The traditional design/construction process often leaves facility managers out in the cold and the results are less than impressive. New and remodeled facilities that don’t address operational and maintenance needs and sometimes neglect even the most basic considerations: the placement of light bulbs that require scissor lifts to change and no storage area in the building for a scissor lift; a maintenance closet too small to accommodate both staff and equipment, forcing staff to lie down and scoot on the floor to reach a calibration valve; or a building envelope designed to last 100 years but made of materials that block cell phone reception in the building. If these examples sound familiar, it’s not surprising. Operating a building on a day-to-day basis gives facility managers insights into what works and how, and these are extremely important messages for a project team to have. For facilities to be successful, facility managers need to be involved early in the design/construction process.
Make Your Voice Heard
When a new construction, renovation, or remodel is about to begin, explain to decision makers that oversights in the design/construction process will cost them more in the long term – either in the need for redesign, reconstruction, or extra staff time, or all three combined. This can help decision makers realize how their budget will be affected without your input.
A positive attitude will make a big difference. Consider yourself a resource to the project and find out who’s running the show. Some designers see facility managers as adversaries because you might shoot down aspects of their visions with arguments of practicality. Approach them with a genuine willingness to help and realize that they are visual thinkers. Take them on a tour and show them the type of challenges you’ve had. For example, one facility manager took a designer up into an attic where a project team had decided to place the cooling tower inside the building envelope. Because the cooling tower was resting on concrete, which experiences small cracks over time, the facilities staff had to encase the base of the tower with a thick layer of epoxy to prevent leakage. After seeing the division between the design intent and the functional reality, the designer had a new appreciation for the facility manager’s contributions.
Chose the Checkpoints
You should be present at initial kick-off design meetings/charrettes and participate in the development of a strong Owner’s Project Requirements to be sure they include information about the project handoff to facilities and systems training. Most facility managers are unaware of a project’s budget, schedule, and the allotted time frames for each phase. You are generally consulted at the 11th hour and asked to provide feedback. At that point, you’re in a bind to review all the details quickly and any suggestions you might make could take too much time to redesign. Establish regular and clearly defined protocols that keep you in the loop. If you don’t have time to attend all the meetings, make sure that meeting notes are documented and distributed to you for review. Then have an identified mechanism in place for the team to receive your feedback. You may want to email the team with comments, generate a report for the following meetings, or attend specifically targeted meetings to be sure your concerns are addressed.
Similar to a project’s constructability review, an “operationability” review of drawings and specifications should be done to validate that maintenance considerations are considered (e.g. location and size of mechanical rooms, height of light fixtures and need for a scissor lift to change light bulbs, etc.). This not only serves the facility, it can maintain the design intent. For instance, on one campus the impression of a stunning lobby is marred by a wall lined with lumbering plastic recycle bins. The designer did not think about the need to accommodate them with an alcove or built-in cabinetry. Others measures might be more fundamental. Sometimes designers place recycle bins is such a remote location they no longer serve a purpose because they don’t get used. They may specify a flooring material like carpet in an area that you know needs resilient hard surface flooring. These are the kind of issues you can flag in an “operationability” review.
If commissioning will be a part of the project, engage with the commissioning agent early in the process and attend commissioning meetings. Even if the facility won’t be commissioned, have the project team create a systems’ manual for you – similar to the type that a commissioning agent provides – so you have a summarized document of how things work. Getting numerous thick binders of operations and maintenance information isn’t very helpful if you need to quickly alter a system on its second day.
Be sure there are other appropriate protocols for the project hand-off. Define the warranty period and clarify ownership of post-construction problems that may arise. Have a system in place for your staff to receive adequate training. Get the project team to prepare a user’s guide for occupants and offer a presentation on the sustainable features of the building and how to use them – such as lighting systems, automatic paper towel dispensers, and when it’s okay to open a window – to ensure the facility performs properly.
Once the building has been occupied for 3-6 months, survey the users on what’s working and what’s not. If the building will be commissioned, get the survey results before the agent arrives to identify potential issues in advance. Have a debrief meeting with the project team to be sure lessons learned are recorded and strategize solutions to issues that arise.
Whether a project is new construction or renovation, your familiarity with how buildings function and occupants behave makes you an invaluable asset to the project team. Take the initiative to breach the divide and share your knowledge. You’ll greatly increase the chances for the building to comply with performance expectations and you’ll be much happier operating the facility.