2016 pme Plumbing Engineer of the Year: exp's Eric Knauth, P.E.
Making an early impression in the plumbing engineering world.
Eric Knauth, P.E., took his first steps on the path to becoming an engineer many years ago by extensively playing with his Legos as a kid in Watertown, Wis.
Today, the 36-year-old Knauth is the head of the plumbing department at the Maitland, Fla., office of worldwide engineering firm exp. His career is in the fast lane.
Knauth initially did not expect to put down roots in the Orlando suburb, but came to exp soon after graduating from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Knauth was not coming to exp alone either.
“There were four of us that graduated together and all took a job,” he recalls. “When you are moving 1,200 miles away and have three other people you know (coming with you), it is great.”
Thanks in part to a strong mentor during his time at MSOE, Knauth gravitated toward the plumbing and fire protection side of the industry during college and after joining exp.
“Mike Hassler, the professor who was both plumbing and fire protection, he was a great guy and I related with him,” he says. “He’s retired now, but he was a great professor, really down to earth and I loved his classes. I took his elective classes and it steered me in that direction.”
Knauth cut his teeth at exp by developing projects such as a new health-care facility in Lancaster, Pa., and two hospital emergency department additions in the heart of central Florida.
“I learned I liked the plumbing side more than fire protection,” he says. “At our company, we are large enough that we have separate fire protection and plumbing departments, whereas a lot of MEP engineers are combined, and with some the mechanical also is combined with plumbing and fire protection. We are large enough that they are separate departments and that pushed me toward plumbing.”
In the deep end
At exp, Knauth quickly realized how different being in the industry is to being in the classroom. “The amount of stuff you learn on the job vs. college is a night and day difference,” he says. “In college, you learned how to learn; you become book smart. You learn all the formulas and more. But, once you get out in the working world, all the formulas have already been applied to the charts, tables and graphs that you would frequently use.”
Since Knauth does so much work in the entertainment and hospitality industry, particularly amusement parks and the resorts that complement them, water efficiency and savings is of keen interest to the owners.
“There are some clients where they will build a facility and are the ones that will hold onto it for years to come,” he says. “They are more energy and life-cycle-cost driven.”
On top of that, many of the clients Knauth works with put the customer experience as one of their highest priorities. Locally in central Florida where developers continually try to one-up the last innovative building or theme park attraction, Knauth recently was put to the test.
This particular hospitality complex featured 20 two-bedroom, two-bathroom residences that were built on stilts and hovered over the water. “Think of the pictures you might see of Bora Bora or Tahiti,” he notes.
Knauth had to dig deep into his playbook to create and intricate wastewater removal system. The toughest challenge was in the slope of the buildings and using gravity drainage.
“You could not slope it because if you slope too much, the waste piping will end up in the water,” he explains. “Also, you are going to see the piping underneath the boardwalk to each of these units.”
Having pipes visible to its guests would have been deemed unacceptable to the client so Knauth focused in on two possible approaches:
Provide each bungalow with a sump pump to remove the waste; or
A complete vacuum drainage system for each unit.
Knauth went with the second option, but had to fine-tune that approach to avoid an institutional-looking and functioning bathroom in a high-end resort.
“We went with the typical plumbing fixtures with everything gravity-drained to a central accumulator underneath each unit,” he says. “From the accumulator is where the vacuum system begins and then from the central accumulator it extracts the waste back to a central vacuum plant.”
With the developer in lock-step, Knauth went ahead and provided the facility an innovative system that performs up to its billing.
“It was very challenging throughout the design because of all the nuances, as well as never having designed a system like that before. There was a lot to take into account,” he says.
Knauth has done a litany of work on international projects including applications in China, South Korea, Dubai, Qatar, Vietnam and throughout the Caribbean. At exp, Knauth takes the majority of his international work through the schematic-design and design-development phases. Then the firm hands it off to the local engineer and contractor because of their better understanding of the location. Still, navigating and making sure his and the company’s designs are compliant with the local codes is taxing work through peer reviews of the final documents.
For the projects in the Caribbean, construction documents typically are produced, and exp stays on the project throughout construction.
“When you go international it opens up Pandora’s Box to many more codes,” he notes. “We take the projects through design development and then hand them off. We will do what is best for the project up to that point.”
Paul Davis, Armstrong Fluid Technology’s North American account manager for Marriott, has worked with Knauth on nearly 30 projects.
“On all those projects I have worked with Eric, we never have returned to any of them for any issues. And we are still in contact with all of them,” Davis says. “They are very well done and very well-piped. Whenever you put a digital mixing valve in, start it up and have it work for five, six and seven years without an issue says a lot about the designer that put it in.”
In the group
Knauth immediately joined the American Society of Plumbing Engineers after graduation in 2002, holding board member positions off and on since 2005. Knauth was president of the ASPE Central Florida Chapter from 2009-2011. He served as the co-chair for the 2013 ASPE Technical Symposium and currently he is the vice president-technical of the chapter and the chair for its annual sporting clay tournament fundraiser shoot.
“It has been great,” Knauth says about being an involved ASPE member. “It helps build your network and your opportunities. As a board member, you get to travel to different symposiums, conventions, as well as the president’s meetings for the region. That helps you build those relationships and to learn more about the industry as a whole.”
Knauth was on the initial phone calls and planning meetings for ASPE’s young professionals group called AYP. The group is for under-35 professionals to meet, share experiences and discuss ideas about the industry. Unfortunately, Knauth’s schedule got too intense and he aged-out of the program.
Still, he is proud AYP got off the ground and now is thriving. “AYP is something the society needs,” Knauth states. “The average age of an ASPE member is in the upper 50s and it keeps going up every year.”
A true leader
It would be fair to wonder if having the young Knauth in a prominent leadership role at exp — where more tenured plumbing designers work under him — would cause issues within the exp’s plumbing department. Not according to Doug Summers, a designer who has been with exp for nearly 24 years.
“There is the designer/engineer role and the management role. He’s wearing both hats,” Summers says. “The management portion is not something where a lot of people want to deal with that extra stress and pressure. Eric deals with it quite well.
“Over the years, I have admired the fact he stepped up into this role. He accepted the role and all the headaches and heartaches that come with it. I am most impressed that he has the ability to say no and to make decisions that most of us would rather not be making.”
Knauth became the head of exp’s plumbing department in 2008 and enjoys the role, which includes quality assurance, quality control, project staffing, department staffing, training and mentoring designers in other exp offices throughout the U.S.
“It is a very technical role,” he notes. “I am in between the mentoring of other designers, the quality control and the quality assurance of everybody in the department – all the while maintaining my own designs.”
exp Vice President Bill McGuire looked Knauth’s way to lead other offices within the company and has leaned on him to communicate directives from the top. And according to McGuire, those messages are being well-received.
“Eric is a very comfortable individual; he’s not arrogant or cocky. He is good clay,” McGuire says. “He’ll hear you out, too. He does not have to be the loudest voice in the room or the first one to speak. That is really important.”
Knauth runs regular quality assurance reviews with his staff on all the project documents completed by exp designers. The designs are reviewed to make sure they meet all code requirements, owner standards and to ensure the project meets the design intent for the application.
“We have a handful of architects that we do projects with time and again,” Knauth states. “We want to maintain a quality product so we maintain our relationships and continue working with that client.”
Ray Clark, a principal at exp, is a witness to Knauth’s ability to stay level-headed for the good of the department and the firm. “As a leader here, he is not obstinate,” Clark states. “He is willing to talk through certain issues with people that may provide some additional information. He is not one of those guys who says, ‘This is how I have done it for 15 years and this is the way we are going to continue to do it.’ He is a great guy to have on your staff.”
Lee Thompson came to exp after leaving his home state of Pennsylvania not too long after Knauth arrived back in 2002. They became good friends who enjoy going clay pigeon shooting when there is some free time away from the office. Thompson appreciates all the mentoring he’s received from Knauth.
“He is a lot more knowledgeable than most people I have met in the plumbing industry,” Thompson says. “It makes things easier for me. I have been places where the department heads are more hands-off and finger-pointers when something goes wrong. Eric is not that by any means.”
On occasion, Knauth and Thompson will hop in the car together and make an ASPE meeting. Thompson says since he moved to central Florida it has been incredibly beneficial to have Knauth at his side at industry events such as ASPE meetings.
“When I moved here, I did not know anyone,” Thompson states. “You do not know who the rep is for any particular product you are looking for. With Eric being an active member of ASPE, he knows everyone. It helps for our whole department because they can ask Eric questions.”
Knauth can’t stress enough how impressed he is to see Thompson grow as plumbing designer at exp. “He has grabbed onto his career and blossomed with it,” Knauth says. “He is a great asset to our company. He goes above and beyond to make sure his designs are perfect.”
Matt Clark, the vice president of sales and marketing at Orlando-based manufacturers rep Spirit Group, always appreciates the amount of attention Knauth gives his team.
“I always have to remind myself that engineers have billable time and we have to respect that as a salesperson going in,” Clark notes. “Some engineers are difficult to get time in front of. Eric is never that way. When I have a manufacturer in town, he’ll get everyone in his department to come out and listen about all the new products.”
For a 30-year industry veteran such as Armstrong’s Davis, he knows elite when he sees it. And he sees just that in Knauth.
“I deal with a lot of engineers and 99% are good guys, but you have got that 1% that are one cut above everyone else,” Davis says. “I knew Eric as that designer just out of college and have watched him grow. I watched him get his P.E. license after three or four years. That’s phenomenal. He’s in that 1% of engineers. I am very fortunate to know him.”
This is only the beginning for Knauth. He still has so much more to learn and do in his career.
“I have been very fortunate thus far in my career to work with a bunch of great people, not only within the department but also the company,” he says. “Their knowledge and guidance has helped me become the engineer I am today. I look forward to continuing to work with these individuals on the exciting and challenging projects that we have here at exp.”
This article was originally titled “Making an early impression” in the September 2016 print edition of PM Engineer.