Lab Design and Furnishings

Radical Schedule Reduction Design and Construction Strategies

Design, build, and validate projects without sacrificing safety or efficiency

Mark Butler

Speed to market is always a critical design driver for labs and clean manufacturing facilities. This is especially true as the research community is focused on finding a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As a result, laboratory leaders today are looking for innovative delivery solutions that will accelerate the design and construction process to achieve the radical schedule reductions required to get lifesaving products to the market and to the patients who need them. Below are insights into the challenges, solutions, and key considerations to optimize success when looking to radically reduce design and construction schedules for research lab projects.

Understand why—define decision making drivers

Contractors working on lifts present safety challenges. In addition to minimizing construction duration, incorporating pre-engineering components contributes to increased site safety by reducing the number of contractor personnel working on lifts at high levels.
Courtesy of IPS-Integrated Project Services, LLC

At the outset, it is vitally important to understand the reasons behind why a project would be a candidate for hyperfast tracking and radical schedule reduction. In most instances, stakeholders aim to work within the parameters of a business case which sets timeframes and project delivery methodologies. The earlier a project team defines and understands the project drivers in the design process, the more options are available for achieving schedule reduction. For example, if stakeholders need to procure projects through the traditional design-bid-build process, the options to significantly reduce the timeframe from conception to completion are reduced, and the only option left to consider is overtime for design drawing production and construction. However, if project leaders have the flexibility to consider alternate delivery methodologies such as design/build, integrated design, or modular lab design, significant schedule savings can be achieved.  

Integrated delivery versus traditional design-bid-build

Under a typical design-bid-build scenario with an accelerated schedule, architects and engineers designing a project will find the most expeditious solution that meets the owner requirements. They send it out to bid where the bidders may offer suggestions on how to achieve the same requirements at a reduced cost or suggest ways to bundle elements to speed construction. If project decision makers want to achieve the same results faster, consider refining the process—rather than bringing the documents to 100 percent completion and having the MEP and other critical trades provide design assist alternates to their bids, invite key subcontractors to be part of an integrated design process at the very beginning. The team receives cost saving insights early in the project—saving critical time during construction.  

This approach was used on a recent GMP pilot plant in California for a company that had received an expedited FDA approval for a new cancer drug. The owner wanted to bring manufacturing in-house so they could better monitor the clinical trial. Using an integrated delivery method, IPS brought in a cleanroom manufacturer, a mechanical electrical contractor, and with the stakeholders, the three team members created drawings based on the project’s performance criteria and were able to design, build, and validate the project in 12 months.

Utilize EPCM savvy

The concept of delivering projects by way of an EPCM (engineering, procurement, construction management) execution, under a “single source” umbrella has been used extensively throughout the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, where projects often need a very quick turnaround. In a situation where it is imperative to bring a drug to market as quickly as possible, an EPCM approach may prove beneficial, as having all project vendors leveraging their expertise under a single contract can result in significant schedule reductions. EPCM is becoming more and more popular as a delivery method for fast track projects. 

Incorporate pre-engineered components

Referred to as “agnostic” lab modules because they are easily reconfigured to accommodate different types of research, the lab modules are extremely flexible, resulting in reduced downtime during future conversions.
COURTESY OF IPS-INTEGRATED PROJECT SERVICES, LLC

One solution that significantly reduces construction schedules and has achieved industry-wide implementation is the use of pre-engineered structural and MEP systems. Designed using state-of-the-art 3D BIM technology and fabricated off-site in controlled conditions, the components are loaded onto skids and delivered ready-for-installation at the construction job site. Contractors working on lifts present safety challenges. In addition to minimizing construction durations, incorporating pre-engineering components contributes to increased site safety by reducing the number of contractor personnel working on lifts at high levels.  

Think “inside the box” by increasing modularity of labs

Many lab spaces already use a modular approach for their layout. For example, traditional biology/wet chemistry labs are configured in 11 ft. x 33 ft. modules aligned side by side along a service corridor housing support utilities. This dimension works well and provides standard casework and aisle distances. However, what if you approach modularity from an infrastructure perspective and look “inside the box?” By standardizing lab size and dimensions as well as utility components such as chillers, piping, and controls, individual lab modules can be efficiently manufactured off-site and installed quickly, saving time and construction costs. Referred to as “agnostic” lab modules because they are easily reconfigured to accommodate different types of research, the lab modules are extremely flexible, resulting in reduced downtime during future conversions. By leaving space in overhead racks to add piping, cable trays, and additional infrastructure, a well thought out agnostic lab modular plan allows capacity to be added in the future.  

Improved quality control and cleaner, safer job sites

By standardizing lab size and dimensions as well as utility components such as chillers, piping and controls, individual lab modules can be efficiently manufactured off-site and installed quickly, saving time and construction costs.
Courtesy of IPS-Integrated Project Services, LLC

Many lab spaces require high purity water systems which require orbital welded stainless steel piping that must be independently examined and certified. When this work is being done on lifts at job sites, test procedures for welds are difficult to verify and weld failures commonly contribute to schedule delays. If the lab modules and associated infrastructure are built in a clean warehouse environment, the weld quality is very good. Using pre-engineered and modular lab approaches not only saves time during construction, it also contributes to much safer and cleaner job sites. There is no extra piping, conduit, and sheet metal on site because all construction is done at the fabrication location. Trade hours are also reduced, saving cost. There may be implications in geographic areas with a strong union presence, so it is important to consider the trades in your region when considering modularization as a project construction method. 

Strategies to accommodate change

While utilizing prefabricated lab modules can save time during construction and reduce costs, in the real world, things change, and eventually lab modules will need to be retrofitted or upgraded. Therefore, it is important to leave additional space in modules for future lab requirements. For example, take a facility with 10 cell-therapy suites with a material airlock, personnel airlock, standard utility panels, and biosafety cabinets. If future research protocols call for BSL-2 or BSL-3 containment capabilities, and the infrastructure is slightly oversized, it would be very easy to accommodate the additional air exchanges, making it easy to upgrade those modules. Consider leaving additional unused conduit or space for future services as well. For clean manufacturing spaces, leaving access space above the cleanrooms facilitates quick renovations and modifications. Consider thinking beyond your current needs by leaving additional space for future lab modules.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become vitally important to reduce the time it takes to bring potential vaccines to market. The strategies noted above can help accelerate the design and construction process for lab and manufacturing facilities and help achieve the radical schedule reductions required to get the lifesaving drugs to the patients who need them.

Mark A. Butler is the president and managing director-Americas with IPS and can be reached at mbutler@ipsdb.com