Welcome to TowerPinkster! Q&A with Sara Bergakker, Director and Senior Mechanical Engineer

Insta Story Team Member News Sara Bergakker

We’re thrilled to welcome Sara Bergakker, P.E.  to the TowerPinkster team. Sara brings more than 20 years of experience as a mechanical engineer and team leader and has a passion for mentoring the next generation of engineering professionals. As a Director, Sara is a key member of TowerPinkster’s business development team with a primary focus on the higher education market. Sara’s higher education work includes large-scale projects with Lake Michigan College, University of Michigan, University of Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan University, Muskegon Community College, Grand Rapids Community College, Albion College, and numerous colleges within the State University of New York system. 

Sara also served as a member of the facilities engineering team at Cornell University and brings a unique understanding of the needs and challenges facing higher education clients. Sara has served as adjunct faculty in KCAD’s Masters of Architecture program where she shared her passion for design integration between architecture and engineering.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself  – where did you grow up and where has your career taken you?

I feel very blessed that my career has afforded me the opportunity to work in a diversity of roles and project types with many extraordinary people. While I grew up in Grand Rapids and started my career here, relatively early on I got the opportunity to move east and work on some incredibly complex research facilities with signature architects that set me on an exciting course toward designing higher education research facilities. I spent quite a bit of time working in New York for an engineering consulting firm, gaining experience in project and client leadership and management. But when I got the opportunity to flip to the client side of things, I took it and worked for an educational institution in the facilities division leading a mechanical engineering team and doing some lab and project planning for new faculty hires. That was some of the most challenging and fulfilling work I’ve ever done, but like so many who grew up here in West Michigan, I felt the pull to come back to this area I love and be close to family. So I moved back to Grand Rapids and the A/E field and rolled up my sleeves on not only some regional higher education work but also some exciting projects for local industry and institutions like The Rapid and The Grand Rapids Public Libraries. I have found it deeply gratifying to contribute to this city I grew up in and started investing in the community, doing some teaching and advising for non-profits like the GRPS and the YMCA. And now I’m excited to be starting a new chapter with TowerPinkster! 

Q: Tell us about your experience working within higher education and with higher education clients.

I have always loved the vibrancy and variety of higher education work. My higher education clients have a keen understanding of facility design and operation which can lead to a deeply collaborative client/consultant relationship during design and construction that feels very fun and special. But working within higher education myself really deepened my knowledge and appreciation for the challenges of constructing, then maintaining and renewing buildings for literally generations. It’s a completely different approach than much of commercial architecture and construction that’s meant to last a few decades at most. Working in higher ed also increased my admiration for the deep affection and sense of stewardship university staff have for their campuses and facilities. As a principled person myself, serving clients that share these values is incredibly gratifying.

Q: We know that you’re incredibly passionate about is mentorship. Why do you believe it is so important? 

I think it comes down to two main things. First, I would not have had the opportunities I’ve had without the mentorship and advocacy of so many wonderful professionals before me. So I feel a sense of responsibility to pay it forward and give as much as I have received. But more importantly, I am so excited by the talent I see coming into the A/E industry. I see so many young professionals eager to learn and innovate. But even more important to me, I see so much interest in designing for the common good and a better future over personal recognition…it’s really inspiring. So I want to guide that passion of the next generation of design professionals, to remove barriers so it can grow and succeed. I’m always trying to mentor myself out of a job!

Q: Tell us about a favorite project you’ve worked on recently. What made it interesting? 

It’s so hard to choose favorites! All my projects and clients are fun and interesting in their own way. Being involved with planning for the proposed amphitheater project in Grand Rapids was really exciting. As was working with a local company on a plan to get one of their manufacturing campuses to net zero energy by 2040. Or working on concepts to discreetly integrate modern sustainable systems like chilled beams and displacement ventilation into a historic dining hall at University of Notre Dame. And actually, a really fun one over the summer was the temporary student recreation facility on Palmer Field at University of Michigan. Plans to keep a student recreation facility occupied while it was being renovated fell through, so we had only two months to work with contractors and a high-end tent rental company to design student workout facilities and locker rooms that could go up in less than four months and then be taken down and removed without a trace in 3 years when renovations of the permanent facility are completed. I love those kinds of unique challenges!

Q: Why are you excited about joining the TowerPinkster team?

There is such a great culture here. I see lots of curiosity and collegiality, but no egos. Lots of seeking feedback and pushing to progress and improve even when it’s safe and easy to find reasons to maintain the status quo. As a person who thrives on collaboration, it’s a wonderful fit. 

Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I love to travel. I’m a ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of person so I try to set aside a couple of weeks each year to unplug and go somewhere I’ve never been whether it’s driving a camper van along the pacific coast, hiking around the islands of Malta, or going on a safari in Tanzania. I’ve learned so much going to new places, talking to strangers and exploring cultures different from my own. It’s made me a more open and empathetic person which has made me a better mentor and a better designer. 

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