Kelvin Kennedy has been in the plumbing engineering industry for 38 years. Have one conversation with him and his passion for plumbing engineering shines through. During his career, he has faced many ups and downs, but his caring attitude and dedication to furthering the industry has not gone unnoticed by his peers.
Kennedy, a former president of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) Dallas-Forth Worth Chapter, former ASPE National Region 5 director and former ASPE National vice president of memberbship, has been named as PM Engineer’s 2023 Plumbing Engineer of the Year due to his passion for the plumbing industry, dedication to leadership and commitment to teaching the next generation of plumbing engineers.
Kennedy grew up in Washington, D.C., and was always good at math and science in high school. During his senior year, he designed a house built out of styrofoam board. "I knew then engineering was a career I wanted to take pursue, even though my teachers thought my personality was perfect to become a senator — thank God I didn’t do that!" he laughs.
Kennedy attended St. Mary’s College in Maryland where he took general study classes. However, after his freshman year, he told his mother it wasn’t what he wanted to do.
"I didn’t want to be away from the actual hands-on physical drafting," he says. "From there, I went to a technical school, Maryland Drafting Institute of Engineering. After one year, I graduated with my engineering draft and technology diploma."
Kennedy started in the industry as a board draftsman in 1985 working for a company in Tysons, Virginia. Five years later, he moved to another company called HDR in Alexandria, Virginia, where he got his first taste of plumbing design.
"They put me in a group where two men took me under their wings — Ronald Ledbetter and David Kornegay," Kennedy says. "These were two men of color who were plumbing designers for the company. It’s there I started the seeds of learning actual plumbing design and drafting. These two men showed me this is an actual career I could learn by being mentored by other individuals. I was there for two years before moving to Dallas in 1992 with an opportunity to further my career in plumbing design with HDR’s local office there. Unfortunately, I was laid off a year later. A former worker who had left the company to work for Carter Burgess hired me. It was there I met my mentor, the late Ellis K. Chadick. This was the man who taught me plumbing design — he’s the person I credit with being the plumbing design engineer I am today."
Kennedy’s career is also greatly influenced by his late mother and father. Kennedy’s father, a self-taught mechanic with a third-grade education, could not read, but instilled in his sons the value of hard work and education, while his mother instilled in him the importance of contributing to society.
"My father was 53 years old when I was born — he did whatever it took to provide for us while my mother stayed home to raise my younger brother and I," Kennedy explains. "My father was a hard worker with grease on his hands. But at the end of the day, all I ever saw that man in was suits and ties. He loved custom made suits, shoes and ties. He instilled that work ethic in me — to this day, all I know is hard work and taking care of my two kids. So don’t let the clothes fool you, beneath all that is a very hardworking, dedicated person."
A distinguished career
Currently, Kennedy is a senior plumbing designer, project manager and studio leader for RTM Engineering Consultants in Dallas, and was recently made a minority owner in the firm.
"In my year and a half with RTM, I was given more opportunities here than in any of my previous places of employment over the past 30 years," Kennedy says. "I owe all of that to David Lippe, who’s one of the principals here in the Dallas office. When this opportunity came about two years ago, I jumped at it. David has taught me all the things I’ve wanted in this career beyond senior level plumbing design. He gave me the opportunity to be client-facing and to manage and develop projects, allowing me to grow and learn within this position. Becoming a minority partner in the firm was beyond my wildest dreams. Over all my years within this industry, this is the first time I can say I’m somewhere where I know I’m going to retire."
Kennedy remembers a time when Lippe pulled him into his office and told him, "Buckle up, it’s your time now."
"And I’ve been growing ever since," he says. "I can’t thank him enough for the opportunity he has given me at RTM."
When it comes to being successful in the plumbing engineering field, Kennedy says it’s all about the "P-word," meaning passion.
"You have to have passion for this career, for this industry," he says. "I put it into perspective by telling people I see myself as an artist. You take a blank canvas, which is an architectural background, and then you put all these different colors on it, all these different line weights, all these different line styles, and when it comes together, it looks like a Picasso painting. Only those in the plumbing engineering field know what we are looking at because we know what it took to bring this ‘masterpiece’ together as an engineered system that works."
For individuals who don’t understand plumbing design, Kennedy breaks it down simply by describing holding a hand under a lavatory faucet in a restroom. "Ever noticed how long or how short it takes for the water to get hot, that’s an engineered system. If it takes 30 seconds for the water to get hot, then that system is not designed properly. The only thing most people know about plumbing is when it’s broke, an individual comes to your house to fix it. I tell them, before it’s broken, it’s a system that was designed. And it’s not just houses, but commercial projects, hospitals — every aspect of life, really. I love to break it down for them."
Kennedy’s favorite thing about being in the industry is watching a project come together.
"I love the fact that I, as an individual, know what I'm doing when it comes to actual plumbing design, but it takes an entire team to get a project done. Meaning you have to interact with all kinds of people with different personalities in different disciplines. It's a juggling process, with my outgoing personality, I can handle to get us to the bottom line."
Kennedy has designed plumbing systems on several notable projects. One was the Aria Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
"It was part of the Las Vegas city center project 12-13 years ago," he says. "The city wanted to redo its strip to go from downtown Las Vegas to a newprimary area on the strip called City Center. One of the main projects was the Aria Hotel and Casino, which was an 80-story high-rise. My portion of the project was the convention center built on the same project site attached to the hotel and casino. I designed the plumbing system, which was a LEED Silver-certified project. It was a labor of love."
He also designed the plumbing systems for the Toyota North American headquarters in Plano, Texas, as well as a fire station at Dallas Fort Worth airport. The latter is significant because it was dedicated to the men and women of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority who served and sacrificed post 9/11. "One of the proudest moments of my life is I got to meet one individual from each of these different authorities who shared their personal stories with me," he notes.
Kennedy is currently working on a particularly challenging project — a new Fogo de Chão Brazilian restaurant, located a block from the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan. The restaurant will be located in an existing post 9/11 high-rise building, which will require careful coordination with the New York Port Authority and the New York City Health Department for structural penetrations through the slab.
"Every single core drill I show going through their concrete slab has to be approved to avoid turning the post-9/11 building into Swiss cheese," Kennedy says. "This building is designed to withstand an airplane strike. That makes it challenging, knowing everywhere I show a core going through the structure — whether it’s four inches or a half inch — they want to QA that whole process."
As a tall, Black man with an athletic build, Kennedy has been stereotyped as a former athlete more times than he can count. "As soon as I tell them I’m a plumbing designer, they go, ‘What’s that?’ I’ve been using my head most of my life rather than my body."
He has long faced racial bias on job sites and in other areas of his career.
"There have been times when I go out to job sites and construction projects looking for the general contractor — who have always been predominantly white individuals who are shocked to realize they have to answer to me as it relates to my design," he explains.
"There was a 10-year period in my life from 2009 to 2019 where I was a product of the Great Recession," Kennedy adds. "I was out of work and going through a custody battle at the same time. During that 10-year period, I worked six different jobs. There were multiple opportunities with companies looking for plumbing designers with my experience. For whatever reason, I was not hired. There’s no way in the world, in my opinion, that race didn’t play a part. I don’t want to believe it, but I cannot totally denounce it either."
That period was a low point for Kennedy, who at one point left the industry to work at Lowe’s to provide for his children as a single father. He even contemplated suicide, thinking he was worth more dead than alive to. Thankfully, he fought his way back from the brink of despair.
"That’s not how I was raised," he says. "I pulled myself up and got myself back together, and here I am today better off for it."
Unfortunately, he still experiences racial bias here and there in the industry. He handles it by not dealing in racism.
"To me, there’s always going to be ignorance in individuals both in and out of this industry," he explains. "I choose to combat and overcome ignorance with intelligence. I also choose to lift up all races, sexes and ages knowing what I've experienced myself over my career to make sure the industry and its members grow and become more inclusive."
Held in high esteem
Kennedy has made an impact on many individuals within the plumbing industry. He was actually nominated for the award by three different people, one of which was Bryan Hutton CPD, MBA, vice president of Composites USA.
"Kelvin and I met through the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) organization," he says. "We share a common desire to help others around us succeed. We served on the board of directors of the local ASPE DFW Chapter for several years. Under Kelvin’s leadership, we implemented some groundbreaking programs that have helped the local chapter and the society reach new levels of success. Kelvin has always been a great visionary of what could be. We implemented new programs such as local chapter sponsorship programs, student scholarships and an ambassador program that has helped foster several new ASPE chapters."
Hutton enjoys Kennedy’s positive attitude, professionalism and his relentless desire to do well. "He is a great friend, mentor and visionary leader. His thoughtfulness is a big reason he has developed an extensive network of supporters.
"Kelvin and I share the fact that we are both minorities in the industry," Hutton adds. "The industry tends to lack diversity that can create challenges in our career paths. Kelvin is the epitomy of a faithful servant. His dedication to the profession and his family are two pillars that have served him well throughout the years. I wouldn’t call many of the challenges we have faced racist, but there is a good deal of "unconscious bias" that creates many challenges in a workforce that lacks diversity. Finding a great environment for growth can be a challenge; a challenge that Kelvin has been able to overcome through is commitment to excellence. His non-relenting drive to succeed doing the right things the right way have served him well. This is what sets him apart from so many in the field."
James Holland, P.E., senior mechanical engineer at Jacobs, has known Kennedy since 1999 where they worked at the same firm.
"Kelvin taught me most of my plumbing knowledge and encouraged me to seek ASPE’s Certified Plumbing Designer certification," Holland says. "He walked me through how to design plumbing systems and I have valued his knowledge and friendship ever since. I have thought so highly of him, that as I progressed through my career, I invited him along to three other companies and gave him contract work when we weren’t working together.
"Kelvin has always enjoyed sharing his passion for plumbing design," he adds. "He worked many years with ASPE and everyone respected him. When I hire a new plumbing designer from the Dallas area, I still contact Kelvin to get his opinion on them."
Keith Davis, business development manager at Jones Stephens, also met Kennedy through ASPE — serving with him on the DFW Chapter board as the vice president of membership when Kennedy was president.
"Kelvin has always been quick to respond and not afraid to ask questions," he says. "Kelvin shows that he cares about the quality of work he produces and does research to find good solutions.
He was a great choice for this award, and I look forward to many more years of working with him."
Gary Dyke, specification manager for Hugh M. Cunningham Companies, met Kennedy about 18 years ago when he was trying to gain entry into specifications. "Kelvin is always welcoming and attentive when I visit his office. He has an engaging personality, and I consider him to be a friend."
Scott Steindler, FASPE, CPD, GPD, LEED-AP BD+C, ARCSA-AP(IS) GGP, OSHA 30, national sales manager — industrial for BLÜCHER, a Watts brand, served with Kennedy on the ASPE Board of Directors, Steindler as vice president of membership and Kennedy as Region 5 director.
"I was struck by the sense of style, innovation and exuberance he brought the position," Steindler says. "Kelvin was instrumental in the establishment of the ASPE Young Professionals, and even hosted the first "unofficial" gathering in his suite in Florida at the Technical Symposium. Kelvin and I had many adventures and brought new, fresh, and timely ideas to ASPE.
"Kelvin’s outgoing nature, his gift of gab, his style, his larger than life approach to his duties sets him apart from others I have encountered before," he continues. "Kelvin has not only been a colleague, but we have established a friendship and a comradery that has spanned more than a decade. He is not only a competent engineer, but is a true friend and his mere presence brings a certain life to those who he is around. Kelvin has dedicated his life to not only his profession, but to his kids who have so much to admire in such a staunch and solid role model."
Recruiting the next generation of engineers
Kennedy is passionate about workforce development — especially as it relates to attracting the next generation of minority engineers. His advice for up and coming newbies goes back to the "P-word."
"You’ve got to have passion," he says. "I always go back to that. This is a career where you’re not going to be known. If you are looking for recognition or admiration, this is not the field for you. You need to have passion for what you’re doing. From the standpoint of health and safety, we are the guardians of health and clean drinking water for the world based on the designs of our plumbing systems. What we do is significant.
"Each project is going to be different and every situation is something new and unique," Kennedy continues. "You have to love what you’re doing. In my 30-plus years of doing this, there has not been a day when I came to work and didn't have to face one challenge or another in this industry. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps you learning. You learn something new every day."
As mentorship was a big part of Kennedy’s career, he’s now in the position to pay it forward by mentoring the next generation. He meets once or twice a month with his mentees, as project deadlines allow. "We sit down and go through the basics, whether its sanitary sewer design, domestic water design, how to size a water heater or grease interceptor."
Now that he has been named PM Engineer’s Plumbing Engineer of the Year, Kennedy hopes to use the honor as a platform to visit underprivileged high schools in black neighborhoods to point out there are careers other than sports to offer them a great life.
"I want to go in those neighborhoods, talk to these high school kids and let them know they’re not all going become pro basketball players or millionaires, but let me present you with a career opportunity that can last you for 50 years," he says. "If you grow, learn and apply yourself, you can have a nice long career. I'm living proof that you don't have to go to college to have a career in this field. There's nothing wrong with going to college, but it's not for everybody. I'm hoping that others will follow my lead. I can't think of a better opportunity to use this as a springboard to bring more individuals of color into this organization, into this field."
Outside the office, Kennedy enjoys spending time with his two teenagers, ages 15 and 17. He also enjoys finding cheap airfare for quick 24-hour trips around the country.
"I went roundtrip from Dallas to New York for $78 — I went for lunch, dinner and the Yankees vs. Mets game, and flew back the next day," he says. "I look for famous restaurants to go to, and if time permits, I get tattoos. My tattoos are from Venice Beach, California, Miami, Chicago and Dallas."
His tattoo is unfinished, but will eventually include all the names of his family, and a quote from John F. Kennedy, who happens to share the name with Kennedy's father, saying: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent evolution probable."