TFM Names Robert Wengel Facility Executive of the Year

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“Never work with animals or children.”
—W.C. Fields

By Heidi Schwartz
Published in the January 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

While W.C. Fields was dead set against the idea of sharing the stage with animals and children—notorious scene stealers—Robert Wengel sees them in a completely different light. For Wengel, animals and children are vital customers at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL, where he heads up the operations team as vice president of facilities.

Consisting of 32,500 animals representing 1,500 species, Shedd is home to one of the largest and most diverse collections of aquatic animals in the world. Shedd engages, inspires, entertains, and informs nearly two million guests each year and serves as a vital teaching and learning resource, conservation leader, neighborhood partner, and global collaborator. Wengel has spent most of his professional life catering to—and exceeding—the expectations of his animal and child client base.

Every member of the Shedd Aquarium team is passionate about the animals and their habitats, and Wengel is no exception. His ability to integrate his sustainable facilities vision into the organization’s overall goals allowed him to implement groundbreaking energy saving projects throughout the building. These accomplishments, which are part of Shedd’s Five Year Facility Plan that incorporates sustainability, have earned him recognition as Today’s Facility Manager’s 2012 Facility Executive of the Year.

Swimming Upstream

Wengel started at the Shedd Aquarium as a maintenance carpenter in 1995, “Carpentry was a trade I learned to pay my way through college while seeking a career as a licensed aircraft mechanic in aviation maintenance management,” Wengel recalls. “I came and interviewed at Shedd. I thought I’d check it out for a summer, and 16 years later, I’m still here! The animals get hold of you, and you’re not going anywhere. Working on planes? Yeah, that’s great, but here you have the opportunity to make a difference to the world outside these walls. This is what really matters to me.”

The Shedd Aquarium is part of Chicago's iconic skyline.

The Shedd Aquarium is part of Chicago’s iconic skyline.

The Shedd Aquarium is a landmark building that was a gift to the city of Chicago. For Wengel, “taking care of a gift that two million people see every year means something. Even though I don’t directly impact lives, maintaining a building like this—where people come and visit and learn and appreciate animals—is what made me want to get into facilities management (FM).”

In his current role as vice president of facilities, he is responsible for maintenance, operations, environmental services, safety and security departments, and the administration of 20 maintenance service contracts that include elevator, chiller, and fire system testing and maintenance, roofing and tuckpointing, and landscaping services. He has leveraged his strong relationship with the C-suite and employees at all levels to help share his vision of a sustainable future for the Shedd Aquarium.

2012 Facility Executive Of The Year Judges

Pepe Alicea, FMA, RPA, CFM, Business Services Director, Compassion International
Neal Angrisano, AIA, Associate, Aviation & Facilities, Global Practice, Burns & McDonnell Engineering
Kevin Borg, Director of Facilities and Project Management, UCLA Athletics Department
Tom Condon, FMA, RPA, Facility Technologist, System Development Integration 
Jennifer Dolin, LEED® AP, Manager of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs, OSRAM SYLVANIA
Todd Finders, Director, Global Data Center Services, Emerson
David Lenart, Director of Facilities and Materials Management, Columbus Regional Hospital

Transparency Helps Innovation

As a champion of saving the planet, Wengel created the Shedd’s Five Year Facility Plan with a focus on sustainability. The plan will adopt the following energy reduction tools and approaches:

  • Power monitoring;
  • Switchgear maintenance and arc flash training;
  • Variable frequency drives;
  • Life support;
  • Building management system upgrades;
  • Energy management dashboard;
  • LED interior and exterior retrofit;
  • Lighting controls;
  • Photovoltaic solutions;
  • Energy efficiency monitoring; and
  • New chiller plant.

Because Shedd applies an integrated planning process, there are no surprises to—or from—upper management. Wengel explains, “I report directly to the COO, and we talk weekly. He always knows what I’m up to, so when something is a good idea, makes sense, and is going to pay us back, I don’t really have to sell it much. This was the idea behind the five year plan. When I presented it, I showed everybody our full audit. Then I broke it all down into categories: Buildings, MEP, Exhibits, Life Support Systems, and Life Safety (ERM). Each one of these categories had a task force that went out and performed an audit and came up with the projects. Being sustainable was a main focus for the task forces forming the plan.

“Through this process, I was able to engage nearly every area of the building to find out what everyone needed and expected. Then we put it all together, got costs, and assembled it into a framework. When people saw that, it made sense how we got from point A to point B.”

One of the biggest ongoing challenges for any aquarium is reduction in water use, and Shedd set out to raise the bar for its own water efficient practices. “Through integrated planning with the Animal Health and Animal Husbandry team, we were able to identify ways to conserve millions of gallons of water; we are working on a plan to take that initiative further.”

Several opportunities to do more with less have been identified, which has enabled Wengel to conserve vast quantities of water in the animal habitats through small changes.

For instance, the team set up the penguin reserve system so it would be connected to the main system. Then they repiped the system to redirect water that was going down the drain so it could return to a basin already in the system. Also, many gallons of water the sea lions love to spash out can now be captured.

And during the 2008 renovation of the Oceanarium, they installed a system that took water being drained from fish systems and allowed it to be used as make-up water for the Oceanarium and mammal systems. This effort saved three million gallons of water per year.

Additionally, his team has set up a 135,000 gallon rainwater collection system on Shedd’s roof. Now Chicago’s driving thunderstorms supply water for the aquarium’s mechanical systems.

Judge Tom Condon notes, “The fact that Wengel designed a system that takes water being drained from its fish systems and uses that for make-up water for the Oceanarium and mammal systems is outstanding! That’s innovative AND sustainable…wow! And saving the sea lions’ splash water is another great example of innovation in FM!” Judge David Lenart jokes, “I hope the penguins appreciate Wengel’s outstanding work!”

A Vital Connection

Inherent in a facility like Shedd is the most essential connection between humans and nature. This is the reason why one of the long-term goals at Shedd is to lead by example and inspire others to “think big” about sustainability.

Under the Conservation Department’s leadership, Wengel was part of a group that crafted the plan to create the Sustainable Steering team. He is currently the leader of the water, energy, and construction materials task forces.

Wengel explains, “We are investigating how we’re going to reach the public and tell a story about being sustainable. It’s still in the works. We’ve always been doing it, but now we’re trying to figure it out a little bit differently. Because of the efforts with the animals, I think they assume we’re doing this; in many cases we are.”

Lenart notes, “Wengel has demonstrated a desired ability to integrate a facility strategy with an organizational vision and mission. Not only is he incorporating the operations of the building, but he is also encompassing the needs of the occupants and caretakers within his own vision. This illustrates his ability to ensure his departmental vision integrates with the organization.”

Sealing The Deal

While water (which has experienced a 3.4 million gallon reduction) and energy use (with projected reductions that could exceed 20% of the current load) clearly benefit the environmental vision at Shedd, they also help the organization save resources—translating into money that goes towards the bottom line of the facility. And this tangible payback has helped Wengel implement several upgrades over the years.

While the Shedd Aquarium does not have major ongoing construction projects, it has undertaken a series of energy management and operational efficiency initiatives since the early 1990s. Energy reduction and building automation system upgrades continue to be an integral part of operations, paving the way for Shedd’s Five Year Facility Plan, which will also ideally include LED upgrades and alternative energy options for this historic landmark.

While the Shedd Aquarium does not have major ongoing construction projects, it has undertaken a series of energy management and operational efficiency initiatives since the early 1990s. Energy reduction and building automation system upgrades continue to be an integral part of operations, paving the way for Shedd’s Five Year Facility Plan, which will also ideally include LED upgrades and alternative energy options for this historic landmark.

Wengel tells the story of one of his most significant projects to date—the 2008 renovation of the Oceanarium. “On Labor Day 2008, we shut the Oceanarium down. I was responsible for setting up the logistics for the animal transports and the life support system upgrades to their habitats. I moved whales and dolphins out of Chicago to Connecticut and then came back here to do nine months’ worth of construction. I remember the night I came back from the airport dropoff and there were no animals here. Awful. The building wasn’t alive anymore. But the day we brought the first batch of dolphins and whales back (in early April 2009), the building came back to life.

“All along, I knew I had payback on redesigning the Oceanarium life support system. Water savings from the basin transfer system have been the big reduction in resources with the Oceanarium Renovation,” says Wengel.

“These results are significant,” notes Judge Neal Angrisano.

Accountability For All

Wengel is well aware of the big picture goals for Shedd, but he must also take into account how those goals—no matter how honorable—might have an impact on day to day operations. “Every day, we have to get this building what we call ‘ready’ for the public. On a normal, quiet day, we might have 3,000 people here, and the building will stay reasonably clean. But at 5:00 pm when we close, a party with 300 people might move in and the whole upstairs will be set up with tables. Catering companies will bring in food, and that party might not end until 11:00 pm. Then we have the cleanup after the party so the building will be ready by 9:00 am the next day.

“Then there’s maintenance. This can be quite a big challenge. Scheduling to meet the demands of a busy place like this—which only closes one day a year, Christmas Day—can be difficult.

Wengel stands in front of the facilities team at Shedd. Front row: Jerry Martinez, Jeff Voss, Paula Hall, Wanda Rials, John Carney, Bob Casiano Susan Barton, Bill Roberts. Second row: Mitch Cohen, Jason Weglarz, Andy Jaskula, Bernie Stefanski, Maurice Smith, Joe Stawicki. Third row: Chester Obrochta, Brett Bochnak, Dale Drozda, Reggie Brown, Dan Yoshimura, Jim Torelli.

Wengel stands in front of the facilities team at Shedd. Front row: Jerry Martinez, Jeff Voss, Paula Hall, Wanda Rials, John Carney, Bob Casiano Susan Barton, Bill Roberts. Second row: Mitch Cohen, Jason Weglarz, Andy Jaskula, Bernie Stefanski, Maurice Smith, Joe Stawicki. Third row: Chester Obrochta, Brett Bochnak, Dale Drozda, Reggie Brown, Dan Yoshimura, Jim Torelli.

“It’s a delicate balance, and you have to have people around you who are smart and can help you with it. Our facilities manager, Susan Barton (who manages cleaning) works with our outsourcing partners to make sure they understand what we’re looking for; they must see the building through our eyes as well.”

Partnerships have allowed Wengel to improve output among his own in-house team members, which is crucial in a particularly demanding environment like an aquarium. “We have specialized services—our basement, our back of house, all of our pumps—where we have a few guys who are responsible for a variety of things. So I outsource to a pump company with an expert who comes in, laser aligns our pumps and performs preventive maintenance, and offers specialized services. We’ve noticed change. After we did that for the maintenance and the preventive maintenance, the electric bill went down a little bit. Noise in those areas went down too.

“We have another relationship with a structural engineer who we use quite a bit. Those folks are really up on the codes, which is very helpful. With an old building like this, we’re always doing a lot of structural work to be certain we maintain the building’s integrity for years to come.”

Lenart commends these strategies, and says, “I think Wengel’s leadership brings an understanding of the facility’s complexities to the other departments, allowing everyone to get on the same page around improvement in the operations of the facility. This is fantastic!”

Sustaining Life

Every aspect of Wengel’s most recent efforts has been influenced by the sustainability goals for this specific facility. Recently, Shedd participated in a study to benchmark energy usage for aquariums in order to determine a LEED standard for this type of specialized facility. Wengel worked with the group to provide gas and electricity data and helped compile the report. When the results came back, Shedd Aquarium was 15% below the benchmark.

The first step of the five year facility plan is to sub-meter all the different exhibits and areas to help benchmark the facility. More metering will be installed based on those findings.

However, Wengel is realistic about attitudes towards change. “The recycling effort is always a tough one. It’s that attitude, ‘Why doesn’t the banana peel end up in the regular garbage can?’ We’ll have an hour meeting explaining why the banana peel can’t end up in the garbage can instead of the compost bin (which, by the way, is right next to it).

“Two summers ago, we raised the temperature a degree and a half, and there was some complaining. So I brought it up at the leadership meeting and explained how we were going to try it to save a little electricity. It worked. Over time, people forgot about it.

“This is going to be one of the toughest things for facilities managers to overcome. Not only are we going to be charged with picking out and selecting the most efficient equipment we can to make these spaces comfortable, but in order to be really sustainable or really green we might have to challenge at what temperatures these people are living in. We’re used to serving people and wanting people to be comfortable, but most of the time, people can adapt pretty quickly.

“Indeed, the economy is going to play a big role in it. If fms are going to be smart about this, they will see they can undertake projects and hopefully finance them or pay for them through payback, if it’s viable. It depends on the institution, too.

“As the field of sustainability cranks up, there’s going to be a huge opportunity to make money. I hope that’s not how things will go in terms of environmental action and FM, but I work in a place that’s conservation minded. I could not imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high maintenance office building. It’s a different story.”

Judge Jennifer Dolin notes, “I look forward to seeing the results of Wengel’s efforts in the coming years.” Indeed, the story of the Shedd’s Five Year Facility Plan is an exciting work in progress which will bask in the spotlight.

This article was based on the nominee’s entry and supplemented by an interview with Wengel. To read about past recipients, see the links below. To see a sample winning entry, visit this link and download the pdf.

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