BOMA Instructor Al O’Connor, Chief Engineer for The Great American Tower, a Go-To Man

Being a good chief engineer for an office building is a lot like being a good magician. Everybody loves what you do, but not everyone realizes how much hard work, practice and expertise goes into making your job look easy.

Take for example Al O’Connor, building engineer at The Great American Tower, 3200 N. Central Ave. Inside and out, visitors can see O’Connor’s handiwork: a clean, well-maintained, 24-story tower that houses a variety of professionals from attorneys and account payroll firms to various shops.

But what they don’t often see is the expertise required to keep a 25-year-old high-rise functioning well enough to make tenants feel comfortable, secure, and as if they want to stay put.

“If a tenant doesn’t feel content in a building, he won’t stay when the lease expires,” says Susan Engstrom, senior real estate manager for Tiarna Real Estate Services. O’Connor estimates he cut operating expenses by $1 PSF in the 335,000 SF building by automating the HVAC and lighting controls, and by raising the building’s Energy Star rating from 81 to 90. Updating inefficient mechanical and electrical systems helped save $45,000 in recurring annual maintenance, as well.

“The way the market is right now, if our building was operating the way it was five years ago, we wouldn’t be realizing the savings,” he says.

An engineer’s ability to maintain a building is an invaluable form of tenant relations. Poor air conditioning, broken elevators, dead landscaping, plumbing leaks — all sap energy from what should be a vibrant workplace.

O’Connor has overseen the building’s mechanical and operating systems for five years as part of Tiarna. In that time, tenants have faced no serious system failure of any kind, Engstrom says.

Typically, a chief engineer monitors and keeps all of the building systems working, including those for air conditioning, electricity and water. While they call in vendors as needed to do upkeep or repairs, engineers often perform day-to-day preventive maintenance and minor repairs.

Most important, they keep the property manager updated on the state of the building and what long-term work needs to be planned and budgeted.

“It helps if I can make an informed decision rather than allow someone to take advantage of me,” O’Connor says.

O’Connor has shared his expertise as an instructor with the Building Owners & Managers Association of Greater Phoenix, which promotes the interests of the commercial real estate industry in the Valley. One of its aims is to educate building management professionals about best practices.

O’Connor has taught BOMA’s Building Design courses, where participants can work toward the association’s Real Property Administrator (RPA) or Facilities Management Administrator (FMA) designations. The designations signify that a recipient is well-versed in all aspects of property management and building maintenance, respectively.

In fact, the U.S. Navy last year asked O’Connor to teach these subjects and Building Designs and Operations to its naval building administrators in Reston, Va.

For more information about BOMA and Al O’Connor, visit

AZRE Magazine November/December 2010