There was a time when HVAC consulting engineering firms had a stand-alone HVAC department with a registered professional engineer as the department head. This individual was the designated leader of the department responsible for hiring and terminating (I don’t think you can fire anyone any more), oversaw the engineers managing the design projects, and usually met once a week to review all the active jobs with these engineers in charge of the projects. The department head was also accountable for maintaining the standard office details and contract specifications, design review of projects, and keeping the technical library and codebooks current.

Annually, the department head was responsible for employee reviews and salary increases, and some department heads would help employees set goals. In-house educational programs, scheduling lunch-and-learn noontime classes, and approval to authorize an employee to attend an equipment manufacturer’s factory requiring overnight stay were three more responsibilities of the HVAC department head.

Back around the late 1970s, many consulting engineering firms began to decentralize their HVAC departments into HVAC groups. Each group had a designated leader and, in many ways, became a company within a company. There were several reasons for this dissecting of the entire HVAC department into smaller groups beginning with the need for companies to retain senior engineers by offering them responsibilities beyond their job descriptions.

With only one HVAC department head per company, senior staff recognized that further advancement was limited because of this single management employee position in the company. As a result, these other skilled employees, who were anxious to take on more responsibilities and earn more money each year, could be enticed to leave one company for another company. Enter the group leaders.

This concept took off through the 80s, 90s, and into the 21st century and has become the norm rather than the exception resulting in the HVAC department head becoming an overhead cost to the firm with little to no billable time for these individuals. In many ways, the HVAC department head was quietly being pushed aside from clients now holding these individual group leaders accountable for the company’s performance. The department heads were becoming people in charge of office policy and procedure but without a department of workers to manage.

These groups took on more responsibility as mini companies took on many of the responsibilities that were once department head tasks, such as hiring and terminating, employee reviews, etc. This raised the question, “Why do we need this 20th century company management position?”

Going forward, what if consulting firms outsourced the remaining responsibilities of the HVAC department head? The same could be applied to the electrical, plumbing, and fire protection department heads whom have also seen the individuals in their groups be absorbed into these HVAC mini companies, giving each group full mechanical and electrical group capabilities. With no stand-alone department heads, think of the overall financial savings for a company.

Now I’m not recommending a company simply let a very knowledgeable professional be pushed into retirement. Heck, I’m 72 years young and still active in the HVAC industry, but what if these former department heads created their own quality control consulting companies? Each former department head could serve a select few mechanical and electrical consulting engineering companies, as well as construction companies, and provide many of the services they offered in the past such as:

  1. Establishing an online library of required technical books e.g., ASHRAE handbooks, guidelines, standards;
  2. Maintain a building code library and be the on-call code expert; and
  3. Provide technical training to companies interested in offering practitioner education e.g., conceptual design, budget estimating, time management, etc.

In addition, these resident experts are most likely qualified to provide expert witness consulting, be an adviser to law firms involved with the building industry, and provide third-party PEER (peer; a person of the same legal status) review to mention three opportunities.      

If one thinks about this concept, then it should become clear that this could be a win-win for company and department heads. There will be significant upfront financial savings for companies to outsource their department head responsibilities. For those 20th century department heads, there should also be financial opportunities for them in this 21st century building industry beginning with their first clients most likely being their previous employers.