December 8, 2023

Square Feet | The 30-Minute Interview: David Cooper

Interview conducted and condensed by VIVIAN MARINO

Q Did you ever think you would be at one company for so long?

A No, absolutely not. It was my first job, and I actually interned here for the summer before that. I started out as a graduate engineer doing basic calculations, analysis, light design work, and then worked my way up through management. I became a partner when we were still a partnership after about 13 years in the business. Eventually I took over the operation of the New York office and then took over the operational responsibility of the firm.

Q Did you always want to be an engineer?

A My parents thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer, but I wanted to be an engineer. I went to Tufts University, started off in the liberal arts program taking premed, and eventually my passion for physics and math and more technical skills brought me to the engineering school.

Q So how is business?

A It’s challenging. We learned in the ’90s the importance of diversification, both geographic and sector, and it’s really helped us in this downturn.

We do find ourselves with a well-balanced portfolio of work and opportunities domestically, in public and private sectors and various market sectors. We probably have 400 active projects. The residential and hospitality sectors have picked up. High-end residential work has become something we’re known for, and that market sector has picked up.

Q How much of your work is in the New York area?

A The New York office is about 45 percent of the volume of the business, but the New York office covers work across the country, not just the tristate area, as well as internationally.

But actual work in New York — I’m not sure I can tell you that. We have some significant projects, though: Atlantic Yards; the arena in Brooklyn; a police training center in Brooklyn; renovation at the Waldorf. And we have quite a few high-rise mixed-use projects going on in the city.

Q What’s the breakdown between public and private work?

A We typically run about 80 percent private, 20 percent public.

Q Much of the company’s focus has been on sustainability.

A Our focus has always been on energy efficiency and building performance. We now have a building practice dedicated to really high-performance outcomes. It’s called Built Ecology, and that’s part of a global practice around high-performance buildings.

There have been quite a few advances and approaches to building systems, like radiant technology, displacement ventilation, ground thermal exchange, renewable technologies that combine heat and power.

Q What kind of savings are derived from high-performance buildings?

A That’s one of the big challenges, actually, that the green movement is facing right now. There’s a lot of comparative analysis on design based on theoretical operations. That doesn’t necessarily translate into real operational savings. Energy savings on a theoretical baseline could be 15, 20, 40, 50 percent.

Q Are you doing many retrofits?

A We are doing quite a few. The Waldorf is a good example.

Q Tell me about that project.

A It’s in its infancy. I really can’t get into the specific scope of work, but it’s an architectural and engineering upgrade that will be completed in phases over quite a few years. That building is going to stay operational through its renovation.

Q Do you have a favorite project?

A I have many, actually. We recently completed MGM CityCenter in Las Vegas, which was an amazing undertaking. That project lasted for about five years. It was 20 million square feet and $8 billion, and we were the engineers for 18 million of the 20 million square feet.

The casino is the first in Las Vegas to have a displacement ventilation system, which is where the air enters the space at floor level instead of the ceiling and then naturally rises up and takes all the smoke out with it. So it’s actually the cleanest casino environment in Las Vegas. In a smoky casino, with overhead ventilation, what happens is, all that smoky air is just blown back down to the floor.

We did computer simulations, but just to be sure, MGM authorized a physical mock-up. People came in and lit up cigars and cigarettes and were smoking away.

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