PM Engineer Archive



The plural sector and plumbing

An important driver of change in the construction industry.

||  By Christoph Lohr, P.E., CPD, ASSE 6020, LEED AP BD+C



By Christoph Lohr, P.E., CPD, ASSE 12080

"To produce educated, honorable men and women prepared for the varied work of civil life, imbued with love of learning, confident in the functions and attitudes of leadership, possessing a high sense of public service..." — portion of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) Mission statement.

I had to recite the mission statement from memory at least a thousand times during my freshman year at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), including those lines above. I had to memorize many other phrases, too, but more than 15 years later, the line “possessing a high sense of public service” has stayed with me. Perhaps it was embedded before I ever stepped foot “on post,” as it were, but I always had the desire to make an impact in my community — to matter, to make a difference.

I am likely not alone. In terms of civic engagement, younger generations have been voting and volunteering at higher rates than previous generations. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, I think we can all agree that politics has become a much bigger portion of daily life. Whether on social media or at our local coffee shop, we all are spending more energy talking about the bigger picture.

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the writings of Henry Mintzberg, a renowned Canadian academic and author who has made significant contributions to the field of management and organizational theory. He is best known for his work on the nature of managerial work and organizational structures, widely regarded as one of the most influential management thinkers of the 20th century. I first focused on his strategy works, but more recently, especially since joining IAPMO, Mintzberg’s concept of the plural sector has really stood out.

Mintzberg's Plural Sector theory proposes that organizations can be classified into three sectors: the private sector, the public sector and the plural sector. The private sector consists of organizations that are owned and operated for profit, while the public sector is made up of organizations that are owned and operated by the government. The plural sector, on the other hand, refers to a hybrid form of organizations that have both private and public characteristics, such as non-profit organizations, co-operatives and mutuals. Mintzberg argues that the plural sector is a distinct and important sector in its own right, and that it plays a crucial role in addressing societal challenges that cannot be solved by either the private or public sector alone.

Mintzberg believes the plural sector has the potential to rebalance society by providing an alternative form of organization that is more accountable and responsive to societal needs. He argues that the plural sector can provide a bridge between the private and public sectors, addressing the limitations of both and creating a more equitable and sustainable society. In his vision, the plural sector would be more participatory, democratic, and community-based, and would prioritize the well-being of its stakeholders over profits. Mintzberg believes that by empowering the plural sector and creating more opportunities for its growth, we can create a more balanced and better-functioning society.

Individual MEP firms may have limited impact, making small differences on a project basis. For a significant impact, engineers and engineering firms need to become involved in shaping codes and standards.

In construction, and especially plumbing, there is a clear desire among mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) firms to transform the industry. These firms aim to enhance efficiency, sustainability and overall building quality through innovative technologies and processes. The objective is to create structures that consume less energy and enhance the comfort and safety of occupants. This desire to make a difference is evident in the mission and vision statements of various MEP firms, who are (paraphrasing):

  • Transforming the industry;
  • Providing innovative and effective solutions;
  • Empowering communities;
  • Focusing on the future;
  • Disrupting the status quo;
  • Staying ahead of trends; and
  • Offering community-oriented solutions.

However, the challenge lies in the fact these firms operate in the private sector. This limits their impact, as real change in codes and standards is necessary to truly empower communities or disrupt the status quo. Individual MEP firms may have limited impact, making small differences on a project basis. For a significant impact, engineers and engineering firms need to become involved in shaping codes and standards.

Organizations like the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) and the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) are having a big-picture impact on society by advancing the standards and practices of the plumbing industry. These organizations work to promote the safe and efficient use of plumbing systems in buildings, and they play a crucial role in developing and enforcing industry standards and codes. Their efforts have led to the creation of more energy-efficient and sustainable plumbing systems, which have a positive impact on the environment and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, their advocacy for safe and reliable plumbing systems helps to improve public health and safety by reducing the risk of waterborne illnesses and other health hazards. Through their work, these organizations are making a positive impact on society by promoting the use of high-quality, efficient, and safe plumbing systems in buildings.

And now, more than ever, we need engineers to help us come up with solutions to our water and sanitation issues. As I wrote in the October and November editions of my Plumbing Science Newsletter, “…poor perception of the plumbing field collides with today’s reality about the need for strong plumbing resiliency in the face of chronic disasters like drought and acute disasters like we’re seeing in Florida this week. Without the engineers and installers trained on emerging water system technologies, we risk falling behind in disease prevention.” And “What the plumbing industry and our society needs are more degreed and licensed engineers that have the specialization and expertise to design plumbing systems with 21st-century considerations.”

Engineers who get involved in such processes (such as IAPMO’s American National Standard-designated code, the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC)) can play a vital role in shaping the future of their industry and improving the quality of life for people around the world. By participating in these processes, engineers can provide their expertise and help to develop standards and codes that are based on the latest research, technology, and best practices. This involvement allows engineers to ensure the products and systems they design are in line with the latest standards and codes, which helps to promote safety, efficiency, and sustainability. Additionally, by participating in these processes, engineers have the opportunity to influence the direction of the industry and help to advance the state of the art. Overall, getting involved in ANSI-accredited codes and standards processes is an important way for engineers to make a positive impact on their industry and on society as a whole.

I’d like to think that Prof. Mintzberg would view the ANSI-accredited process in a positive light. I imagine he would like the diverse representation in the process so that the perspectives and needs of different stakeholders are considered while being responsive and accountable to our 21st-century society's needs. In order to solve 21st-century society plumbing needs, we need engineering firms to support their experts and to “walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.”

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Christoph Lohr, P.E., CPD, LEED AP BD+C, is the vice president of technical services and research at IAPMO. All views and opinions expressed in this article are his alone. Have some thoughts on this article? Contact Christoph at