Jane is my mother-in-law. The very first time I met her I was a quasi-insufferable (she might drop the quasi) college senior wooing the affections of her eldest daughter. It was Election Day 1988 and the first question Jane asked me was whom did I vote for. I responded with what I thought was the only answer a reasonable adult could give. She looked me square in the eye and simply rejoined, "And you feel good about that decision?" Thus was the beginning of our relationship.

I regale you with this little anecdote because it turns out Jane and I are pretty close as far as in-laws go, and over the last decade or so she has been a positive influence in my life. To my credit, her delight, and my wife's disappointment, I have not been the rebellious influence on her daughter I could have been. And in her column, you have to chalk up a few points to the "bark worse than her bite" factor. The point, however, is that she has instructed me by challenging me.

Now, unless you are interested in marrying one of her daughters (one is still available) or going back to kindergarten (where she teaches), you cannot avail yourself of Jane's wisdom. But within ASHRAE there roam the professional equivalents of an uncompromising mother-in-law: Practitioners of the black HVAC arts, who kick us in the technical shin, challenge our notions of what is right and wrong, and stress our obligation to overcome our technological lethargy. Three of these provocateurs are Peter Simmonds, Stanley Mumma, and Bill Coad.

Over the last year I have had the honor and obligation to ride herd on Dr. Peter Simmonds as he and his firm, IBE (Van Nuys, CA,) developed the mechanical design for a modern Los Angeles office building incorporating a 430-ft-tall atrium. The design implements displacement ventilation, chilled ceilings, and chilled floors. That's right, chilled floors. Simmonds' confidence can either be infectious or obnoxious, depending on whether you are in his corner or not.

But what is undeniable is that he has challenged the entire design team, including the architects, program managers, commissioning agents, and endusers to push the frontier and to redefine the cutting edge of HVAC design. What can be disquieting - no, downright frightening - is that when you forge ahead, you quite often outrun your resources, which in this case is simulation software. That's when sheer chutzpah comes in to play, of which Simmonds has no lack.

In Atlanta, a few years ago, frequent ES author Dr. Stanley Mumma, at the ASHRAE Winter Meeting, proudly proclaimed the end of an era. The paradigm of integrated ventilation and air conditioning systems was shattered. The bold new future would be DOAS and decoupled sensible cooling systems. And the cooling system he advocated was chilled ceilings, no less (What's the deal with pioneers and radiant cooling?).

Well, as far as paradigms go, integrated HVAC systems have proven to be tough to eradicate. And like Simmonds, Mumma ran into roadblocks from established and respectable sources within our community. How do you overcome the status quo? Well, in Mumma's case, he put his theory into practice in an unforgiving and leaky college classroom building at the Pennsylvania State University. You can see the status of the project, real time, at http://doas-radiant.psu.edu/. FYI, it's working.

The last seer is Bill Coad. Coad was the president of ASHRAE a few years ago but before that, he had the honor of being my boss. No treehugger he, Coad had been implementing, advocating, writing about, and teaching what he referred to as the "energy ethic" long before terms like sustainable, integrated, and high performance had entered the HVAC lexicon.

He would be the first to admit he didn't do these things just to save the earth or even save a buck. He did these things because they made sense and they were simply good engineering. Coad's ASHRAE inaugural address wasn't scratched out on a napkin the night before in some pub. It was a reflection of his long-held belief that we must rise above mediocrity when he said, " Engineering evolution without innovation will assure obsolescence ... ."

Most of us don't work on sexy, high-profile projects like Simmonds, Coad, and Mumma. Instead we toil on strip malls, office buildings, and painful renovations of cruddy old buildings. But here comes the beauty part. You can see and hear these guys and other innovators at this year's ASHRAE Meeting in Anaheim. And for the price of admission, perhaps you can be made uncomfortable enough that you step outside your comfort zone and advance the science a step or two, in your neck of the woods.

A closing thought on those who may challenge you. Each summer our families gather for Memorial Day. Jane hands me a pair of shears and sends me to her herb garden to fetch fresh spearmint for the iced tea. My green moniker not withstanding, I haven't a clue what spearmint looks like. So every year, I come back with some noxious weed or blade of grass, to the amusement of my mother-in-law. Sometimes when they challenge you, it's a noble thing. But if there is pointing and laughter involved, chances are they are just being ornery. ES