It’s not unusual for healthcare design professionals to talk in metrics—cost per square foot, steps saved, HCAHPS scores—but James Ferris, an electrical engineer and healthcare operations manager at TLC Engineering for Architecture (Orlando, Fla.), takes a personal approach to data, too. “I try to put our projects into metrics of ‘patients seen this week’ or ‘babies delivered,’” he says. “It makes us remember the core purpose behind the deadlines, RFIs, and other challenges.”

Ferris has worked on a range of recent projects, from Baptist Health South Florida’s Miami Cancer Institute, where he was project manager, principal, and lead electrical engineer on the new 500,000-square-foot project, to an electrical system upgrade for South Miami Essential (Miami). “These are the small, hidden projects that we do all the time, and probably affect hospitals the most,” he says. “If we do our job right as MEP designers and engineers, our work goes unnoticed by most because the lights just stay on.”


What drew me to a career in engineering

I always enjoyed physics and math, and my father was a mechanical contractor, so I sort of followed in his footsteps but made my own path on the opposite side of the construction world as an electrical engineer.

My first project in healthcare

A 500,000-square-foot major hospital expansion and renovation. It had everything you can think of in it—ORs, cath labs, imaging, a patient tower, phased renovation, a new central energy plant. There went the training wheels!

Lesson I learned on that project that I still carry with me today

The level of deep diligence that you must go to in healthcare. When you put your name on something, you need to make sure it’s right, test it yourself to ensure it works, and follow through in detail. I take a tremendous amount of pride in how detailed my designs are, and it’s helped again and again.

Challenges that keep me up at night

I’ve gotten calls in the middle of the night because a generator didn’t start or there’s been an outage that could risk patient lives. That scares me, so I can’t turn off my ringer, and I can’t sleep for days after. But at the same time, it also humbles me that I’m the person they call in a crisis. It’s happened a few times, and you just pray and hope and try to think as fast as you can for the solution.

On industry trends

Thumbs up: Big data, analysis, and algorithms. Healthcare does some of this, but there’s so much more coming. I’m a fan of facts and statistics, so I think this is good and will help the industry improve in the long run.

Thumbs down: Atriums in hospitals. They take so much capital, space, energy, and effort to maintain due to smoke control systems that only function if there’s a fire, which may never happen. Natural light is shown to be critical in many studies, but I’ve not seen a study that shows a big open element at the entrance makes patients feel more welcome or improves staff satisfaction.

How the healthcare engineer’s role has changed most during my career

We’re being challenged to give answers and criteria earlier and earlier in design. I think that’s good for the team and the process, which is full of waste. If we wait until design documents to give shaft sizes to architects, we can’t complain when floor plans stay in flux.

Three words my coworkers would use to describe me

1 hard worker

2 detailed

3 and I hope they think of me as a good leader


Three items on my desk

1 photo of my family

2 calculator I used when I passed my Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam tests

3 National Electrical Code cheat sheet (Amazingly, with all the apps out there, I can probably design 75 percent of the project with that over-used cheat sheet.)


Outside the office, you’ll likely find me …

At home with my wife and family. My kids are at the perfect ages (8 and 5) where they’re fun to hang out with and still think it’s fun to hang out with me. This will probably start to change, so I’m savoring it while I can.


Favorite …

Quote “He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right.”—Confucius.

TV character I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I did spend some time watching Alton Brown on “Good Eats.” I enjoy how he merges science and cooking together. Of course, I put on 10 pounds from cooking everything he did, so that wasn’t a long-term sustainable idea.

Line from a movie “220, 221, whatever it takes,” from “Mr. Mom.” I also say “1.21 gigawatts” from “Back to the Future” a lot.

Snack Healthy: cucumbers. Not so healthy: mint chocolate chip ice cream

Favorite way to unwind after a long day Listening to podcasts. I’m addicted to “The British History Podcast,” and am already about 80 hours into it and just reaching Alfred the Great. I’m a strong believer in continuous learning and statistics, so listening to history mixed in with several other innovation and management podcasts while I relax or drive is great to me. And, yes, I’ve accepted that I’m part nerd.

Ferris was project manager, principal, and lead electrical engineer on Baptist Health South Florida’s Miami Cancer Institute, which opened in January 2017 with six linear accelerator vaults and 84 infusion bays.
Credit: TLC Engineering for Architecture