Michael J. Mace, AIA, Associate Principal, Page Southerland Page, LLP (July 2011)
The high-tech industry - a source of innovation, jobs, and rapid growth - must often bring new facilities online quickly. Whether they are semiconductor plants or data centers, speed to market has become the watchword in the design and construction of high-tech operating facilities. High-tech firms that need a rapid response to their markets must look for facility designers and constructors who understand how to get the job done quickly and correctly.
Three Essential Tactics
Regardless of the type of facility being planned, there are three essential tactical steps that are common in bringing a project to market quickly.
- 1. Commitment to collaboration: Owner, architect, and contractor must make a conscious, clear commitment to working together as a single team.
- 2. Pre-design analysis: This analysis uncovers the requirements of the project, its timing, budget, and potential problems that may occur.
- 3. Flexible schedule: The collaborative team must develop a flexible schedule that allows for changes in the project during construction.
With these three tactics in place and operational, there are several useful steps that can enhance the completion of the facility.
Fast track with general contractor - Fast tracking a project, instead of the more traditional approach of designing, bidding, and then constructing, can shorten the schedule by weeks or months. This requires the owner, or the owner in conjunction with the architect, to select a general contractor at the outset of planning the project. The contractor of necessity must be a part of the collaborative team mentioned above. Ideally, the contractor will have demonstrated experience with the type of facility being proposed and a prior relationship with the owner or architect.
Unbundling building and equipment - An important concept
to consider is unbundling. What is unbundling and why consider it? Unbundling simply means equipment selection and building design is done separately. Typically in a high-tech project, a building is designed around equipment that is then assembled in place. Unbundling the equipment and building allows design and construction to proceed much more quickly. By providing skid-mounted equipment that has been assembled off site, the building can be constructed and then equipment inserted in nearly complete condition. But there are other issues to consider when unbundling.
Right-size the building - Proceeding with building design apart from equipment selection makes it even more important to size the building and its spaces correctly. In general, the building must be sized somewhat larger to allow insertion of skid-mounted equipment; aisles will need to be sufficient to bring skids into the building. But right-sizing also means allowing space for growth and future expansion. The bottom line is to not cut the building square footage to the bone to save a few dollars upfront. These types of facilities will undergo several equipment refreshes over their life. Sufficient service and access space needs to be designed into the facility initially or future modifications will be difficult and expensive.
Modular components - Working with modular equipment components is another technique that allows fast tracking to work. Many types of equipment lend themselves to modularization: uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems, battery racks, chilled water-pumping systems, computer room air handlers (CRAH), chillers and pumps, and generators are but a few. Modular components reduce cost, simplify procurement, and allow for ease of expansion in the future.
Separation of building trades - An accelerated schedule requires careful coordination between subcontractors and trades. By keeping various trades working in physically separate areas as much as possible, conflicts between individual subcontractor schedules can be minimized.
For example, in a typical two-story data center, primary electrical distribution can be placed within the first floor, while the primary mechanical distribution can occur on the second floor. The obvious benefit is that electrical and mechanical trades can largely work simultaneously and without conflict. The use of 3D building information management (BIM) design documentation can be an important tool in separating the work of various trades and minimizing conflict and overlap. By designing the facility in 3D, conflicts between trades and the building structure can be identified early and corrected before the materials hit the job site.
Interactive scheduling - Scheduling, of course, is the critical task when bringing a facility online rapidly. A regular, frequent interactive scheduling session is essential to keep the project moving rapidly. The interactive nature of the scheduling is crucial; owner, architect, general contractor, and subs should all participate. The work session allows all of the team players to present their critical schedule tasks and requirements, and allows the entire project team to comprehend each other's needs and critical path. For larger projects, a wall calendar is used with multi-colored cards per discipline or trade. Each party writes its tasks on its cards and places them on the calendar in the appropriate sequence and date. Adjustments are made collectively as the entire team understands how their work and needs fit together with the rest of the team.
Submittal roundtable - A submittal roundtable is one of the best tools for keeping a tight schedule. Typically, contractors and subs submit materials, components, and shop drawings to the architect for review and approval. The architect then comments and returns the submittals to the contractor, and the entire cycle is repeated until approval is reached. The submittal roundtable vastly speeds up this process by having the entire comment, review, and approval process in one session with all parties present. When the session is complete, the submittal for the particular component is approved - shaving weeks off the project schedule.
One size doesn't fit all - Each facility is different and each owner has specific goals for his/her facility. The architect and contractor must be able to understand the owner's needs and be able to adapt to them.
One of the most challenging projects we have done was to convert a 1980s' two-story manufacturing facility that housed a small data center. The project required a significant renovation/expansion to convert the building to a large data center. The project had to be designed and constructed without taking the existing data center offline. The project included a new dual-feed utility service entrance/distribution, new generator plant, new chilled water central plant, new dual mission-critical chilled water loop, an upgrade of the existing building structure to an EF2 tornado rating, and an upgrade of the white space floor-loading capacity from 100 PSF to 250 PSF.
Phase one of the project included 2.5 MW of IT load, 25,000 square feet of white space, administrative support space, a new building management system, and related support spaces. The project included a fast-track construction packaging delivery and construction execution process. The project required extensive programming, on-site investigations and planning to develop the demolition sequencing, construction implementation, and project interim phasing requirements. During the course of the project, the client requested multiple designs or "what if" scenarios related to the new data center white space. The design team had to vet these options for consideration while keeping the original design scope on schedule.
The design team worked with the general contractor and owner to define the impacts of the various concepts relating to schedule and budget variances to determine the best and highest use for the facility. The initial phase was designed and constructed within a 14-month duration and incorporated all of the facility upgrades to provide a plug-and-play fit-up of subsequent phases.
Collaboration is the key - Without question, it is the ability of the owner, architect, and contractor to enter into a collaborative relationship that determines the success of a fast-tracked project. Collaboration means not only sitting at the same table talking, but each party understanding and respecting the strengths and needs of the other. When that happens, and a few simple techniques are applied, the result is a facility that is ready in the shortest time possible - achieving true speed to market.