Member Spotlight: Stephen Shanks
The Air Barrier Association of America (ABAA) dives inside the career of Stephen Shanks, COO of Stevenson Consulting Inc. in Richmond, VA. In this feature interview, learn what made him become an ABAA member, what led him to a career as a building scientist and get his perspective on the future of the air barrier industry. For Stephen, the traits or skills necessary to succeed in the industry: “being fair, honest, and objective is a cornerstone for what we do since our reputation is the main currency that we have with our clients”
Stephen Shanks is Chief Operating Officer and Senior Corporate Consultant for Stevenson Consulting, Inc. He currently serves as Chair of the Executive Committee of the Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC) of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), as Co-Chair of the Codes Task Group for the Air Barrier Association of America (ABAA), and with Standards Development committee activities including ASHRAE 90.1 and ASTM E06 for Performance of Buildings.
Mr. Shanks provides consulting services on new and existing construction, building enclosures, historic restoration and preservation, construction failures, and as an expert witness.
His professional licenses and certifications include Certified Commissioning Authority (CxA); Accredited Building Enclosure Commissioning Process Provider (BECxP) and Commissioning Authority + Building Enclosure (CxA+BE); Corporate NDT Level III for test methods including Infrared (IR), Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR), and Whole Building Air Tightness Testing; and is a licensed Field Auditor for ABAA.
Name: Stephen Shanks, CxA, BECxP
Title: Chief Operating Officer
Firm: Stevenson Consulting, Inc.
City: Richmond, VA
ABAA member for 12 years
What was the path to your career — how and why did you pursue a profession as a building scientist?
A: Studied Architectural Engineering and developed an interest in how materials, assemblies, and systems perform together. Became involved in providing forensic investigations related to construction materials and that led to the development of a practice that includes examining the causes of distress in building envelopes. Of course, the knowledge base and technologies have evolved quite a bit over the last 40+ years. We now have much more sophisticated and precise equipment that has been developed for our use as we assess the hypotheticals that we develop and test during an investigation.
As our tools have improved, so has the development of standards and practices for preconstruction construction. In the United States, significant milestones included the adoption of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 and the Engineering and Construction Bulletin (ECB) No. 2009-29 that directed compliance with Building Airtightness Requirements for projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Also significant, was the ongoing work at NIBS then ASTM regarding Building Enclosure Commissioning, in addition to, the I-Codes work done by so many over the years and code cycles related to Residential, Commercial, and Energy.
My primary technical responsibilities these days include forensic investigations and providing oversight for the work of our Facilities groups related to Building Science and Commissioning (both HVAC&R and BECx).
Is there anything that you believe everyone in this industry should be working towards?
A: We are fortunate to have a number of talented individuals at companies throughout our industry that are engaged in ongoing research and development for the air barrier industry.
In regards to the practical side of getting materials installed on vertical assemblies, a significant challenge has been materials that perform well when installed in less than ideal conditions. With the increasing impacts of apparent changes in our climate, this is an ongoing concern for both Owner and Contractor as schedule impacts relate directly to their cost of money. I know that ‘user-friendly’ is anathema to designers and consultants, but we also have to sensitive to the needs of our projects.
We also still have much to accomplish regarding the connections of below-grade to above-grade walls, and walls to roofs and how to accomplish the most rugged and constructible details.
For the trades, a difficulty is to find and retain talented and committed personnel who can become true journeymen. As with all trades, workforce development and retention is a challenge that seems like it is only going to get worse.
What role have peers, mentors, or advisors played in your career?
A: Like others who have been doing this for a while, when I started out there were not many resources specific to the building science field and it was a challenge to find individual mentors.
I was fortunate to be the third generation in the engineering, testing, and inspection industry so I had the benefit of learning at my father’s and grandfather’s knees what it meant to do the work well and with intention. I learned that being fair, honest, and objective is a cornerstone for what we do since our reputation is the main currency that we have with our clients.
I have also benefited from, and am indebted for, the work done by others who have helped to inform my thinking on the technical side of my work including Joe Lstiburek, Fiona Aldous, and Theresa Weston.
What led you to become an ABAA member?
A: In the beginning, it was being able to have access to the list of tested and approved materials and assemblies, and then the work on the Whole Building Airtightness Standard for USACE and the Field Auditor program.
ABAA is where leading-edge work continues to be done regarding air barriers. If you are part of this industry then ABAA is the right place to be and to be active. I was taught and still believe that it is important to support the people and groups that support you.
Are you involved in any ABAA committees? Do you have any ABAA certifications?
How long have you been in the industry?
A: As mentioned earlier, I grew up in the construction materials testing and inspection industry, and have been fortunate to be part of the changes and growth over the years. Doing this is what makes me want to get up and go to work in the morning or to paraphrase “it’s not work if you love what you’re doing”. I feel fortunate that I still love what I’m doing and have great people with which to work.
What major changes have you seen?
A: I have been witness to the development and introduction of many remarkable materials and processes. Specific to testing would be starting out using building mechanical systems and U-tube manometers that has evolved to the use of high-speed fans and digital micromanometers with powerful processing software.
On the construction side, perhaps developments of both fluid applied technologies, as well as, the development of a variety of permeable materials.
What traits or skills do you think are necessary to be able to succeed in your industry?
A: I think that it is important for someone to have a temperament that allows him or her to be curious, hard-working, and possess a talent for problem-solving. You have to be a consistent and diligent student of what is occurring in the industry and relentless at working with others to figure out the right questions to ask. I also think that it is important to be humble and open to consider other people’s points of view.
Do you have any advice for anyone starting out in your field?
A: For me, I think that there are basically two paths. One is to go to a school with a really good Architectural Engineering program (that would be my bias showing) and/or well-developed building science and physics course of study.
On the testing side, it seems that many come through construction trades such as mechanical or test and balance (TAB). Essentially anyone who has the ability to be a careful student and is able to grasp a sufficient understanding of building physics.
How much demand do you think there is for people in your profession?
A: From where I sit, demand is constant and will only increase as Owners and the I-Codes continue to require commissioning, fenestration testing, and whole building air leakage testing.
What do you think the industry will look like in five or ten year’s time?
A: I think that the shortage of talented individuals will continue as the requirements for enclosure related design, commissioning, and functional performance testing increases. Recruiting and developing individuals with a careful eye for detail and interest in the work is crucial for the industry as a whole.