Out of Office: Rebecca Delaney

An engineer’s thoughts on how to serve the greater good

Rebecca Delaney cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge on a recent trip to San Francisco.

Mechanical engineer Rebecca Delaney is focused on a big problem: the human and environmental impact of what and how we build. In the United States, buildings consume about 40 percent of the energy we produce, and are the largest source of carbon emissions. An advocate for healthy buildings, Rebecca works with her team in SOM’s Chicago office to find sustainable solutions. Her work has garnered many accolades — she was named last year as one of 40 outstanding engineers under 40 by Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine. In addition to her work at SOM, she brings her expertise far and wide as a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders, the ACE Mentor Program, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Rebecca tells us what motivates and inspires her in this installment of Out of Office, a series on the people behind SOM’s global practice.


What made you want to become an engineer?

Engineering complements my affinity for math and science. But also, it allows me to explore my natural curiosity for the world around me. My career is a constant cycle of creating hypotheses, testing them, and using those results to make new hypotheses.

What aspect do you enjoy the most about your job?

Problem solving.

If you hadn’t become an engineer, what would you be doing?

When I was four years old I wanted to be a “horse helicopter pilot.” I’m not sure this actually exists. Maybe I would have pioneered that field.

What piece of advice do you have for students?

Engage in the world. Pursue a career where your passions and talents intersect.

What are three books you think anyone should read in their lifetime and why?

What the Dog Saw: and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell. An engaging compilation of articles, ranging from current events to public policy. One of the most interesting stories is “Million-Dollar Murray: Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than manage.”​

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. An expanded version of “Earth Without People,” an article on the resiliency of nature. It is amazing to consider how our most advanced works of engineering, such as tunnels and bridges, will crumble once humans are no longer here to maintain them. Meanwhile, natural flora will continue to thrive and overrun land that was previously cleared for development.

ASHRAE Handbook — Fundamentals. I have to plug an engineering book! If you are ever interested in the engineering behind HVAC systems, this is a great place to read about psychrometrics (the heat transfer guiding air properties), sound metrics, pipe sizing, duct pressure drops… Have I bored you yet?

What’s your favorite app?

Zillow. I use it to look for design inspiration and fantastic deals on fixer-uppers.

Rebecca on safari in Tanzania

What experiences are on your bucket list?

- Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
- See the northern lights
- Visit Greece (the whole country)

You’re showing visitors your city, where’s the first place you take them?

I’d take them on an architectural boat tour along the Chicago River, followed by a visit to Homeslice Pizza (it’s not deep dish, but it is amazing!).

What keeps you up at night?

I think about how can we all become better listeners, so we can move forward together.

When you think about the future, what excites you?

I’m excited by the possibility for further collaboration between private and public entities to promote cities that serve all their occupants.

My current work with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has been eye-opening. It’s helped me understand how we can leverage public policy to push our industry forward to further reduce energy consumption. For example, the recent expansion of Chicago’s energy benchmarking policy is providing a court for public shaming, more or less, for poor energy-performing buildings.

Have an inspiring vision that you can easily communicate. Earn the respect of your coworkers. Be humble, hungry, and (people) smart.

What is most important in design right now?

Promoting human health while minimizing environmental impact. We’re constantly incorporating new insights into our approach to designing healthy spaces.

Rebecca and her husband take a hot air balloon ride in Napa, California

Who is someone you admire?

Dr. Bernard Amadei, the founder of Engineers Without Borders USA. He once asked, “What if we stopped engineering for the wealthiest one percent of people and started engineering for the other 99 percent?” This was a total paradigm shift for me and how I think about building solutions.

What is the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?

The Hearst Tower lobby in New York City. I love the facade — a mixture of historic restoration and contemporary design. The ground floor lobby is an incredible volume full of light, with a water feature that uses harvested rainwater.

What is the most important quality for an engineer to have?

Communication skills.

Define good leadership…

Have an inspiring vision that you can easily communicate. Earn the respect of your coworkers. Be humble, hungry, and (people) smart.

Define good design…

Good design is approachable. Everyone should feel like they can comment, critique, and enjoy it.