An Interview with John Dunlap

[Debbie Reading conducted this interview with John this winter. She is the Director of Business Development for Dunlap & Partners and has been with the company since 2008. She is lovingly dubbed the “mother of the house.”]

I really questioned whether or not to do this interview. Everyone and their brother know John Dunlap. His name and exemplary reputation precedes him wherever he goes. JF, as he is fondly called by many, has not only been involved in engineering design for 40+ years, but has also been leading the charge in sustainability design and energy modeling.

Question: Can you give us a little background history about John Frank Dunlap, the man, the legend, the engineer?  Where you grew up, how you came to be in Virginia?

Answer: Wow! A legend? Probably in my own mind, but I appreciate the thought! I’m a North Carolina transplant to Virginia. I grew up in a little town named Walnut Cove in Northwest, North Carolina. The town population was 2500 when I was growing up. If you have seen the Andy Griffith show about the town of Mayberry, it’s almost exactly how I grew up.

Question: Why did you decide to pursue engineering, specifically mechanical engineering?

Answer: My dad worked for Western Electric, a Bell Telephone Company at the time. When I would visit the engineering section, I was impressed with the technological things I believed they knew. I wanted to know what they knew.

Question: Having started your engineering career, several decades ago, what have you found has changed the most in engineering?

Answer: Speed. I started with a slide rule (still have it as a keepsake) and 2-day overnight delivery. Now, information and calculations are instantaneous.

Question: What have been the most important decisions in propelling your career forward?

Answer: My career has been shaped by my association decisions, people.  I went to college with some very bright people who challenged me and helped me learn to think.  Early in my career I worked with a couple of engineering mentors who did the same thing: Jack Harmon and H.C.YU. Perhaps most influential was my decision, at the behest of Jack Harmon, to become involved in ASHRAE at the National Level.

Question: What changes have you found to be beneficial in modern day engineering/technology?

Answer: Computational technology has moved HVAC design from an art to a science. That can be good if the input process is understood. I find myself wondering if perhaps our emphasis on the speed of getting an answer has obscured the accuracy of the answer. I still find satisfaction in being able to look at the answer and ask the engineer to check the input because what they have doesn’t pass the “sniff test.”

Question: Do you believe sustainability will always have a place in the design industry?  If so, where do you believe it is headed?

Answer:  Most of the sustainable concepts promoted by the USGBC in the 1990’s and early 2000’s have been codified. The younger generation is going to develop new concepts and continue to push the envelope. It is their world to inherit and mold. I hope they are as successful as my generation has been. I hope we are headed “back to the future.”

Question:  What advice would you give to young folks considering a career in engineering?

Answer: Our business, MEP, was considered so stogy for years by young graduates. Now, it is getting a little “sexy!” Renewable energy generation is a growing field and the post pandemic emphasis on HVAC system design and operation has pushed us into the “limelight.” Exciting Times!!

Question: How have your many fundraising efforts and non-profit boards service affected your career?

Answer: I try to be conscience of giving back. I have been blessed over my career to be able to contribute to the “Mission” of several non-profits and have served on a couple of boards. I have always found that participation is rewarding.

Question:  This is a little personal.  I know you and Debbie are the proud parents of three beautiful and very bright daughters.  Having been outnumbered what was it like raising three strong women?

Answer: Well….if you count Debbie, that was a total of four strong willed women in the house!  I guess my answer would be “challenging!”  I had to have male dogs so somebody in the house would listen to me!

Question: Those daughters have now given you seven Grandchildren?  What’s it like for JF to be a grandfather?  I understand you recently took a trip to Disney World with some of the grandchildren.

Answer: I found out, like every grandparent, it’s a great gig!  We play with them, spoil them and then give them back to their parents when the whining and screaming starts.  The Disney World trip was absolutely a delightful experience watching the kids’ excitement!

Question: Having attended and played for Duke University, do you want to talk about their recent basketball season or should we just move right along?

Answer: Next Question…. Since, my son-in-law is still on the football staff I am trying stay optimistic! As to basketball, like a lot of Duke fans, I’m tired of the “one-and-dones.” That said, if they win another National Championship, I’ll take it!

Question: There have been quite a few changes going on here at Dunlap & Partners with the recent merge with Salas O’Brien and you stepping back a bit in your role as President. Thoughts for the future?

Answer: I may throttle back a little, but I still enjoy engineering and interacting with our clients, peers and the great people here.  I don’t think retirement is on my horizon any time soon unless Charles and Essi kick me out!

Question: Well, I don’t see that happening so you don’t have to worry. We’ll take you as long as we can have you! Having worked for you for the last 13 years, I can honestly say, I have only heard you raise your voice 2-3 times.  Two of those times were most recently during our move to the new offices.   Telling you that everything you had in your old office would not fit in your new office did not make you a happy camper!  How are you adjusting to the new space now?

Answer:  Charles and my wife conspired to strip me of most of my hoarded stuff!  I needed to get rid of some of it, but some of it “disappeared” on its on!  Now my office is neat, orderly and I can’t find a damn thing!

Thank you for chatting with me “JF!”  Thank you for being the kind of boss/leader everyone should expect in their career, yet so often don’t find.  I have learned so much from you. Especially patience .. and the value of “Dunlap Time!”

John, congratulations on all of your accomplishments! Enjoy your new role!