Facility executives dig into the nitty gritty of design and construction to get what matters most to their organizations

By Lynn Proctor Windle  

Facility executives might not be the best people to turn to during a construction project when it comes to calculating the tensile strength of steel I-beams or precisely figuring the ability of a facility to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes.

But when it comes to the details of how a facility and the systems that comprise it will fare during daily use and over the long haul, it’s tough to find anyone with more know-how. Consider Randy Curti.

Curti, project manager for Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, is one of the first within the organization’s facility administration department to see capital improvement requests that are expected to cost more than $1,000. That means he’s not only involved with the big projects, such as the new 1.5 million-square-foot, $450 million addition the hospital is building, but he’s also right there when it comes to painting, flooring and interior furnishing projects as well.

Experience taught him and others on his staff about what systems and materials work well in a children’s health care facility and which ones are best left for other facilities. “We’re a children’s hospital so we try to pick colors that are uplifting and bright,” he says. “But we also have teenagers here, so we walk a fine line between being too cartoonish and finding materials that work.”

Partly because it’s a children’s hospital, and partly because it’s just a hospital that operates 24 hours a day, experience has taught him that materials like no-wax flooring and paint that won’t wash off when walls are scrubbed down are absolute necessities.

“We need materials that are durable and can withstand the type use you see in hospitals,” he says.

Ones Who Know

Facility executives involved with the design and construction of building projects bring an intimate knowledge of how an organization works and how the selection of materials and components can create world-class facilities that meet both organizational and occupant needs. The experience can shape decisions on systems ranging from HVAC to security to the roof. Facility executives can make sure that occupants understand what can and can’t be accomplished through a new building while standing up for occupant requests during the design and construction process.

At the same time, they’re able to express ideas about concerns an organization might have, such as energy costs, longevity and occupant comfort, that an architect or contractor might not think about unless asked. Carol Blanar, for instance, says she’s known around T. Rowe Price not only as the director of facilities, but as the person who cares about “day two.”

By that, Blanar means that she and others on her staff are the ones who have to operate the facility. They need to develop a sense of ownership in the building by participating in design meetings, playing a role in material selection and knowing how the organization can exploit certain design elements in a building to its advantage.

The extent of the role that facility executives play in design and construction projects is determined by their knowledge of an organization and how it uses buildings as well as the structure of the organization’s facility department.

A facility executive like Curti at Children’s Hospital plays a much larger role as a project manager than somebody whose primary responsibility is operating a facility. But just because one role is larger for people like project managers, it doesn’t mean the role operations people play is any less significant.

They might, however, have a tougher time getting heard by others involved with a project. Architects, contractors, construction managers and others who make their living by designing and building facilities will at times give a facility executive responsible for operations short shrift.

Getting It Right

“Nobody in construction would ever say, ‘We don’t need your input,’” says Johnny Torrez, director of facility management for the University of California system. “That’s like telling a mother her baby is ugly. You just don’t do it.”

But what goes unsaid can be nearly as damning.

Facility executives who bungle occupant requests and don’t take the time to review documents before construction meetings can harm their credibility, virtually guaranteeing that they’ll be on the outside looking in. And they’ll know that’s happened when the architects and other construction professionals behave like a waitress shorted on a tip: They’ll thank you for coming, but don’t really care if you ever come back again. Torrez, who oversees 10 campuses within the University of California system, says that, in the best situations, facility directors at each campus are involved from the very first of the five stages of a new building project. Getting involved early allows facility executives a chance to point out some of the expenses that might be incurred because of special facility requirements. If occupants are planning a research and development laboratory, for example, Torrez says the facility executive can speak to special security and HVAC needs that might lead to higher than expected utility costs.

“I can’t emphasize enough that the facility representative can add a lot of value if they’re allowed to participate in the process,” Torrez says. Even facility executives responsible for design and construction sometimes ignore their peers on the operations side. That’s true even though the latter have a history and a knowledge of how a building and its components operate once construction is complete. At University of California buildings, for example, facility directors can typically offer advice on certain systems based on prior experience and can also be sure that lifecycle costs get factored into product selection criteria. Project managers, Torrez says, often are charged with meeting a construction budget and, as a result, might select an inferior product with low initial costs.

He remembers one project in which designers selected an electrical switch with which the facility department had a bad experience.

The switch had been used in previous projects, and a pattern had developed that required the switches to be changed after three or four years. Facilities personnel objected to its use in the new project, but the project manager went with it because it allowed the project to stay closer to budget.

“Three or four years later, we were changing that switch to the one the facilities department recommended,” Torrez says.

Making Occupants Matter

What facility executives have to be careful of, however, is offering input and advice on a project without really understanding the context of the facility or the dynamics of the design and construction process. Torrez says facilities people might think a certain building system component should be used in a project because its expected life is 50 years, for example. However, the project manager and occupants might only want one that lasts 20 years because the intended use of the building is likely to change by that time. Avoiding that sort of “gold-plating” effort — calling for equipment and components that are over-designed or engineered for the project at hand — can help a facility director maintain credibility with others on the design and construction team.

Facility executives are ultimately going to be the ones that have to operate and continue to upgrade the facility once it is complete. And while facility executives certainly have a say in equipment specifications and the selection of facility systems, there is a danger of going overboard. “You’ve got to let the architects do their job,” says Joe Havey, vice president of operations for Amerimar Enterprises in Denver, which operates a 2.5-million-square-foot facility in Denver, the city’s largest mixed-use facility. “When you’re the owner’s representative you’re writing the checks so they tend to listen to you — perhaps too much.”

At the same time, however, taking a lackadaisical approach can jeopardize the success of a project. Havey says facility executives as a whole have embraced green design principles and green building rating systems, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system instituted by the U.S. Green Building Council. They have done so not only because green design results in better buildings, but because it makes better business sense. “When tenants see that Energy Star label or that LEED certification hanging in the lobby, it sends them the message that the buildings owners take responsibility for energy costs,” Havey says.

And that could be a key attraction for tenants, given that they’re the ones paying utility bills.

In addition to getting involved with the physical design and construction of a project, Havey says that one of his key roles is explaining the design and construction process to tenants — and sometimes shepherding them through it.

For the most part, he says, tenants don’t understand the importance of what transpires at construction meetings. Most tenants simply want to know what their space will look like and when it will be completed. Anxious tenants, for example, need to be reassured that construction documents have financial vehicles in place to penalize contractors and suppliers who fall behind schedule and jeopardize a project’s on-time completion.

“You have to keep tenants involved in the construction meeting so they know progress is being made,” Havey says.

Job Never Complete

Also important is the role commissioning plays in construction projects and the influence facility executives have in making sure it is done properly. Undertaken primarily to ensure that the completed projects meet design intent, commissioning is one tool facility executives can use to make sure the project they paid for is the one they got.

Robert de Grasse, senior manager, quality and operations support for Grubb & Ellis Management Services, one of the nation’s largest property and facilities management firms, says he has employed commissioning in a way that tests and certifies equipment in all modes of operation while helping keep the expense of commissioning to a minimum.

Skinning a Cat — Both Ways

While some estimates put commissioning costs as high as $3 per square foot, de Grasse says it is possible to cut commissioning cost by a third or more by combining the principles of commissioning with the rules of statistics and system reliability needs.

He is applying statistical models that allow commissioning efforts to be scaleable. For example, instead of testing all variable air volume boxes, de Grasse says it’s possible to commission only some of them and then apply statistics to determine whether those that went untested will work properly. The results of the sample can be used to determine how similar components will perform.

The other approach, he says, is to determine what systems or equipment should be fully commissioned based on the impact a failure can have on an organization and its reliability needs. For example, he says, full commissioning of all equipment in a mission-critical space is a wise approach. However, testing all systems and equipment in all spaces, such as warehouses or janitorial closets, could be viewed as an unnecessary expenditure.

“Approaching commissioning as a scaleable service still allows it to catch oversights in design and construction while keeping costs in check,” de Grasse says.

Perhaps one of the most important roles facility executives can play during the design and construction of new facilities has more to do with the understanding of what a building is than with the nuts and bolts of optimizing building systems.

With experience, says John Bryant, capital asset manager of design and construction for Wyndham International, comes an appreciation and understanding of what a building can do and how an organization expects its facilities to perform. It’s critical that facility executives share that knowledge with architects, engineers and other designers brought into a project. They likely don’t understand the culture of an organization as well as the facility executive, and their designs can benefit from increased understanding.

“I can see things in projects that others can’t,” he says. “Buildings are machines, to be sure, but they’re almost organic.”

Best-suited to Judge

Remaining an effective part of an organization’s design and construction team is no small feat, yet it’s one that’s critical to the success of facility projects. Few on the design team understand not only how an organization’s facilities will be used, but also how they will be maintained and the expense of doing so. Often, that’s an area in which architects, specifying engineers and others involved with a project don’t have nearly as complete an understanding as the facility executive.

Consider a large urban school district in which facility directors and other facility staff members were kept at bay during the design and construction meetings of a high school expansion project and the construction of a new middle school.

At the middle school, new rooftop HVAC units were specified and installed despite the facility department’s advice that heat pumps with individual controls in each classroom be used instead. School administrators opted for the rooftop units even though heat pumps would be less costly to operate, offer greater user control and be easier to maintain.

One of the problems, says a member of the district’s facility department, is that changing air filters on the rooftop units requires two people, the removal of ceiling tiles and the use of a lift to access the unit from the building’s interior. Those requirements mean that filters rarely — if ever — get changed during normal work hours. Classrooms are usually occupied. Instead, the filters are changed on nights or weekends, resulting in greater labor costs.

A comparable situation occurred when the school district expanded its high school, adding on a new wing. Although the facility department objected, flat paint was specified for the interior instead of a glossier surface that would have been easier to maintain. Also overlooked, says a member of the facility department, was the new wing’s security system. Somehow, school administrators and other involved with the project neglected to include one.

So now that the wing is complete, the facility department is paying to staff the area with a security officer until the alarm system can be designed and put in place.

“That stuff happens all the time in school districts,” says one a member of the district’s facility team. “Administrators will say, ‘Yeah, you can sit in on this,’ but rarely do they take our input.”

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  posted on 5/1/2004   Article Use Policy

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