A Tight Squeeze

Aug. 1, 2002
Education institutions must deal with time and space constraints when upgrading utilities on urban campuses.

Planning a utility construction program on a campus, especially in a dense urban environment, presents special challenges. The time and space available to complete a utility job often is limited.

School calendars often allow only narrow windows of availability for shutdowns and repairs. Universities with sensitive research programs can't allow repairs to interrupt services that provide power, steam, chilled water, telephone and data access. For many laboratories and computing equipment, the demand for chilled water can be a year-round requirement.

On older campuses, utility corridors typically are “finite,” that is, the street or open space is limited and in great demand. In most cases, a planned building footprint cannot be altered to accommodate a utility path. A utility planner constantly is competing with other campus uses for service pathways. Meanwhile, utility demand continues to grow. This space squeeze forces schools to consider options such as stacking utilities vertically or constructing utility tunnels, which add cost and complexity.

Lessening the effects of utility construction — noise, dust, vibration and disruption of traffic — is critical to project planning on a dense campus. Administrators must have a carefully orchestrated mitigation plan in place well before construction starts. The school should be communicating regularly with all those affected by the construction to minimize disruptions to the educational process.

Finding the funds

Securing funding for utility construction, even for just the planning, can be challenging. Utility replacement does not have the fund-raising appeal that a new classroom or a high visibility research facility carries. As a result, cost allocation for utility construction often becomes the Rodney Dangerfield of capital development programs — it gets no respect.

The solution is to plan carefully, well in advance of the need “bubble.” As schools prepare individual building project budgets, utility planners must persuade officials to take into account the effect a new facility will have on campus infrastructure.

Ideally, a higher-education campus should be a place that offers peace and quiet; a calm and orderly environment where study, teaching and intellectual discourse occurs without interruption and disturbance.

Unfortunately, most modern construction activity results in the opposite. Utility construction is particularly noisy and disruptive. The noise, dust and vibration of excavators, trucks, sheeting drivers and all-night pumps can be nothing short of maddening to a serious and committed academic community. In some cases, these disturbances can do harm to sensitive experimental work on campus.

With few exceptions, traffic patterns on campus — access to research facilities, classrooms and office buildings, movement for emergency vehicles — cannot be altered significantly. Planners must study and map out proposed detours and alternative routes well in advance of construction.

Where city streets are involved, close coordination with public-works departments and traffic departments is essential in order to develop acceptable traffic-management plans.

Cooperating with owners

Many urban campuses are overlain with a variety of public and private land ownerships. Property easements and rights-of-ways can affect utility uses and permissions. A large campus may even lie in more than one municipal jurisdiction.

A utility planner (and construction manager) must anticipate the needs of public agencies, private utility entities, and private, non-related owners. The timing and sequencing of permit applications; reviews, hearings and approvals must be part of the construction planning in order to stay on schedule.

One kind of permit that almost all municipalities require is a traffic-management plan (TMP) for work in a public way. The requirements for a TMP are to ensure that motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians are safe while construction is underway. Such plans need to consider street crossing patterns for pedestrians. particularly with respect to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Police details often are required for such plans to protect the general public from temporary swings of construction equipment over the public way and sidewalks. Work-hour restrictions also may be part of a TMP, especially to avoid peak-period traffic jams.

Innovative technology

In an open, low-density environment, workers typically use the traditional cut-and-cover method of installing buried utilities. But a mature urban campus, with narrow streets and placement of historical structures close to existing utilities, can present special challenges for utility construction.

When a campus must avoid disrupting streets, officials should consider new, proven techniques. The so-called “trenchless” technologies are used where surface digging is not feasible. Workers can replace undersized or damaged piping by pipe-bursting techniques. This method can be used for straight runs of up to 300 feet without disturbing the surface above. Other trenchless methods include microtunneling, directional drilling, and cleaning and relining.

Microtunneling is sometimes more costly, but it can be employed in suitable soil to install casings or direct carriers below obstructions for considerable distances. Directional drilling often is advantageous because it uses smaller equipment and less staging area. Cleaning and relining, although the least expensive rehabilitation technique, will not always satisfy the need for more capacity on growing campuses.

All trenchless methods require the use of receiving pits and jacking pits at the ends of the runs, and localized staging areas for removing excavated material and handling new product.

Community relations

Advance notice and open lines of communication about construction projects can help win the cooperation of those affected. It is important that those affected receive enough information so they can adjust their schedules. Contractors can adjust starting times in the morning to account for student's study and sleeping habits. The most disruptive activities — shutdowns for repairs or installation of new services — may have to wait until a summer recess.

Noise-, dust- and emission-control standards should be delineated clearly in a contractor's general conditions. Bidders for utility work will be able build in to their pricing and schedule the necessary steps needed to control those areas.

As construction goes forward, it may be useful to choose someone to be responsible for keeping interested parties updated on the project. Utility construction is going to cause disturbances, and it is good human relations to give people an outlet to vent their frustrations. It also gives planners and project managers another opportunity to explain the process.

Cooper is director of utilities, department of facilities for MIT; Anderson is the New England area manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction Services, Inc. (PBCS); Kluver is a senior technical manager at PBCS.

SIDEBAR: Experience at MIT

MIT is undergoing its largest physical expansion since the original construction at the Cambridge, Mass., campus in 1916. A significant capital construction program of new facilities and renovations is underway at the 154-acre campus. This decade-long expansion program will add more than 1.5 million square feet of new or renovated space for research, classrooms, athletic facilities, housing and parking.

The new space will greatly increase the demand for campus utilities — steam, chilled water, high temperature water, fire protection and alarm, domestic water, electric power and information technology infrastructure. MIT's facilities department has planned carefully for the increase in demand and has undertaken a major program of utilities construction.

The key to securing funds for the utility construction was to present the proposal to capital budget planners at the same time as they heard about the new building needs. Joint planning with campus planners and utility planners at MIT has taken place already. With four major new buildings planned along Vassar Street, the main east-west circulation spine through the campus, it was evident that more utilities were needed. The majority of new utilities will run in the MIT-owned railroad right-of-way and along the perimeter of athletic fields. Public street corridors are being reserved primarily for municipal systems.

The significant elements of MIT's Vassar Street utility construction program:

  • Expanding the Central Utility Plant on Vassar Street (9000 tons of increased chiller capacity).

  • Increasing capacity for steam and condensate lines.

  • Increasing capacity for chilled-water supply and return lines.

  • Introducing a new high-temperature water system.

  • Replacing city of Cambridge standards for sewer and water lines, and upgrading storm drains to meet state and federal environmental standards.

  • Upgrading the information technology infrastructure.

After completing the utility work, MIT plans major surface improvements on Vassar Street: new paving, sidewalks and curbs, trees and other landscape features; a bike path and new lighting. These improvements will transform Vassar Street from an unsightly industrial corridor to an attractive, people-friendly street.

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