Six life lessons for cleanroom owners


The other day, I had the dubious pleasure of sitting across the table from the owner of a newly built contamination-controlled life sciences facility. The pleasure was dubious because the critical laboratories of this facility have remained empty and unused ever since construction ended. The litany of problems listed by the owner seemed endless.

Basically, the facility could not function properly without extensive modifications. Cleanliness levels could not be met; biocontainment capabilities fell short of the desired biosafety level; floor and wall finishes were not acceptable, laboratory temperature levels could not be consistently maintained; numerous conditions existed where researchers could catch their garments on protruding controls, latches and valves.

I asked the owner to think back and to list the most critical issues that were missing in the design and construction phases. A well-documented list was immediately produced in anticipation of the question being asked. As I listened, it became evident that not all of the mistakes made were the fault of the designers and contractors. A fair number of problems rested squarely on the shoulders of the owner.

Space prevents me from repeating the entire list, however, the first six “lessons learned” are enumerated below. After each lesson, I've added my own comments:

1. Make the selection of design and construction firms on the basis of their employees' experience—not the company's experience.

In this instance, the staff members assigned to the project were well experienced in general construction but not in contamination-control projects. The firm's design and construction experience was not reflected in the experience of the designers and field personnel.

TH—When selecting architects, engineers and contractors, owners should insist on interviewing the proposed project teams rather than the owners and marketing directors.

2. Make sure the architects, engineers and contractors are on the same page and are working in unison.

Not only did this owner get caught in the middle of finger-pointing between designers and constructors; they actually worked against one another. No one on the team took the ownership of the coordination of information during design, or ownership of problem resolution during construction. It was clear that the “professionals” did not hold the owner's objectives and priorities as their own, and mutual respect was non-existent.

TH—Owners should keep in mind that they are actually forming a team that will be working together for many months. The costs associated with incompatibility will always surface, but often times, many months after construction is completed.

3. Insist upon full-time representation from the architects and engineers during construction.

Occasional site visits by the design team may be sufficient for approving monthly payment applications or for satisfying poorly written contracts; however, construction problems do not wait to appear until the end of the month. All construction projects have unexpected conditions that require immediate attention. Having design representation on-site will support project momentum and keep construction personnel from exceeding their responsibilities.

TH—Decision-making and coordination can be a full-time job for the owner's project manager.

4. Fully inform the architects, engineers and constructors of the owner's approval and decision-making processes.

Architects and constructors pride themselves on performing their services in record time, and often insist on the owner functioning at the same rate of speed. In this project, the owner was often presented with requests for approving change orders on the spot, when it would take weeks for the contract change to go through the owner's approval process. One of the first items to clarify during project initiation is the review, approval and change order procedures.

TH—All project team members should be cautioned against assuming that the other team members work the same way they do. Clarifying policies and procedures on the first day will prevent misunderstandings during the design and construction phases.

5. Begin the commissioning and validation processes during programming. The mechanical systems controls must be synchronized.

In this project, the non-performance of the HVAC, chilled water and other mechanical systems was largely due to poorly designed controls as well as a lack of communication between the various control systems. Ideally, all controls are by the same manufacturer. Barring that, all controls need to be coordinated and combined into a single building management system. Controls should be discussed prior to starting mechanical design. During construction, substitutions to the original design should not be allowed, unless they are compatible with the other parts of the building management system.

TH—During the cleanroom programming phase, consider how the facility will be operated, and how systems information needs to be coordinated.

6. Training and communication are essential for a successful project. At each of the pre-bid meetings, the design intent needs to be clearly communicated.

Expectations on the part of the owner, the architect and the engineers should be clearly stated, with nothing being left as assumed. Before each trade begins its work, pre-construction meetings should be held for the designers to review the design documents, answer all questions and reiterate project procedures, clean construction protocols and closeout requirements. Near the end of the project, each of the subtrades should submit their respective operations and maintenance manuals for the owner's review. Follow up with scheduled training sessions for the owner's maintenance staff.

TH—Especially in a cleanroom, the work of the contractor is not completed until the owner's staff knows how to operate and maintain each of the systems in place.

One more: Make sure the project is properly capitalized.

I have added this last item on my own, as it was apparent that the owner had a limited budget and had attempted to stretch it beyond reasonable limits. Many of the conditions I saw when walking through the empty facility appeared to be the direct result of taking the lowest bids. The lowest bid is not always the best bid. While it's often better to reduce scope than to stretch the budget beyond realistic limits, the costs will always be higher in the end.

THOMAS E. HANSZ, AIA, is founder of Facility Planning & Resources, Inc., the director of Advanced Technology Projects for Flad & Associates, and a member of the CleanRooms Editorial Advisory Board. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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