Jessalyn Nelson, PE, Senior Associate, Walter P Moore (Houston)

Armed with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Lafayette College and a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Tufts University, Jessalyn Nelson relocated to Houston after graduation to begin her career at Walter P Moore, where she was introduced to healthcare design.

One of Nelson’s first projects with the firm was the 19-story expansion to Texas Children’s Hospital Legacy Tower in Houston, where she served as a graduate engineer during design and construction. Her refined analysis work enabled the expansion to increase by a full floor relative to what had originally been accommodated in the structural design.

Additional responsibilities included analysis and design of the lateral system and specialty detailing, as well as firm representation and observation throughout construction of the concrete frame.

Since then, she has continued to work on a variety of healthcare projects, including master planning, new buildings, renovations, and support structures. Throughout these projects, she’s grown from project engineer to senior engineer and project management roles.

In 2021, Nelson received Walter P Moore’s esteemed Horvilleur Award, which is presented annually to one young structural engineer at the firm who has best exemplified excellence in technical design, client service, and business acumen.

She’s known among colleagues as being an excellent collaborator who works closely with clients to find elegant, buildable solutions for their designs and then with the builder to make those designs a reality.

Currently, she’s leading some of the firm’s largest and most complex projects, from the Collaborative Research Building in the new Texas Medical Center development (TMC3) in Houston to the Lyndon B Johnson Hospital Expansion project.

Specifically, the TMC3 campus incorporates healthcare, science, academia, and business to foster innovation and advances in healthcare and is expected to open in 2023. The TMC3 building requires open spaces and flexible layouts to encourage movement and dialogue. Nelson led Walter P Moore’s efforts to design long span, post-tensioned beams to allow for column-free spaces (55-foot bays) while meeting the building’s research vibration requirements. Other unique structural solutions for the full-height atrium, cantilevering lecture hall, and a 100-foot span skylight enhances the dynamic feel within the building.

Additionally, for the new Lyndon B Johnson Replacement Hospital project in Houston, Nelson is heading up the structural engineering efforts while overseeing coordination for the firm’s civil, parking, and traffic groups. The project has a focus on local community and diversity and Nelson has been instrumental in leading the relationships with the subcontractors by working to integrate Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) subcontractor firms within the structural and civil effort.

With increasing experience in various healthcare projects, Nelson understands that future flexibility is important to institutions and owners, as technology and patient or community needs evolve. The structural solutions she provides not only accommodates the current status of the building but seek to anticipate new uses of the space through future renovations—ensuring her work has a lasting impact.

Path to healthcare design: While I hadn’t initially targeted healthcare design in school, I decided to study structural engineering with the desire to work on projects with impact—whether through function, scale, aesthetics, or other means. It began to click when I was serendipitously assigned to Texas Children’s Hospital Legacy Tower expansion at the start of my career. From there I had further opportunities to work on a variety of healthcare projects, from new hospital campuses to small renovations and equipment load checks. As my career progressed, I moved from a graduate engineer level of analysis to increasingly complex and technical designs as a senior engineer. My role on projects also expanded in interacting with the rest of the design team and the clients. This grew my understanding of the unique needs of healthcare clients, and I have been able to step into project management responsibilities. I now manage our internal structural team and external interactions, as well as coordinate efforts across disciplines within our company.

On your desk now: I’ve been privileged to work on some large campus development projects recently, including a collaborative medical research center at the new Texas Medical Center TMC3 campus in Houston. We are currently under construction on a new Houston Methodist campus in Cypress, Texas, including a hospital tower and two medical office buildings. I’m also in the design stage on a large hospital expansion project for the Harris Health Lyndon B Johnson Hospital in Houston.

Most rewarding project to date: I’m so grateful for my introduction to healthcare design through the Texas Children’s Hospital Legacy Tower expansion, where I worked on various graduate engineer tasks including the lateral model and column design. I also had the privilege of regularly walking the construction site to see week-by-week progress as the tower grew. My contribution to the growth of Texas Children’s Hospital means even more to me since becoming a parent myself.

What success means to you: As a structural engineer, my goal is often to be behind the scenes by the time a project is complete, and yet, to know the impact that I’ve had throughout. Is the functionality enhanced by the systems we designed? Has the original vision flourished under my contributions? Did we provide an efficient yet sound base to meet budgetary needs? What alternatives did we open up for consideration? It can be easier to reflect on success at the end but it’s important to take a breath in the thick of the process and appreciate the interim victories as well.

Industry challenge on your radar: I would love to see more consideration of mass timber structures in healthcare. The use of mass timber has been increasing across the building industry and can provide some advantages compared to traditional concrete and steel construction, even beyond the sustainability benefits. Mass timber structures are lightweight, and prefabricated components can increase speed of construction. It will not be the appropriate choice for every project, but getting it on the table in early design stages for particular contexts can provide additional options, and eventually increase the use of mass timber as a standard practice. It feels fitting within a healing environment to explore more sustainable alternatives.

Must-have skill for healthcare engineers today: Healthcare engineers need to understand the big picture and learn what is most important to the client. Today, clients are looking for fast schedules, least cost, and least disruption to existing facilities. Combine this with the complexity of healthcare systems and the variety of needs, interests, and technical requirements of the end users. The challenge to the engineer is to provide the structural solution that respects these needs right now while maximizing future flexibility to allow for ever-changing equipment and space needs. The ability to adapt and be nimble is key; healthcare design is such a dynamic industry we always need to be looking ahead.

For more on the 2023 HCD Rising Stars, read here.