Dark clouds and light rain threatened to force this year's Hutchinson Center staff picnic indoors, but Bob Cowan wasn't worried.
"The sun will be shining by 10 0'clock," said Cowan, director of Facilities Engineering.
That kind of confidence comes easy when Rick Larson works for you.
OK. So, Cowan doesn't really count on Larson to control the weather. But maybe he should. After all, the sky did brighten before the picnic, where Larson received honors as this year's winner of the T. Evans Wyckoff Esprit de Corps Award.
Larson leads the team that controls the Center's mechanical systems — heating, cooling and ventilation. In that sense, he does have something to say about the weather — or at least the environment inside every lab, office and clinic on campus. Larson and his team also monitor the Center's fire alarms and 700-plus freezers — not the ones in the cafeteria but the ones scientists count on to preserve research materials. "If a freezer crashes, valuable research could be lost," Larson said.
All together, Larson and his team continuously monitor and control 200,000 different points — valves, dampers, and gauges — around the campus. They work closely with the rest of Facilities Engineering — the boiler, electrical, mechanical, architectural and preventative maintenance teams — to keep everyone warm in winter and cool in summer plus meet the need for heightened ventilation in spaces where laboratory research and patient care occurs.
That sounds like a job that would keep Larson on the run, but it doesn't — at least not in the literal sense.
Thanks to a vast network of computers &mash; 6,000 of them — and carefully placed sensors, Larson and his team can observe, adjust and troubleshoot myriad functions with a click of the mouse. And they can do it without ever leaving their base on the D level of the Hutchinson Building.
It's a great example of a hands-on job that's gone high-tech. "Rick and his team actually do more programming than the IT department," Cowan said.
Larson and his team relish being one of the few in their field to write their own computer programs. "It's a different breed of engineer nowadays than it used to be," he said. "We've really had to jump into the fire and learn this stuff."
Technology is just a tool, though, and much still depends on the blood, sweat and tears of the people using it. That's why Larson is such a worthy choice for the Wyckoff Award, Cowan said. The late T. Evans Wyckoff was one of the Center's most dedicated supporters and a longtime trustee. The Wyckoff Award annually recognizes a staff member who embodies that same spirit of dedication.
Goes the 'extra mile'
"I've worked in the building engineering field for more than 30 years and Rick Larson is as dedicated as they come," Cowan said. "Facilities Engineering is filled with potential Wyckoff Award winners, but Rick's willingness to go the extra mile and ability to solve just about any problem is just incredible."
Examples abound. When the facilities network experienced a widespread meltdown, Larson toiled for 24 hours to restore the network and ensure the problem would not occur again. When moisture collected in a ventilation duct, Larson devised a sensor to detect and respond to any future moisture before it could cause any harm.
Meeting those kinds of challenges is what Larson loves about his work. "It's quite a job to juggle everything, but it's fun," he said. "When I solve a problem that's been bugging me or plaguing the Center, I can go home at night and feel good."
Larson took a roundabout path to his present position. After high school, he joined the Navy and became an electronics technician, serving on a research vessel that tested new navigation equipment. After leaving the Navy, he earned a degree in biomedical photography and, briefly, became a photographer with the King County morgue.
Larson quickly conceded that taking pictures of corpses wasn't for him and went to work with his brothers as a carpenter. In 1986, he applied for a carpenter position with the Hutchinson Center, a job he held for the next 10 years.
During that time, Larson's interest in computers led him to spend spare moments learning about the Center's facility-control systems. "I did a lot of small tasks such as building checks and really picked up a lot of knowledge," he said. When an opening popped up on the control team, he jumped on it. Within a year, he was the lead.
Over the years, the Center has become well known for facility controls excellence. In fact, the company that supplies the equipment, Siemens Building Technologies, brings prospective customers to the Center for tours.
"Rick leads an incredible team that runs an exceptionally sophisticated facility," Cowan said. "Some people have said it's more complex than a nuclear power plant."
The team consists of Joe Claassen, Patrick McPearson, Bill Zook and Gary Gores. "They are very talented people," Larson said. "I couldn't do it without them. Believe me."
The same holds true for everyone in Facilities Engineering, Larson said. "Without the great efforts of the boiler, electrical, mechanical, architectural and preventative maintenance teams, the good work of the control team would be meaningless. I'm really happy to be working with such a great bunch of people."