At 17 years old, a man working concessions asked Chris Winnie what he wanted to be when he grew up. Winnie responded that he wasn’t sure, but he was good at math. The man looked him up and down, and said, “mechanical engineer.” The very next week, Winnie applied to several engineering schools and was accepted.

“It was the most unsolicited advice ever — I just followed it, and here I am,” Winnie says laughing.

Following that random advice seems to have worked out pretty well for Winnie. He’s now a mechanical engineer with SmithGroup in Chicago. His strategic approach on projects as well as his eagerness to learn new tools and educate others in turn have nabbed him honors as PM Engineer’s 2020 Mechanical Engineer of the Year.



Winnie is known to his industry colleagues as someone who is helpful, knowledgeable and goes above and beyond. Photos courtesy of SmithGroup. 


Continuing education

After college, Winnie began working for an MEP firm doing roughly 30 projects a year, mostly for restaurant and retail clients. 

“It’s a high volume, but I was able to learn a lot about the codes in why you do things a certain way and how to identify issues before they become an issue,” he explains. “I got a lot of great experience seeing a project through from start to finish because they were six month timeframes. Here at SmithGroup, the timelines are more like one to five years with design and construction. The knowledge I gained at that first firm has applied greatly here.”

The thing Winnie loves most about being a mechanical engineer is problem solving.

“I love the problem solving aspects of the job,” he says. “There’s also continuous learning — I’m always curious about how things work and why they work. Then, there’s also that sense of purpose —a greater sense of purpose for what I’m doing and why.”

Winnie is involved in five practices at SmithGroup, including healthcare, science and technology, higher education, office/workplace and something he coins as “parkitecture.”

“It’s architecture in parks,” he explains. “I hybrid it and call it ‘parkitecture.’ SmithGroup officially calls it 'site design.' Regarding the other practices, science and technology and higher education mix together with laboratory components, though they each have their own intricacies. I’m also getting a lot more exposure to medical gas systems in healthcare. Science and technology use a lot of compressed air in many different ways, and it’s been a lot of fun to understand and learn about new things.

When I get introduced to a new project, I’ll sometimes be thinking to myself, ‘I’ve never done that before,’” Winnie continues. “But I’m not really worried about it, it’s more about excitement in learning something new and diving into something I haven’t done before. Then, when the project goes out for bid or permit, when it’s out of my hands, it’s fun to look back on those first days of notes. I go back to the first day and I wonder: ‘What was I thinking on day one of this project?’ And I get that appreciation of how far I’ve come not knowing anything to knowing the whole building and system inside and out. It’s very cool and rewarding to see the progress as I go.”


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The thing Chris Winnie, mechanical engineer at SmithGroup’s Chicago office, loves most about being an engineer is problem solving. Photo courtesy of SmithGroup

Answering the call

Winnie always had an interest in teaching, but wanted nothing to do with K-12.However, when the Illinois Institute of Technology needed an adjunct professor to teach plumbing design, he answered the call.

“Last summer, IIT needed someone on short notice,” Winnie says. “They reached out to my boss at SmithGroup, and she extended the offer to me. I co-teach with another professor that works here at SmithGroup – he teaches fire protection, and I handle plumbing design. I like that it takes you back to basics — you have to step back further than you would for someone who is entry level. It's been a great learning adventure for me. It's going to help me when I mentor new hires because I will know where they are at and help them find their way quicker. Teaching has been pretty awesome to get into.”   


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Not afraid to get dirty

Nancy Kohout, P.E., LEED AP BD+C, principal and mechanical discipline leader for SmithGroup’s Chicago office, has worked with Winnie for more than two years.

“Chris can handle having many projects simultaneously with ease,” she notes. “He is a great delegator and has a strategic approach to accomplishing his projects. He goes above and beyond in learning how to use new tools and sharing his knowledge. He has a great attitude and impacts his teammates in a positive way. He is a pleasure to have on our team!”

PM Engineer Columnist Ethan Grossman, P.E., CPD, plumbing and fire-protection discipline leader at SmithGroup’s Boston office, has known Winnie since he joined the company two years ago.

“I really like his attitude — above all, he is helpful and knowledgeable,” Grossman says. “Anytime I’ve asked him for help, he has always provided an additional perspective, something I didn’t think of. From what I’ve seen, Chris isn’t afraid to get his ‘hands dirty’ and do what needs to be done. At the same time, he gives opportunities to others and doesn’t hesitate to delegate.”

Phil Traynor, CSP, outside sales, Herkowski Stickler & Associates in Bensenville, Illinois, is actually a former high school football rival of Winnie’s. The two faced off against each other at a state championship, one that Winnie’s team happened to win. However, the two didn’t actually meet until an ASPE golf outing about five years ago.  

 “Chris is a great, real person that gives a lot of his time to better the industry,” Traynor says. “I am very glad he works in Chicago as he makes me a better rep. Bouncing ideas and questions off one another, I believe helps the both of us stay informed. Chris is always ready to learn and has never been scared to ask for a solution for his clients.

“For instance, at the beginning of COVID-19, Chris had a project at Kansas City University Dental School in Joplin, Missouri,” he adds. “He wanted to offer his client an innovative touchless architectural SwirlFlo bottle filling station that was nota standard product at the time. We worked with the Elkay customs department and now it's a part of their Touchless Portfolio. 


DI Water System

A DI water system designed by Winnie. Photos courtesy of Chris Winnie.


Keys to success

According to Winnie, his No. 1 goal on a project is to ensure the owner, contractors and coworkers are happy.

“The project team is usually all in-house, with a few sub consultants outside,” he notes. “Usually, I check in with all of them, and we have good coordination and communication to make sure all those gray areas are covered, ‘Is this your scope, or is it my scope?’ When they’re all covered, I feel good about it, and that’s my goal.”

Winnie has noticed in recent years that owners are more knowledgeable and in the loop than previously.

“They get why we are doing things the way we are and how we are specifying,” he says. “That's great because the facilities have preferences of which manufacturers are specified — sometimes they’ve had bad experiences with certain manufacturers, and they tell us not to use that specific one. There’s a lot of great manufacturers out there for most products, and they can help narrow it down to what they prefer. It just goes back to keeping your client happy. Getting that feedback early on is very helpful.”

They key to a successful project is communication, Winnie notes.

“That’s a general thing, but I’m always curious about why things need to be done the way that they are, or why something is requested,” he says.

“What’s great at SmithGroup is I can sit next to anyone in any of the nine design disciplines in the Chicago office. Pre-COVID-19, we had agile seating. I was able to sit next to people I don’t normally talk to and hear them talking about my projects or their own projects. What I learn is applied going forward.”

One project Winnie is particularly proud of is a dental school for Kansas City University, which recently went out for construction.

“This project was unique because the dental chairs were on slab-on-grade,” he explains. “Where the chair was mounted, six inches below that was dirt because it's just sitting on the slab — there was no basement. The building was being built on top of bedrock — there’s a lot of stone. I learned a lot on this project. Dental vacuum is a gravity system —it doesn’t want to flow up. If you think of where the chair is located, it wants to roll downhill, like a boulder. There is also an air/water separator, which means you need a mechanical room or basement to put it in.

"I had to work with the architect, structural and civil engineers — between the four of us, we were able to deduce we could put a giant pit into the mechanical room we had on the lowest level,” Winnie adds. “The pit is pretty much the depth of what a basement level would be, but it’s only at that depth in that location. The structural engineer was able to put in grade beams called drilled piers so we could have piping underneath all the grade beams without any issues. In other states, you cannot go below the foundation because the use of spread footings would crush your pipes and your pit. 
"We did something on this project I feel like no one's ever done before just so we didn't have any vertical dental vacuum pipes because they would have clogging issues," he notes. "I was pretty proud of this solution.”

A changing landscape

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact to the industry, changing the way business gets done, Winnie notes.

“It's driven us to be remote — I'm not in the office, I'm in my house,” he says. “Virtual collaboration is now the norm.What's actually been helpful from my perspective is I've been virtual for three years now because of all the work I've been doing through the Smith GroupDetroit office. I had to learn the ropes back when I first started to stay connected with my team members over there when they are 300 miles away from Chicago.”

Winnie recommends three things to stay collaborative: BlueBeam Studio, OneNote and virtual face-to-face interaction. 

“I’m a bit of a BlueBeam champion here at SmithGroup,” he says. “I teach a class to SmithGroup people every couple of months and show them the ins and outs.”

Revit has also changed the way mechanical engineers design projects, Winnie points out.

“When I first started in the industry, you would supplement your floor pans with a 2D riser diagram to show the entire system on a single sheet,” he explains. “While we still do that, I’m finding with Revit and the advancements it presents, now you can use Revit smart features with all of the other models, like the architecture and the equipment planners’ model all linked in with yours. You can do an isometric of a typical room, and the most common one I use it for is for patient rooms. There will be 70 to 100 patient rooms that are all the same configuration. I'll do an isometric for a room, and I'll model all piping down to the last elbow all the way to where it wants to go. From linked Revit models, I'll show the patient bed, head wall, walls, cabinetry and plumbing fixtures, and it's just a huge labor saver. And, I'm finding a lot less RFIs when I use that approach, which is great for everyone.”

Getting involved

Winnie has been an ASPE member for the past six years.

“It’s great to get with industry folks outside of work, because I can tell them work stories and they get it and laugh about it,” he says. “We can talk about our designs and maybe someone else has done something similar. You get that appreciation that maybe you don’t get back at home. Additionally, it’s great to meet up and learn about new products. I’m spoiled because I think Chicago’s ASPE is one of the top chapters in the nation. They bring in all of these great reps to introduce new products, and there's a lot of engagement to continue to learn. That’s been great.”

Winnie advises new engineers to get involved with ASPE early because it helps form industry connections and provides new learning opportunities.

“At IIT, I start every class by looking at the students and empowering them,” Winnie adds. “I tell them, ‘You guys are aspiring to be engineers; you need to think of yourselves as engineers. Engineers are leaders in everything they do because we have every stakeholder in the project’s best interest in mind.’ I want them to be leaders in everything they do. I empower them to think of themselves as leaders from that moment going forward. I tell that spiel to anyone who will listen to me.”