Lisa Sombart – William Tao & Associates Inc.
As happens, St. Louis Community College recently decided to replace its extensive system of 50-year-old heating and domestic hot water distribution systems connecting all of the campus’ buildings—with additional areas for electrical service issues included in the scope. The Missouri institution decided on a local engineering firm that handles both mechanical and electrical work. Those requirements took a back seat.
When the firm of choice dug deeper into the problem—literally, as the systems are located in a series of underground tunnels—it discovered trouble.
“The tunnels themselves had deteriorated and some of the piping was corroded and needed to be replaced,” says Lisa Sombart, president, CEO and a 29-year veteran of William Tao & Associates Inc. (WTA).
The college would need both a structural and civil engineer as well. SLCC didn’t need to pick up a phone to call for backup, though. William Tao & Associates also handles these disciplines, not to mention fire protection, infrastructure, commissioning, architectural lighting, information technology and almost everything else.
Well, not everything.
“We do everything except for geotechnical and environmental engineering,” Sombart clarifies with a chuckle.
Building a business
Coincidentally, it may make sense that the in-progress St. Louis Community College project started as a mechanical and electrical job, as those were the only two disciplines initially offered by the chosen firm at the time of its founding some 60 years ago.
From there, the company gradually expanded to include additional disciplines—not just to get the extra business, but because the added knowledge helped all of WTA’s engineers address the needs and challenges of various clients.
“That coordination in-house allows us to have a lot of compatibility in our understanding of a project,” especially when it comes to the more diverse projects, says Sombart.
Case in point: WTA recently completed work on an interdisciplinary science building at St. Louis’ Webster University that replaced a 100-year-old facility that was decades behind on updates. The project has been in discussion since the ‘50s, “and the university finally got the momentum to get it built,” Sombart says.
While working with the architects at CannonDesign, William Tao slotted the new building into the existing campus, which is located in a residential community that is limited in terms of construction zoning.
The goal of the new building—which opened in August 2017—is to encourage cross-pollination and student collaboration by housing the psychology, nursing, physics, biology, chemistry, language and other departments under a single roof.
“It had a need for a lot of different types of spaces with different system requirements,” Sombart explains. “The laboratories needed adequate exhaust to protect the occupants from the chemicals that might be used in the classroom work, nursing required clean environments for doing simulation labs and mimicking what the students would see in a real healthcare environment, the psychology department needed rooms that can be quiet for interviews and counseling, and it all has to be kept private.
“We tried to make sure each space received individual attention,” she adds, “and not just a one-size-fits-all classroom.”
Building a better world
The Webster University facility also had some environmental challenges to consider.
The building has a glass skin, and the school’s president expressed her desire for it to glow in the evening and be a literal “beacon of learning.” Powering a lot of lights might seem contradictory to environmentally friendly principles, but WTA made it work.
“We found a very energy-efficient way of doing it by utilizing a combination of exterior up-lighting and perimeter cove lighting that provides light while classrooms, offices and labs are in varying states of occupancy. Lighting controls optimize the energy savings and we properly coordinated paint colors, so we can tune the lights to their lowest power draw but still gain the desired effect,” Sombart explains. “We’re able to achieve things that might sound a little extravagant at first, but are efficient and beautiful when finished.”
Encouraging green solutions is a common theme for William Tao & Associates, who had solar panels on its buildings in the 1980s, designed the first LEED-certified building in St. Louis and currently operates out of an office that is LEED-Gold-certified for commercial interiors.
“We carry a lot of professional accreditations in sustainability,” Sombart says. “We have to be adaptable and understand how all of the improvements are helping the overall community. It’s a key element in our company DNA and we’re proud of that.”
Building a reputation
Sombart and her colleagues take a lot pride in all of their projects. “And they’re all varied,” she says.
This variation includes some historical restoration work, like an award-winning job a few years ago at the St. Louis Central Library, which was designed by architect Cass Gilbert and originally constructed in 1912.
“We took all of the antique light fixtures and had them restored and converted to LED or induction fluorescent lights while keeping all of the original fixtures, including marble pedestals with lamps on top,” Sombart says. WTA also installed all new HVAC systems that are completely concealed behind the old wooden panels and bookshelves. “It still looks like a building that was built 100 years ago, but it’s all modern technology inside.”
Although the firm completes mostly regional work from its single office in St. Louis—a city of about 316,000 people and a county of about 1 million—the company has also undertaken projects across the U.S. and internationally.
“The majority of our work is with architects,” Sombart says, “so depending on where they are working, it sometimes takes us to different areas.”
Consider WTA’s construction of a new TD Ameritrade headquarters, operations and training center in Omaha, Nebraska. Not only was it a large, out-of-state office complex, but it was completed—as requested—without any disruption to the company operations.
“We love challenging engineering projects and we love finding ways to bring a building to life,” Sombart says.
Even when the digging in reveals more than was initially planned.
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