem-solving and learning from people with different perspectives, such as designers, contractors, commissioning agents, building engineers, and building automation professionals. I also love collaborating with people so that the design is the best of what every team member contributed. Integrated project delivery, where the contractors are on the project at the very beginning, is my favorite project type. I love that I can ask my trade partners to price all of my ideas very early in design to deliver the best value for the client.


Describe the proudest moment in your career.

I had worked for many years with the goal of being a part of company ownership and never was given that opportunity at my previous employer. After my first year at SmithGroup, I felt very honored and valued when I was elevated to principal in 2019.



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?

It can be a challenge to work in a male-dominated field. Although I cherish all my male colleagues, there have been moments when I felt very alone as the only woman in the room. There have also been times I felt I had less opportunity because I was a working mom or because I took maternity leave. To increase the number of women in engineering, we need to advocate for flexibility and work to build a good pipeline of female engineers. We also need to be supportive of each other and make the engineering world a place where women feel comfortable and valued.


What does your day-to-day job entail?

I spend most of my time assigning work, figuring out how to deliver projects, helping solve engineering problems, coaching and developing engineers, putting together proposals, and communicating with clients and/or project teams. No two days are alike.


What drives/motivates you every day?

I love seeing engineers grow and develop and working on cool projects. I’m on a project team currently working on two projects with a national laboratory to recover heat from a process loop and a supercomputer loop and utilize it for building heating and reheat to significantly reduce their carbon footprints. I’m also working on a workplace transformation project for an automobile manufacturer that is almost 500,000 square feet in size. I have been a part of a team that is helping clients imagine the future of the office post-pandemic, and we think it will be forever changed for the better.


How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?

COVID-19 has turned me into a work-from-home mother who works full time and also manages children in remote school. It has been crazy, but I am able to have dinner with my family every night, which is a nice benefit. SmithGroup provides excellent technology, which makes us nimble, flexible, and paperless, so it hasn’t been that much of a transition to do my work. That said, I do really miss our fabulous office culture and our view overlooking the Chicago River.


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

I’d like to design and complete construction on a building with radiant cooling in the slab and displacement ventilation. I’d also like to design a building that achieves WELL certification.



For access to more podcast episodes, click here.


What’s one thing no one knows about you?

I have pretty decent carpentry skills and have built custom closets and a pantry in my 100-year-old bungalow that look like they were a part of the original woodwork.


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

For many years, I worked with Deirdre McDaniel of Salas O’Brien, an MEP engineering firm. She was a smart and strong working mother in a company leadership role who influenced me most by modeling the qualities of a great leader.


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

Take a seat at the table. Ask for what you want. Advocate for yourself and others. Don’t apologize unless you really made a mistake. Understand that your diverse perspective as a woman engineer helps make design better. Get involved in professional organizations, get a mentor, and aim to be a mentor someday. Build relationships and then leverage them to advocate for change and make your voice heard.