Gary Brennen Looks Back on Four Decades of Engineering
Gary Brennen, Syska’s chairman, is retiring at the end of 2023 after more than 40 years at Syska. He started as an engineer-in-training and served in a variety of roles before becoming chairman. These included leader of the aviation practice, managing director of the western region, and co-president.
Over the course of Gary’s career, the field of engineering changed significantly. Connections caught up with him to learn about his experiences and industry developments over the decades:
The year was 1982. If you were looking for Gary, you could probably find him in a smoke-filled drafting room with lots of stools, tilt-up tables, and T-bars. That’s where he and his colleagues would draw electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems on vellum over backgrounds provided by architects. Gary remembers that if you made too many changes, you’d erase right through the vellum and have to start over.
Today you’d be hard pressed to find even a single drafting board in an engineering office. “It’s been years since I’ve seen one,” says Gary. “Everyone uses Revit or BIM and everything is automated.” He doesn’t worry that automation will replace engineers, however: As he explains, “The product is only as good as the person who uses the computer.”
“We’ve got to create a bigger pool of talent, starting in high school and moving up through the colleges...”
We can add telexes to the list of now-obsolete technologies Gary encountered. In the pre-fax era of the 1980s, Gary used telexes for translation purposes. These were necessary on his first Syska project, which was located in Sicily. English was the contractual language, but the builders were Italian. Gary would send his notes via telex to a translation firm in Rome, and the translation firm would send back the translated version. “Sometimes I’d end up with 40 feet of paper in a spool,” Gary recalls.
Advances over the years took time to evolve. Gary remembers his first use of AutoCAD, which involved a one-line diagram for the Minneapolis Convention Center. He welcomes the new tools, like Revit, that have emerged since. “Revit modeling is smarter and more interoperable, which allows us to cut down on menial tasks and spend more time on thinking,” he says.
Gary welcomes the other innovations that are emerging. For example, he praises real-time modeling and video-enabled intelligence for field observations. He remarks: “We’re at a big inflection point for the industry when it comes to innovations.”
For many years Gary led Syska’s aviation practice, which has also benefited from numerous advances, some of which center on delivery methods. He points to design-build and P3 projects as methods of reducing costs and accelerating timeframes. Furthermore, the recent emphasis on the passenger experience has inspired creative approaches to systems, such as displacement ventilation and circadian lighting.
Concerns about climate change and the growing movement toward electrification have also had a strong impact on design, both within the aviation sector and elsewhere. In Gary’s view, the work has become more complex, but it has made engineering matter more. As he states: “The engineer has to influence not just engineering systems, but the entire built environment – the envelope, the arrangement, the orientations, and glazing. This is exciting as it gives us a bigger seat at the table to drive exceptional outcomes.”
Gary believes that the profession has made some progress in attracting more people to the field, but that it’s time to “double down” on STEM. “We’ve got to create a bigger pool of talent, starting in high school and moving up through the colleges,” he says. “The ACE Mentor Program, with which Syska has participated for more than 30 years, is highly effective. I’d like to see more of these kinds of initiatives.”
“The product is only as good as the person who uses the computer.”
Where is engineering headed in the future? Gary has several predictions: “In the next few years, we’ll experiment more with different software. We’ll focus on finding efficiencies in using tools that make our day-to-day work more automated, less laborious, and less tedious. In the longer term, we’ll have potent design tools that integrate all of our modeling, analysis, or load calculations into some kind of Revit package.
“AI may eventually be able handle 80% of the design. But again, I’m not worried about the future of the profession. Think about a Ferrari. You wouldn’t let an untrained, unlicensed 15-year-old drive it. The machines we’ll be using are our versions of Ferraris. We want experienced experts in the driver’s seat. The longer-term question is how to gain that deep experience and continually transfer that knowledge to junior engineers.”
“Be open to change and be open to challenges."
Gary points out that traditionally, junior engineers would start out doing many menial tasks as a way of learning the trade and moving up the ladder in a methodical step-by step-approach: learning by doing. “However, AI will be taking on many of these entry-level tasks and we need to rethink how we accelerate learning for incoming engineers,” he says. “This includes how universities will teach young engineers and how we as an industry will need to adapt new strategies for learning at a much faster pace and with higher-level thinking rooted in engineering-first principles.”
Although Gary is looking forward to his retirement, he will miss many things about Syska and the A/E/C industry. Relationships, for instance. “Our industry is built on relationships,” he notes. The thrill of the chase is another. He has always enjoyed competing for work, which involves drawing on relationships and collaborating with Syska’s business development and marketing teams to turn pursuits into wins.
What advice does Gary have for newcomers to the industry? “Be open to change and be open to challenges. As engineers, we usually want to understand the entire path before we take that path. But that’s not always possible.” In his own career, he started in an international group and then moved to the healthcare team. Then he was asked to relocate Los Angeles. Eventually, he was “voluntold” to lead the aviation practice. He jumped at each of these opportunities even though they represented risks. “I would encourage people to be confident in themselves and take on challenges,” Gary says. “They can be very rewarding.”