Robb A. Risani likes to lead by example, so if he says he’s going to do something, he does it, which is why people can depend and rely on him to get the job done. A self-described hard worker and perfectionist who takes pride in his work, he’s very particular about the drawings and reports that he creates.
Based in Arup’s New York City office, Risani is a licensed fire protection engineer, certified plumbing designer (CPD) and LEED AP; he is also ASSE 6060-certified with design and project management experience. He began his engineering career at Arup 16 years ago, initially serving as graduate engineer, rising through the ranks over the years.
Most recently, Risani was promoted to associate principal in 2023 and serves as the firm’s America’s east plumbing discipline lead. He also is an accredited project manager for the company and serves as America’s Plumbing Skills leader for Arup, a Skills Network division within the organization that serves as a forum to collect and leverage the broad expertise of Arup’s global community to promote learning and development.
In addition, he’s involved in multiple organizations and committees. Risani has held leadership positions in the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) New York City chapter over the past 10 years and is serving his second term as chapter president. He also serves on the American Council of Engineering Company (ACEC) Metro Plumbing Code committee, the 2023 NYC Plumbing Code committee, and is a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.
Yet Risani considers his experience working for a plumber throughout his seven years of college just as essential as it helped him toward his current profession.
Read on to learn about Risani’s career path in this exclusive interview with Plumbing Engineer.
Plumbing Engineer: Tell us about your career path.
Robb Risani: I grew up in a home that had an older plumbing and heating system, which was in constant need of repair. Whenever Steve Ross, the plumber, came to my house, I would be front and center watching him at work. As time progressed, he offered me a summer job while in high school. When I started college, I arranged my schedule so I could continue working with him while pursuing my studies.
I worked with him for seven years throughout college until I graduated with my second bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York.
I had originally pursued an engineering degree to expedite becoming a licensed plumber. I had no idea there was a plumbing engineer profession until a classmate forwarded me an open position at Arup, which I was ultimately hired for straight out of college.
Thinking long-term, it was actually the design work rather than the install that interested me.
Working with the plumber gave me a great head start in my career as I could visualize and feel what I was designing early on.
PE: What do your current duties at Arup entail?
RR: As the discipline leader, my day-to-day work is incredibly dynamic and varying; it is never the same, from client calls, site visits and team meetings to participating in proposals for new projects. I also find time to be a mentor and be available to other engineers so that they can ask me questions as they arise and help provide guidance and possible solutions. I also find time to lead designs by setting up strategic meetings along the project path to provide guidance and direction to junior and senior engineers.
My style with our junior engineers is to not give them the answer but help them find the answer. It’s good to know the reasoning behind engineering skills and to know where it came from. I will tell them I think it’s this but please find the answer and prove my memory is correct. It usually is but it’s also good for them to know where it came from.
PE: Do you enjoy designing a specific type of facility or venue over another?
RR: I enjoy aviation, high-rise design and specialty design. Aviation projects include the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) T4 phase 2.5 expansion, the LaGuardia Airport (LGA) Terminal C commissioning, Concourse F and D design. Innovative high-rise design includes 665 5th Ave., which uses reclaimed rainwater for irrigation and toilet flushing, and hybrid heat pump water heaters for hot water.
Some of my all-time favorite projects that I worked on were the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and the Little Island Park Project in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. I would joke that I could stop by the Roastery, grab a specialty coffee and then enjoy it while taking in the skyline of NYC and Hudson River views at Little Island.
Other types of projects that stand out are the opportunities to represent America overseas and diplomacy when working for the U.S. State Department of Overseas Operations, such as the new U.S. Embassy in London that we completed, which is quite impressive.
I’ve worked on many diverse projects throughout the years — from office renovations to embassy compounds, from train stations to airport terminals, and from parks on piers to high-rise buildings. One of my greatest joys and senses of accomplishment is to see projects from the start of design to construction finish. Nothing compares to the excitement of being able to show off your projects to friends and family and say, “I did that.”
In my career, I have seen myself shaping a better world whilst remembering that sustainability is everything.
PE: What are some top career highlights?
RR: It’s very difficult to pick just three highlights as I feel there have been many great accomplishments. Whenever a project opens, there is a tremendous sense of pride and happiness.
One of my top highlights was when I obtained my Professional Engineer license. This was an early goal I had, and it was extremely gratifying to achieve it.
I also see myself as a mentor and I try to set an example for other engineers on my team. I love watching those on my team grow into senior roles with supervisees of their own. It’s incredibly gratifying and motivating seeing them achieve their professional credentials/qualifications. I believe this is a way to set expectations for others. I hope that people can see things in me that they can achieve for themselves.
Another career highlight was when I worked on 461 Dean St. in my earlier years. At its construction, it was the tallest modular building in the world, towering more than 375 feet. The modular building was fabricated in a factory and then assembled on site.
We designed the building in Revit, creating bathroom pods, kitchens and sprinkler layouts for this building, etc., made factory visits and inspections, and then finally did site inspections as the modules were erected at the final location. It was a pretty innovative project.
PE: What do you like most about your job?
RR: I love the day-to-day challenges and sense of accomplishment when problems are solved. I also enjoy the interaction with my team members and clients, the ability to a see a client’s vision become a reality. Lastly, I enjoy witnessing the development and growth of my team members.
A lot of these young engineers joined my team right out of school. I am part of the hiring team at Arup and have recruited many graduate engineers and engineers. Some now have supervisees of their own; they’re running projects and they’ve moved to other offices and have high accolades within the firm. I feel I pushed them in a way that made a difference — that means a lot.
PE: How do you deal with the different mindsets in terms of plumbing design?
RR: Every plumbing engineer thinks things should be done differently, right? Every design is different, so you look for the common ground, draw it out and see what makes the most sense. There could be different methods based on where you are and space constraints.
Projects vary depending upon the client, or architect, the project scope and spatial constraints. Then you tend to lean on what you feel more comfortable with, what you know works and so forth.
PE: What accomplishments are you particularly proud of?
RR: I am particularly proud of obtaining my professional engineering license, which is measure of a hard-earned achievement for me; for others, this provides credentials that they trust. I feel this sets an example for other plumbing engineers within and outside of my firm to pursue this goal.
I am also particularly proud of assisting in the establishment of a scholarship for engineering students at the City College of New York, where I am an alumnus. The scholarship will be named for Carmen “Rick” Sorvillo, in honor of his dedicated service to the ASPE NYC Chapter since 1976 until he passed away on Dec. 11, 2020, during which time he served as treasurer, president and on the chapter board of directors.
The scholarship aims to help alleviate the financial burden associated with a college education as well as introduce these students to career opportunities as plumbing engineers.
It also includes a student membership to ASPE, so hopefully students understand it’s aimed at those who would potentially go into the field that wouldn’t know about it otherwise.
PE: Which professional organizations have shaped your experience in the plumbing industry?
RR: ASPE has been essential in shaping my experience in the plumbing industry; I feel the organization is of the utmost importance. I started attending ASPE meetings even before my start date at Arup. I have been a constant fixture at these meetings where I have been able to learn from the technical discussions and develop lifelong friendships with colleagues from other firms. I also have been on the ASPE board for the past 10 years, which has helped me develop my leadership abilities within my firm.
ASPE is a forum for all in the industry to get to know and see the engineers that they work with in a different setting and get to know them as people rather than just combatants sometimes. It makes working easier when you see the human aspect of things and everybody wants the same thing to some degree; you want successful projects for both you, the owner and them.
PE: Why is it important to get involved and volunteer for industry-related associations?
RR: Future generations of plumbing engineers need a source of information to rely on. These associations are a wealth of information for current and future engineers. It’s how I got started and I feel it’s important to give back. I continue to learn from ASPE and I hope that newer generations will also.
PE: What is the most pressing issue for plumbing engineers today?
RR: As shown at the 2023 ASPE Tech Symposium, one of the most pressing issues is sustainability, more specifically decarbonization and the use of heat pump-style water heating. There were a bunch of modules on that; it kept coming up. That’s what I see in day-to-day living in New York, where gas use is being limited and we have to find other methods to create hot water.
Water quality/safety management plans and Legionella growth mitigation are two major topics as well.
Another issue coming to the forefront, especially for larger cities, is due to this virtual world we live in: office to residential conversions. Less office space is needed but we always need more places to live.
PE: In-office or remote work?
RR: Hybrid. There are benefits to both for work-life balance. It makes your personal life easier when you need to be home and can’t spend one or two hours commuting. However, at the same time, you need that interpersonal connection to hear what other people are talking about and have relationships, not necessarily only within your discipline, but with others in the office.
PE: Who do you consider your mentor and what have learned from him/her?
RR: My first boss, the plumber Steve Ross, taught me the importance of hard work, reliability and trustworthiness, which set the foundation for my career ahead. It was always important to be honorable and to do what you said you were going to do.
Then my initial supervisor at Arup, Igor Kitagorsky, helped teach me the fundamentals of plumbing and fire protection, as well as trusting in myself. He encouraged me to develop my own solutions to problems.
In later years, Raymond Quinn, my next supervisor at Arup, challenged me to take on new roles within the firm and to become a leader.
The beauty of working at Arup and its talented employees and leaders is that there is always an opportunity to learn from others, which may shape your professional future as well.
Another influential leader within the firm has always encouraged that you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone to learn and grow in your career. I have embraced this way of working.
Lastly, I feel that I continuously learn from those who are on my team. They are truly talented engineers, and I value their different perspectives.
PE: How have you been a mentor to others?
RR: As a leader, it is a personal responsibility to make sure that others can benefit from my experience. I always make time to answer questions and provide guidance. My team always knows I’m either a call or Teams message away. They can even come over to my desk; I prefer to have the face-to-face interaction. It’s just as important to be there to answer the questions as to be a guide to help them find the answers to their questions.
Sometimes, knowing where and how to find an answer is often more important than knowing the answer straight away. It’s kind of like the fishing analogy: Teach them how to fish and they will be able to eat forever.
As a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also have Monday and Friday touch bases to ask questions, talk and get to know each other on a personal level. And, as part of our career development, we have quarterly or half-year check-ins and go over what we’re looking to do and how we want to develop. I check in with my supervisor, people check in with me; it’s great. I am an Arupian for life at this point; I love it, live and breathe it.
PE: What are you and your firm doing to get more young engineers into the industry?
RR: Arup participates in mentorship programs that provide exposure to engineering such as the Architecture-Construction-Engineering mentorship program and Girl Scouts of New York.
Arup New York also recently hosted 40 high school students from the Academy of Urban Planning. For that we presented a series of talks such as a career readiness workshop, and gave experience and sounds lab demos.
We also have an internship program, which is run across 13 offices in the Americas region, including Canada. It represents more than 80 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada, and includes students from our Howard University Scholarship Program. Over the 10-week, in-person program in the U.S. and 17-week program in Canada, all interns get to engage with staff at all levels, work cross-functionally, and network across Arup’s multidisciplinary teams in various offices.
With ASPE NYC, we attended an engineering expo at White Plains High School to encourage involvement with high school and middle schoolers. So, we try to reach out before they’re in college and while they’re in college — through both the firm and through ASPE. With the new City College of New York scholarship, we are looking to encourage more involvement in the plumbing engineering discipline.
PE: What can the industry do to better recruit and retain young professionals?
RR: This first step is to better educate people as to what plumbing engineers do. It’s also important to highlight that there are a great deal of opportunities in the field. We also need to let people know how rewarding a career in plumbing engineering could be and how they can have the ability to show off their projects.
I love seeing the completed design and experiencing what I’ve spent all that time coordinating and designing become reality. There was a project on 6th Ave., right by Rockefeller Center, that I walked by with my daughter on our way to see the Rockettes. And I said, “You see this water feature in front of Radio City?” She looked at me said, “Yes, I know you did this.” We were both able to appreciate it together.
She comes to Bring Your Child to Work Day and loves running around the office, saying how proud she is of her dad — both here and at school. To hear her say, “My father is an engineer,” brings a sense of accomplishment and I enjoy knowing that my family is super-proud of the things I have a hand in.
PE: What is your life like outside of work?
RR: For the past 15 years, I have been married to my incredible wife, Janine, and we have two wonderful children: Victoria (age 9) and Robert (age 3). We spend as much family time as possible with shared family activities, including vacations, time on the water and Victoria’s dance competitions. I also am an avid golfer and tennis player, which Victoria has already developed an interest in.
In addition to being a participant, I enjoy being a sports fan, namely New York Rangers hockey games and watching tennis matches.
PE: What advice do you have for those interested in working in plumbing design and specification?
RR: I would encourage them to get involved and learn more about the industry through ASPE and plumbing magazines such as this. Ask as many questions as possible as we love to teach and mentor the next generation of engineers. There are so many opportunities and potential specializations in the field and we are in need of talented engineers.
PE: What are you looking forward to in 2024?
RR: Construction progress on current projects such as 665 5th Ave. in Manhattan, and an 830-unit apartment building in Brooklyn, as well as other areas at JFK and LGA airports, and the design of new projects. I also look forward to the continued advancement of technologies and approaches to decarbonization.
PE: What does it mean to you to be named Plumbing Engineer’s 2023 Engineer of the Year?
RR: I am honored and privileged to receive this recognition. I still remember picking up a hard copy of this magazine when working at my first job so many years ago. I would never have dreamt that my career would have taken this path. It shows that hard work pays off. I encourage others to see that there are many routes to get here, and it can be an obtainable goal for everyone.