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A strategic partner will help bring the right person to team to the job, which can make or break the project’s success.
Credit: CRB

Three Strategies for Picking the Right Vendor for Your Lab Build or Renovation

Selecting good partners and setting them up for success will pay dividends on your project outcome and bottom line

by Matthew Decker, AIA
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The last few years have highlighted the need for research and manufacturing that can activate with speed and deftness. The life sciences sector is one of the few that has boomed because of pandemic influence, with existing companies scaling up and new innovators entering the market all the time. Meanwhile, the construction or retrofitting of facilities that can keep up with this demand is more expensive and time consuming than ever before. Inflation and supply chain issues threaten procurement of materials, further slowing the industry’s ability to work through the backlog of shelved construction projects.

As a lab manager looking to renovate or construct a lab facility, your duties are many and your time is precious. You need a facility that functions well and can handle the throughput you have promised your investors while providing a safe and sane working environment for occupants. You need a facility that can be operated and maintained efficiently, without surprises and disruptions. Real human lives and outcomes are associated with the results of your construction project.

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In the proposal process, the questions a potential vendor asks may be just as important as their answers.

Given these are specialized facilities with unique considerations, you need a team of experts that understands your industry intimately to get the job done right, on time, and within budget. Lab designers and architects see firsthand every day how the expertise and collaboration of teams make projects successful in the face of obstacles and less-than-optimal circumstances. These teams don’t happen by accident—intentional partnerships and well-defined processes help to attract and retain the right people for the job. Here are the three strategies that help build teams that work: 

1. Engage a strategic partner to help with the chartering process

The chartering process establishes the project’s objectives, methods, stakeholders, and budget. This will be your gauge for decision-making throughout the life cycle of the project. It’s also the stage where the engagement of a strategic partner can make the most impact on your project’s overall feasibility.

What is a strategic partnership?

A strategic partnership is a relationship with an individual or team that possesses both trade expertise and the logistical know-how that can see a complex project through from inception to completion. Unlike the traditional subcontracting relationship, where specs are delivered only after the design phase, the strategic partner is an equal player. They share in risk and reward, and guide the development of specs and workflow plans alongside you. They can leverage their network to recommend vendors that want to meet your needs rather than sell you on bells and whistles that might not make sense for your project. Their guidance will help you refine your approach and can lend insights on opportunities that might not have been on your radar. They will challenge what you think your needs are and make sure that the desired value is being delivered. 

How can a strategic partner support your plan?

Why is this important? The short answer is complexity. These operations can range in scope from designing and constructing a new facility to engaging and managing a partner for consumable procurement or waste removal. You could be in the market for the latest scientific equipment or managing a steady stream of critical reagents. The expertise that strategic partners offer brings peace of mind and greater cost certainty to the project. They know which project checkpoints are crucial and which are nice-to-haves, and can help streamline the workload schedule. For example, they may eliminate unnecessary progress stage gates and batch deliveries for more efficiency of time and capital.

Additionally, the early engagement of a strategic partner allows different work sequences to occur in parallel, rather than one after the other. With sightlines into the design phase, they can initiate preconstruction and pre-procurement services as well as get the ball rolling on equipment demos. 

2. Determine whose expertise is needed to make the project successful

Now that the project’s parameters have been clearly defined, it’s time to find the team cut out for the job. A good strategic partner knows what they don’t know, and an even better one will know and trust someone in their network to fill in the knowledge gaps. For example, this could mean the difference between getting a vibration consultant onsite to make recommendations early in the project rather than finding out upon occupancy that the newly constructed facility does not meet the equipment vibration criteria.

So, how do you determine which team is a good fit? The vetting process should be robust, occur on multiple channels, and be assessed across project touch points and stages.

Public facing

A vendor’s website or LinkedIn profile may be the first and most obvious point for learning more about a potential new vendor relationship.

Look for mention of their values, keeping an eye out for indicators of their team’s efficiency, agility, and commitment to safety. While not every vendor can also be a web communication whiz, it’s a good sign when the site is professional-looking and easy to understand. While it might not be their wheelhouse, it’s a perfect example of looking for a partner who knows what they don’t know and calls in reinforcements—in this case, a web developer. Again, given that a website isn’t a perfect reflection of a team’s ability, take this information in conjunction with what you can learn about the individual team members’ skills on LinkedIn.

Requested interactions

Once a potential vendor has piqued your interest online, there are a few avenues that start the conversation: the proposal process, interviews, and tours. You can get a more in-depth idea of the quality of their work, as well as (and perhaps equally importantly) an idea of how they present themselves and communicate. Remember—in these interactions, you’re looking for an adaptable, communicative team that values high quality, efficient work, so be sure to ask questions that highlight soft skills as well as more technical KPIs.)

In the proposal process, the questions a potential vendor asks may be just as important as their answers. Most telling might be the absence of any requests for clarification. This may indicate a team that is not rigorously detail-oriented or might be spread too thin on other projects.

On a site tour, look for ways that the space is enabling ease of operations within the lab. Does it appear cluttered? Are there notable bottlenecks? Do the foundational solutions make sense in the handwashing and gowning areas, and the mechanical room layout? Keep an eye out for aspects of the space that you could envision incorporating into your facility, and try to get some face time with the following people:

The occupants: What's working well for them in terms of equipment and workflows?

The facilities manager: What were some of the startup processes after occupying the building for the first time? Are there any maintenance tasks they hadn't anticipated?

The vendor: What parts of the touring project are they most proud of? What challenges did they have to overcome?

The product vendor: Can they describe the benefits of the new demo equipment as compared to the equipment you're currently using? Do you feel like they are driving a sale or understanding your unique needs?

Third-party referrals and post-occupancy surveys

Both third-party referrals and post-occupancy surveys can give you an unbiased sneak peek at what it means to work with this vendor and the end result for occupants, lab managers, and facility managers. Look for vendors that have referrals and post occupancy surveys organized, well-packaged, and readily available. This can tell you a lot about how diligent a vendor is in learning and applying knowledge for continued improvement. 

3. Retain good teams and maintain relationships

Forming a team of excellent vendors isn’t easy; it takes time and resources to do successfully. Make sure these efforts are well-utilized by promoting good working relationships and retention of contacts that you work well with.

Invest in team building and acclimation

A lunch meeting goes a long way. High stakes communication will be occurring between individuals and teams that have limited contact with one another. It will be worthwhile to provide opportunities to establish positive relationships amongst your teams. Seek out events or occasions to interact between projects, allowing relationships to flourish and grow in support of future deliberation and collaborative problem solving.

Set clear and actionable expectations

Nobody likes to be surprised with the information that they’re doing the wrong thing. Level-set processes and expectations up top, especially where communication and safety are concerned. Follow up conversations or meetings with emails outlining roles, responsibilities, and timelines. People and teams gain satisfaction from meeting goals, so spend time setting them together and acknowledge accomplishments throughout the project life cycle.

Keep lines of communication clear

There should be a mechanism for all levels to communicate with one another and everyone should be aware of what it is and how to do it. This makes for a smoother project and lets you take full advantage of everyone’s expertise on your team regardless of title.

Capture progress throughout project

Initiate regular check-ins with your vendors throughout and after the project so that all learnings are captured for any future projects with those vendors. The best part about working with a great partner is when the process improves over time through challenging each other.

These considerations should assist in producing workflows and relationships of trust so that when unforeseen challenges inevitably arise, you’re confident you have a team equipped and motivated to pull together. A trusted partner, the right expertise, and relationship management are essential elements of a successful lab build or renovation project. These elements, working harmoniously, will help you access vendor services that keep your project running smoothly on all fronts.