A Spotlight on Specialties: Raising the Roof

Get ready to meet Zander Agnew, our resident roofing and building envelope expert.  Yeah, that may not roll off your tongue or perk up your ears, but if you’ve ever faced a leaky roof, been forced to accessorize your space with buckets large and small, you know Zander’s actually a mini superhero. His power is a wealth of knowledge, which he flexed in our Q&A session to show how a building envelope (which includes your all-important roof) is more like complex systems that require a diversity of skills to assess, improve and sometimes save clients from costly damages.

What exactly does a building envelope specialist do?

Zander AgnewIf you asked my clients, they would say that I work with them to understand their needs, investigate and anticipate building issues, and design practical solutions. While that’s accurate, it is a very broad depiction of what I do. I specialize in the building envelope which is the physical separator between the conditioned and unconditioned environment of a building. Here’s another way to think about it: Any time you go from being indoors to outdoors, there’s a building envelope defining that transition.   I monitor issues like tolerance to air, heat and moisture. You always want the building envelope to do its job because when it fails, in the instance of a leak or a crumbling foundation for example, it can make people’s lives extremely difficult.

How did you pick an area to specialize in?

I studied mechanical engineering in college, and immediately after graduating went to work for a roofing manufacturer as a field technical representative. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it?  I was doing that for a few years before I was lured over to the “Dark Side.” Someone (perhaps a Sith Lord?) recognized my knack for roofing and architecture. I sure didn’t see it, but their confidence in me gave me that push to pursue that path further. I became their Virginia architectural representative. I continued work with the manufacturer for a few years before joining Baskervill in 1998 to pursue a wider range of projects. Now I perform roofing assessments, forensic building studies and other tasks on a variety of building types, which can be a pretty diverse day-to-day.

What are your thoughts on specialization versus being a “jack of all trades?”

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one discipline, but building envelope demands a decent grasp on most architectural and engineering principals—I run into so many different conditions and issues that I’m expected to know enough about to solve. That’s why I consider myself more a “jack of all trades,” though I may seem like a specialist. The great thing about specialization is that focus ideally allows you to dive deep and consider more specific options to suit client needs.  The downside to focusing on one discipline is that sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees. It’s important to always examine the bigger picture and see the problems through different people’s eyes, which is critical for the work that I do.

What do you love most about what you do? 

The best thing about what I do is the collaborative nature of the job. The people I get to work and problem solve with are a huge factor.  We work with such a diversity of projects and clients, and I get to be a part of a lot of that. I get to be a lexicon of sorts for roofing and envelope knowledge to many different types of projects and people in different sectors. This diversity wouldn’t really exist with another field or really another company besides Baskervill.

What have been some memorable projects you’ve worked on?

The projects I find most rewarding are the ones where there’s an existing problem and I am able to provide a solution. Sometimes a problem (e.g. a leak, air infiltration, high humidity, etc.) has been around for years but no one has been able to either identify the source of the problem or find a successful solution. It’s pretty satisfying to identify a problem that’s plagued others for such a long time, and document it and design a solution.

How do you handle the redundancy of having a specific niche? How do you keep it exciting? 

I deal with a lot of different projects and building issues–such as new designs, existing buildings, leak investigations, building studies, roofs, walls, waterproofing, windows, doors, terraces…you name it, I probably have dealt with it. The project duration is typically short, so redundancy is somewhat limited.  I’m not sure what I do is exciting, but it’s definitely challenging, and being able to conquer each individual challenge is what’s exciting for me.

What has made you stick with this practice for so long? 

Frankly, roofing and building envelope, and all its complexities, is what I know. It’s what I’m experienced at and it’s how I contribute to clients. They think I’m good at what I do, which reinforces my doing this job for so long. I can’t emphasize how important it is to get the building envelope right. Without a solid envelope, things will likely not go as planned. Like I said, who wants to live in a leaky building. or one with a crumbling foundation?

Are you surprised where you ended up in your career? Without your specialty, would you ever consider other paths?

You’re going to make me do some soul searching, huh? I honestly have no idea what I would be doing had things played out differently.  Who can know where a road not taken leads? Somehow, I followed a certain path in my career, and was given opportunities to learn about roofing and building envelopes. Along the way, all of that information stuck. I wasn’t sure where I was going initially, but eventually where that path led was to the very top of buildings (like a superhero).


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