Facilitating Research

Nov. 1, 2002
University biotech system renovations require thorough planning, communication, innovation and a realistic budget.

Research grants are the lifeblood of a university, and biotech research, in particular, depends on state-of the-art investigators and facilities. Yet many university biotech research facilities are housed in dated buildings where support systems — electrical, mechanical and plumbing — are well past their prime. The school may have made patchwork improvements over the years, but comprehensive upgrades often are put off in order to avoid costly disruptions to ongoing research.

Without facilities available to relocate researchers during a major renovation, schools must maintain their building systems during a construction project. This can make the logistics of a major overhaul daunting. Fortunately, there are effective tools and approaches that facilitate construction work at occupied biotech research facilities. The keys to a successful renovation are thorough preconstruction planning, clear communication, and an adequate budget to deal with hidden conditions and other contingencies.

There is probably no greater utility guzzler than a biotech research building. In older facilities, existing systems often are stretched to the limit. Modifications are needed to support the increasing utility and life-safety demands of the research process. Yet these systems can barely keep pace with the high-usage burdens placed on them.

The good news is that building systems have improved in terms of their energy efficiency, quality and performance; many systems also occupy less space.

The nature of biotech renovations

It is important to understand the nature of major renovation in an occupied research building. First, the construction schedule must be deliberate and phased; it may be lengthy. The project may require installation of temporary, redundant systems to supply the building's utility needs. A good deal of time and expense may be allocated for building temporary systems, cutting them in, and getting them balanced so that workers can pull out the existing system and build a new, permanent system in its place.

From a construction standpoint, the most efficient way to perform a switchover is to shut down a system for perhaps three days and replace it. However, in an occupied research building, multiple, one-day shutdowns may be the only feasible way to accomplish this. These short-term shutdowns will have to be factored into the schedule for utility switchovers.

Creating additional utility support space or shaftways often is prohibitive in terms of time, money and disruption of ongoing operations. Therefore, wherever possible, new systems must be shoehorned into existing utility space. The installation of additional fume hoods in a stacked facility requires more exhaust ducts. But it is not feasible to punch holes in the floors above to install an exhaust duct straight up to the roof. This would cut out valuable research space. Whenever possible, find a way to tap into an existing shaft.

Installing new systems also has a ripple effect involving modifications or additions to other support systems. For example, when a supply air handler is being replaced, the new unit is selected to fit the footprint of the old one to avoid creating a new space. However, the old unit may have run on 480 volts, while the new one runs on 120 volts, creating the need for a new or additional power source. The building-management systems also must be modified and integrated into the sequence of operation.

Preconstruction planning

Preconstruction planning is perhaps the most important step in ensuring project success. It should be initiated early in the conceptual design phase and must involve representatives of the entire project team — the school or its representative, architect, engineer and contractor, as well as building management, building maintenance and building users.

As part of this process, it is essential to document and evaluate existing conditions. Original as-built drawings and documentation of modifications put in place over the years are often difficult to come by, so these documents are frequently re-created based on a thorough building inventory.

A thorough, detailed pre-construction planning process allows exploration of alternative schemes, including temporary and permanent delivery systems, and their respective schedule impacts. It also identifies mitigation measures. Essentially, the project is built on paper, forecasting and planning for every eventuality. The process also offers an opportunity to build in much-needed flexibility for future expansions and increased demands on utilities.

Enhanced communication is a critical tool that facilitates the completion of any biotech renovation project. All members of the project team, as well as building management, maintenance people and end users, need to understand the nature and scope of the project, the shutdowns that are planned, and the redundancies that will be available at any given time.

Just as preconstruction planning must start at the earliest stage of the project, so, too, must communication. While it is not typical for facilities personnel to involve end users in this process, in this instance it is critical for researchers to fully comprehend what is planned. Initial communications efforts ensure that all the stakeholders share the same expectations and are fully aware of all the project effects.

As a project progresses, the school must provide communications about its status. Regular updates and reminders are essential in order to convey what is happening, what will happen over the next couple of weeks and how construction will affect building systems and research activities. Techniques for getting this information out include update newsletters, notices posted throughout a building, e-mail messages, and links to websites.

Contingencies for emergencies and an emergency notification program also are necessary. Because redundancies are being reduced during construction, some sort of failure may occur. A system of contacts with a primary and secondary means of notification must be in place so the construction manager can act quickly to mitigate the effects of an unplanned service loss.

As construction schedules evolve, feedback from building users is another effective communication tool. During the life of a project, researchers often will plan their ongoing work around the timing of construction events (such as system shutdowns and startups, or demolition in proximity to their labs). By providing information regularly to the construction team, the team can ensure that accommodations are made to meet their specific needs and concerns.

Realistic budgets

An adequate budget must be developed — one based on a realistic assessment of the potential contingencies inherent in a project. By their nature, renovations uncover hidden conditions. For instance, an air handler may be pulled out for a planned replacement and reveal the condition of another unit above it that also must be replaced.

The budget, therefore, must provide for an effective and timely response. How much to include for hidden conditions? There is no “rule of thumb.” It all depends on how effective the preconstruction effort has been and how much information is available.

In any case, the budget for contingencies must be evaluated soberly, without false hopes that everything will go exactly according to plan. Only one thing is certain: a renovation virtually always uncovers unexpected conditions. On the positive side, these often present opportunities for innovations and improvements that enhance the overall value of the project.

A university biotech renovation is fraught with the potential for costly disruptions to valuable research. It is little wonder that much-needed upgrades in building systems and services often are postponed. Yet with the proper planning and careful communication, a major renovation can provide the university with a facility that supports cutting-edge research well into the future.

Rowan is a senior vice president in the Milford, Conn., office of Sordoni Skanska Inc., a Skanska USA Building Inc. company that provides construction-management services to the educational marketplace. Sordoni Skanska was project manager for the Yale University renovation.

Renovating Yale's Kline Biology Tower

Biological research depends not only on precise experimental conditions, but also on more mundane factors, such as a reliable air-handling system. At Yale University, six aging air-handling units (AHUs) in Kline Biology Tower posed the threat that their lack of reliability could disrupt, if not destroy, valuable research.

Renovating Kline Biology Tower required upgrading utility support systems in this 13-story, 212,000-square-foot research facility, and concurrent buildouts of laboratory spaces on six floors, without interruption of existing building services and activities during the 12-month project.

Two temporary 30,000-cfm AHUs were installed on a 3,000-square-foot exterior yard on the south side of the building to supply conditioned air from a new glycol chilled-water system to four lower floors; four AHUs in the sub-basement were demolished and replaced; two AHUs on the 13th floor were demolished; new ductwork was tied in to two existing rooftop AHUs; and a rooftop gantry was installed to lift equipment from the exterior of the building.

Eight years before the start of this project, two AHUs were installed on the rooftop level. Operating at about one-fifth of their 100,000-cfm capacity, these were to be brought up to full capacity and tied in with new ductwork to supplant the older 13th-floor units slated for demolition.

The phasing and scheduling of the system renovation took advantage of the zoned design of the building to reduce the disruption experienced by researchers and ensure an efficient work process. Thus, the project was broken down into four quarters — dividing the upper and the lower sections of the building into halves.

The two temporary AHUs supplied conditioned air to the lower floors during demolition and replacement of the four AHUs in the sub-basement. New ductwork was tied into the newer AHUs on the rooftop level, which were brought up to capacity and balanced. The tie-in was performed over a weekend shutdown; crews worked continuously to complete the process before researchers arrived back to work the following Monday morning.

Chilled-water shutdowns also were proposed to be performed over weekends. However, researchers said they preferred to be in the building when the new system was brought on line so that they could monitor their research equipment and ensure that proper temperatures were maintained. Therefore, each chilled water shutdown was scheduled to begin around midnight on a weekday, with units restarted at 8 a.m. the next morning when researchers had returned to their labs. In certain instances, temporary portable air-conditioner units were installed in laboratories as a precaution.

Pedestrian and occupant safety was a priority. A 480-foot crane was used at certain points in the project to lift steel and ductwork to the project site. It was not feasible to close off the entire area, so a plan was devised to re-route and supervise pedestrian traffic when the crane was in operation. Plans also were put in place to avoid unauthorized entry into work areas by building occupants and visitors.

The noise and vibration effects of demolition also were controlled. Due to researcher concerns that vibrations could disrupt microscope use, the schedule was revised to perform potentially disruptive demolition during the night.

Open communication among all members of the project team was essential to the progress of this project. Every two weeks an updated schedule was posted on bulletin boards in the building and e-mailed to the team.

Despite many challenges, including a manufacturing strike that delayed delivery of new equipment, the project was completed on schedule in December 2001.

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