Communication, Rapport Key for FM at Chicago Botanic Gardens

By Greg Zimmerman, executive editor  

William Brown’s duties as vice president of facilities and planning at the Chicago Botanic Garden give new meaning to the term “plant manager.” Brown manages all things facility related for the 385-acre site, which includes more than 2.4 million plants in 24 display gardens, as well as several buildings that house laboratory and research space, education centers and plant exhibit space. In 2009, the organization opened the Daniel A. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, a 38,000-square-foot space. The facility received LEED Gold certification in summer 2010.

“The function of the building is plant conservation,” says Brown. “So we couldn’t imagine building a building without focusing on sustainability.” Brown, who has dual responsibilities as the organization’s lead facility manager as well as being charge of capital projects, was intimately involved in the design and construction of the facility. He acted as the main go-between for the designers and the scientists who he says were very particular about the programming for the facility.  

Given that Brown and his staff would be managing the facility after it was built, being involved in the design was a huge help. As one example of the design-operations connection, Brown says the project team selected a pigmented concrete floor in the entryway of the building. He says it’s an attractive flooring system, but also easy to clean and maintain.

Another example is the focus on energy efficiency. “It was great to work on a project where energy savings was a priority,” he says. “That’s one of my biggest expenses in the operations budget.” The building includes a 73-kilowatt photovoltaic system, occupancy sensors for lights, and what Brown describes as a “variation on geothermal” the facility uses water from a nearby lake for cooling.

The building also includes a 16,000-square-foot garden roof that is open to the Garden’s 800,000 visitors per year. In fact, maintaining and operating a space open to the public but also used for research is just one of the many challenges of managing such unique facilities. It’s certainly a bit different than operating an office building, says Brown.

The new Plant Science Center, for instance, includes several freezers important to plant research that require uninterruptible power because they must be maintained at a certain temperature and humidity within a very slim tolerance for variance. Alarms programmed into the BAS system help make sure the settings never get out of spec. Plant growth chambers and the plant labs themselves also have similarly tough specifications for temperature and humidity.

Brown, who has been at the Garden for 16 years, says the key to handling the special requirements of the facilities is to work carefully with the scientists, understand what they’re trying to accomplish and build rapport. “We have a good back and forth regarding the equipment they need and the facilities to support them,” he says. Brown enjoys the relationships he’s formed — he affectionately calls the head of soil research “The Dirt Doctor.” And he’s picked up a few things along the way, too. For instance, mycorrhiza fungi, as he explains, are little organisms that form networks with each other and symbiotic relationships with plants. They can “sense” when one oak tree’s roots need moisture and can distribute moisture from another nearby oak tree’s roots that has plenty. He says picking up little tidbits like that keep the job interesting.

Brown says the one piece of advice he’d impart to any facility manager starting out is to always over-communicate. He says if that if there’s any universal bad rap FMs have, it’s that they stay in their mechanical rooms and don’t talk to anyone. “You don’t just do the work, you have to tell people you’re doing it,” he says. “People skills will distinguish a good FM.”

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  posted on 10/5/2011   Article Use Policy

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