Growing up in rural Virginia, John Lansing became fascinated with buildings and understanding how they worked after visiting New York City at age 10. It was love at first sight. As a teenager, Lansing knew he wanted to design buildings, but hadn't settled on whether to focus on architecture or engineering. After graduating with a degree in architectural engineering technology and getting some working experience, it became apparent there was a skill shortage for people knowledgeable about designing plumbing systems. He also felt it was one of the best places to address the environmental impact of buildings.
As a plumbing designer with Portland, Oregon-based PAE Consulting Engineers, Lansing brings a passion for sustainability to every project he works on, along with a knack for developing lasting relationships. Which is why he is PM Engineer’s 2021 Plumbing Engineer of the Year.
Changing the world, one sustainable building at a time
Lansing started his career in the industry 10 years ago in Richmond, Virginia, but he was drawn to Portland for a few reasons.
“Seeing the pioneering work of organizations like the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute and the construction of the Bulitt Center made the Pacific Northwest stand out as being at the forefront of the green building movement,” he says. “Being a part of this was a huge draw in moving to Portland, but the access to nature, incredible farmers markets and the walkable city is what sealed the deal for me. I can walk from my downtown apartment and be in the forest within just a few minutes, while also being within walking distance to the office. There’s also some groundbreaking new building requirements going into effect along the West Coast in general. One of the big ones that impacts plumbing is the prohibition of natural gas in new buildings. For the most part, new construction in Seattle and a grwoing number of cities in California cannot use natural gas.
“It’s something we really have to tackle in the plumbing industry because the lifecycle emissions and energy associated with the product and consumption of natural gas make it an incredibly inefficient energy source,” Lansing continues. “It's a carbon intesnvie fossil fuel that is responsible for nearly all direct emissions from buildings and poses many risks to building occupants — it really has no place at a 21st century building. There are highly efficient, zero emissions technologies available — like electric heat pump for water heatering and space heating, as well as induction stovetops — and we're seeing these technologies start to dominate the market along the West Coast. The transition off natural gas is a trend taking place globally as well.”
Lansing notes whenever he goes into a new project, he makes a point to tell his clients about the impact of natural gas, and that it’s not a necessary system to install.
“If you can eliminate the natural gas service to the building, that’s a huge cost savings,” Lansing explains. “As people look at retrofitting gas wate rheaters with electric heat pump water heaters, I think it's an important conversation to have. Clients are generally very interested in an all-electric building when given the option because it really boosts the value of the project.”
Lansing explains that while the transition off natrual gas to all-electric buildings is somewhat limited to certain areas of the country, as these green technologies (such as the heat pump) become more commonplace, this transition will likely spread to other areas of the country as well.
“Heat pumps are an overall better technology than traditional gas-fired equipment from an energy and carbon perspective, so as the price of the equipment comes down and newer and better products are hitting the market, people are becoming very interested,” Lansing notes. “Everyone wants a green building in the end, especially when the project can be brought within the client's budget. When that happens, they're all on board. I haven't run across anyone that thasn't been interested in that.”
Lansing is looking forward to eventually getting back into the office as construction is finalized at PAE's new office in downtown Portland's historic Old Town district, which aims to achieve net zero energy, water and carbon with the help of a rooftop PV array, a vacuum waste composting water closet system and 71,000 gallon rainwater cistern treated to potable water standards onsite. The project is seeking Living Building Challange certification, and will be the largest building certified in the world to date.
Lansing loves designing plumbing systems simply because every single project is unique and comes with its own set of challenges.
“It’s all about solving the unique challenges — it’s finding ways to optimize the performance from an energy, water and carbon perspective, and also from a cost perspective,” he says.
When it comes to new projects, engineers should really step back and look at the overall problem as opposed to taking a prescriptive approach, Lansing notes.
“We shouldn’t be using a piece of equipment or design approach just because that is what we’ve always done,” he says. “Really ask yourself, ‘Is there a better approach for this project?'”
Lansing prioritizes developing good relationships with his clients.
“It’s important to me to develop a good relationship with each person I meet because not only does it lead to a better project, it’s just a lot more fun for everyone,” he says. “I’ve also learned so much from side conversations I’ve had with architects on the phone. The same goes for contractors — I learn a lot about what they’re working on and the different challenges they deal with. Every single project I work on, I come out with friends in the end.”
One project Lansing is particularly proud of is an all-electric affordable housing apartment building in Portland that he completed last year. Lansing was able to advocate to really press the edges on reducing water consumption and water heating energy in the building.
“Centennial Place was a really great project — we used CO2 heat pump water heaters and a drain water heat recovery unit to capture the waste heat from the sanitary drainage to reheat the water heaters,” he explains. “It was also one of th efirst projects in the Northwest designed with IAPMO's new Water Demand Calculator, which allowed for smaller diameter water piping, translating to lower heat loss in the domestic hot water system.”
The thing Lansing is most proud of is a method he developed for calculating the flow for domestic hot water circulation circuits in 2013. The Product Ratio Method was then published in ASPE's “Plumbing Engineering Design Handbook, Volume 2.”
“I recently published an article talking about it in some more detail, and I think it’s important as we're talking about optimizing the energy efficiency of domestic hot water circulation systems, and of course, Legionella mitigation, which has been a somewhat neglected issue in practice.” Lansing says. “The Product Ration Method allows the designer to calculate the flow rate at each balancing valve for the system, using unique designations for each piping segment and the associated heat loss. These two sets of variables can be input into a spreadsheet to automatically calculate the flow for all piping segments, allowing for the system to be optimized to achieve better performance and reduce the diameter of the return piping, which translates to reductions in heating energy. This method can be used for predicting the flow rates of a system using thermostatic balancing valves or for finding what flow set-points to calibrate a system with manual balancing valves.”
Building lasting relationships
Lansing goes out of his way to create lasting relationships not only with his clients, but his industry colleagues as well. Christoph Lohr, P.E., CPD, LEED AP BD+C, ASSE 12080, vice president of strategic initiatives for IAPMO, and PM Engineer columnist, met Lansing virtually after reading his ASPE whitepaper on Legionella.
“John is an incredibly thoughtful and engaging engineer,” Lohr says. “His word is his bond, and as we've worked on several committees together, when he commits to getting something done he makes sure to do it. With John you always know that he is going to put in the time and energy, and thoroughly look for the best possible answer. He has a great way of combing theory and practicum into making great solutions. He doesn't just utilize rules of thumb, rather he looks for the underlying theoretical and mathematical reasons to provide a fully engineered solution. If you have read any of his articles for ASPE, you will quickly realize this.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know and working with John over the last several years on a number of initiatives and committees,” Lohr adds. “He's a wonderful addition to the plumbing engineering field.”
Rob Westphal, PE, CPD, LEED AP, is an associate with PAE’s Seattle office and works frequently with Lansing on projects.
“John is passionate about plumbing,” he says. “He is always looking to develop an excellent design that applies current ideas. He takes ownership of projects, takes them to completion and listens to client requests.”
Lansing met Andrew Flanagan PE, LEED AP, GPD, associate principal and senior plumbing engineer at Interface Engineering at a monthly technical meeting, hosted by the Portland ASPE Chapter. At the time, they worked for different companies, but later worked together at the same firm for three years collaborating on various plumbing design projects, technical design standards and whitepapers.
“John always showed a desire to know the code and the underlying science very well,” Flanagan says. “I enjoy that John will ask questions and discuss aspects of the original Hunter papers or nuanced aspects of ASHRAE Guideline 12; it always gives me a reason to dig into the details and history further. Working with John on plumbing design projects or plumbing standards, I became aware of just how much he’s interested in the plumbing design profession. Most people in the field have plumbing design as a job or a career. For John, it always felt like it was also his hobby. He read and discussed the original Hunters papers because they are interesting. He seized the opportunity to study plumbing design and the underlying science in the United Kingdom because he found the research fascinating. That level of interest shows through when I work with him. His level of interest and learning in plumbing design has been inspirational.”
Avishai Moscovich, P.Eng., LEED AP, CMO at reed, a hardware and software solution for commercial and multifamily water management, notes he met Lansing when his name popped up in a LinkedIn search for North American plumbing engineers.
“While the plumbing engineering industry is mostly traditional and slow to change and adapt to new technologies, John is open to learning of new technologies and applications from the market,” Moscovich says. “As a manufacturer looking for feedback from a design engineer, I found John to have a broad perspective on the requirements of the market demand, the available technologies and the needs of his clients. He also gave good insights into what he and his peers are expecting from a vendor. The insights and advice were useful to me in understanding the market players. Working with John on a few projects, I always see him trying his best to suggest new technologies to the clients and striving to provide the best service.”
Moscovich also points out that many engineers know their local codes very well, but Lansing has a vast knowledge of national codes across nations and markets.
“He actually wrote a code comparison article last year, which illustrates the knowledge depth,” he adds. “Last year, John gave me some great advice on processes and associations when I was looking to submit a technical edit to the 2020 ASPE Plumbing Design Handbook, which attests to his role in the plumbing engineering industry.”
Nhat Nguyen, a plumbing engineer with GTechCon, located in Hanoi, Vietnam, also met Lansing on LinkedIn after posting the details of a plumbing system issue on an engineering group forum. Lansing was the very first person to answer his question, which led to an in-depth discussion on plumbing. The two have kept in touch on various engineering topics ever since.
“I appreciate John the most for his kindness and patience,” Nguyen says. “Anytime I have an engineering problem in my work, the first person I seek for help is John, not only because he is an expert in our field, but also that he is always happy to help. Despite my weak English capability, he explains patiently until I understand.
“His characteristics make him different from many engineers I have known in my career,” he continues. “Firstly, John is eager to learn. Living in the most advanced country in the world, but he still studies about plumbing systems in other territories, including developing countries such as Vietnam. Secondly, he helps to solve my engineering problems in a devoted way, unconditionally. Finally, although he is much more professional and experienced than me by far, he still welcomes my opinions. Not long ago, John sent me an article to read and asked for my opinion. I had some comments on this and he really appreciated them.”
Plumbing all over the world
As many of his colleagues mention above, Lansing has devoted a lot of time studying plumbing systems all over the world. Early on in his career, he designed plumbign systems for U.S. Embassies and Consulates.
“Working on U.S. Embassy projects gave me the opportunity to work with unique climates and design conditions, and also got me familiar with using the International System of Units,” Lansing says. “There's a lot of emphasis on sustainability with U.S. Embassies, sometimes including targets like net zero water and net zero energy.”
He has also always been drawn to the differences between plumbing design practices and how they vary from country to country.
“I’m amazed by how much there is to learn from reading design guidance from other countries,” he says. “For example, lower water pressure is common in many other countries, which saves a lot of energy. Some countries, such as France and Vietnam, use separate drainage piping for grey water and soil water drainage. I’ve also had a lot of great opportunities to develop relationships with plumbing engineers abroad.”
Lansing received a World Plumbing Council scholarship before the pandemic to travel to the United Kingdom and study British plumbing engineering for three weeks.
“I got to meet a lot of really great people, and it was an incredible learning experience,” he says. “I documented the main differences I found to be the most interesting between plumbing engineering inthe U.S. and U.K. in a paper, which can be read on the World Plumbing Council website.”
Lansing also has a collection of plumbing engineering standards and guidelines from different countries written in a number of different languages. At the moment, he is spending a lot of time studying plumbing in China. And while he doesn’t speak Chinese, his translator app on his smartphone helps with the language barrier.
“I can hold my phone over the book and it translates everything live on the screen,” he says. “We're seeing water stress grow throughout the world, and climate projectsions indicate this trend to continue over the coming decades. The U.S. is seeing significant impacts of water stress int he western half of the country, and we're seeing more buildings designed to reduce and reuse water to compensate. Additionally, decarbonizing buildings is an essential part of meeting climate obligations. These are the two largest problems are industry has had to tackle in forever. So learning about how other countries approach the same problems differently can offer some valuable solutions to new problems. For example, single stack vent systems, also known as primary ventilated stack or Philadelphia stack, is commonly used in multistory buildings in other countries in place of individual vent piping at each fixture or wet vent configurations.”
This configuration hasn't become widespread in the U.S.
“As a result, we use more vent piping for sanitary drainage systems than pretty much anywhere else in the world without necessarilty offering better trap seal protection from transient airflow,” he says. “Part of this is a result of the theory written into our plumbing codes being based on research from the 1940s and earlier. The single stack system basically allows you to eliminate the vent piping from the fixtures without impacting water seal protection, as long as the fixture drains are connected to a stack extending through the roof. After making a few modifications to the single stack configuration featured int eh appendix of the UPC, I reached out to the Portland ASPE Chapter to pull together some funds for Dr. Michael Gormley at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, who I met during my study in 2019, to investigate this further. He did some drainage modeling for us, illustrating that this single stack configuration will maintain — and in some cases, exceed — the performance of the code prescriptive conventional sanitary stack.”
Lansing worked with the ASPE Legislative Committee to further refine the modifications to submit to IAPMO’s Uniform Plumbing Code Technical Committee for a proposal to the 2024 edition of the UPC.
Given his vast network of engineering contacts worldwide, Lansing stresses being involved with industry associations — like ASPE — is fundamental for plumbing engineering professionals.
“Being involved with ASPE was instrumental to my development early on, and still is today,” he says. “Taking a few moments to regularly read through the “Plumbing Engineering Design Handbooks,” and reading journal articles like those in PM Engineer magazine comes with a big payoff when it comes to learning about designing plumbing systems. It’s collective industry knowledge. And participating in the ASPE local chapters is important, too, because you get to meet colleagues working in your city, solving similar problems. I think in a technical profession, that’s one of the most important things to do — break the boundaries and engage across social bubbles. Whether it's the technical community within your own company, city, state, country or within the international community, engagement on all levels is really valuable for exposure to a wide range of information.”
For now, Lansing will continue learning about international plumbing systems and playing his newly acquired bass flute, which just so happens to look like a big pipe. He has this advice for aspiring plumbing engineers: “Do it! This field never ceases to be interesting. Each year that goes by, we’re doing something different because plumbing engineering encompasses a wide range of building systems. And there are so many new methods and technologies that are really making an impact on decarbonization and addressing water stress — it’s an exciting time to be in this field.”