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Top Tips for Planning a Successful Lab Renovation

On-site field observation, verification, and documentation provide multiple benefits

by Deborah Suzan Huff, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
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A common challenge for laboratory renovation projects is the lack of existing or accurate documentation, such as building blueprints, maintenance records, and inspection reports.

Nonexistent or inadequate documentation necessitates on-site field review of existing conditions. Conducted by the design team during the planning and analysis phase of the project, on-site investigations may range from simple visual observation and manual measuring to full 3-D laser scanning and modeling.

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Here are insights into on-site field observation, verification, and documentation that can save time, trouble, and money during the construction phase of a laboratory renovation project.

The problem

A lack of quality design documentation is a common issue in building renovation projects. Whether the project occurred 25 years ago or five years ago, more often than not, paper or digital files do not reflect the actual built condition; hard copies are misplaced or destroyed, and digital copies become corrupt or outdated as well.

Ideally, property owners, the architect or engineer of record, contractors, and authorities having jurisdiction should all retain paper and/or digital copies of the original building design and subsequent renovation documentation. However, over time, ownership might change, designers could retire, contractors may go out of business, and governmental organizations could change policy about document retention. Additionally, any available 2-D drawings may not reflect construction changes that took place in the field but were not amended. So, for any given renovation project, the accuracy of documentation is questionable, if it is even available.

A worthwhile investigation

On-site field investigation in the planning/design phase is frequently abbreviated or removed from the project scope altogether because it adds some cost and time; however, when included, an upfront survey and documentation of existing conditions will minimize frustration, delays, and added expenses during the construction phase.

Consider this scenario:

A single laboratory is undergoing modification to accommodate several large pieces of equipment. The existing cabinetry will remain but finishes and utilities are scheduled for upgrade. The design team was not contracted for an on-site visit but was provided floor plan drawings of the existing building. Review of the given documents indicated the corridor to be used for equipment transport appeared to be of adequate size for all required clearances.

Once the contractor receives the equipment on-site, preparation of the existing corridor for equipment transport identifies a discrepancy that will prevent going forward with the planned installation. At some time, after the original building was completed and occupied, the corridor clear width was reduced by 18 inches to accommodate the expansion of an adjacent laboratory. The largest piece of equipment will not fit in the corridor for transport to the renovated laboratory.

An alternate means to install the equipment is devised that includes a partial removal of the existing cabinetry, temporary removal of an exterior window, and the rental of a lift to install the equipment from the exterior. Once the equipment is in place, new cabinetry will be installed, the exterior window will be reinstalled, the crane will be removed, and the adjacent landscape will be repaired.

The added cost and time delay resulting from incorrect existing documentation could have been avoided through on-site verification of observed critical existing conditions.

Budgeting for design is crucial

Of note, construction documents are intended to convey expectations for a final product rather than the means and methods to construct said project. Often, the actual built conditions are not wholly reflected in the record documents. Therefore, a best practice approach to building renovations is to include time and funds for on-site investigation of existing conditions during the planning stage of design. Correct information acquired in the design phase could result in substantial savings during construction.

Since each project is unique, the scope of on-site investigation will vary. Sometimes projects require simple observation and recording of critical dimensions, or an existing facility may have unforeseen conditions that warrant analytical investigation, testing (potentially destructive), and/ or imaging. Where documents are missing or existing buildings have complex systems (e.g., extensive piping), 3-D laser scanning and modeling are available options.

Whatever the means, on-site investigation and advance planning are much less expensive than reacting to an unknown condition during construction.

On-site investigation saves tenfold

Consider another scenario: A second-floor laboratory renovation in an existing building includes the installation of a large, heavy piece of equipment that is sensitive to vibration. The design for the new unit involves a separate structural support system with a new equipment platform, foundation, and footings. Preliminarily, it appears that no additional modification of the existing structure or floor plan layout is required, as the unit will fit through an existing window opening per provided drawings. However, during a predesign site visit to verify existing conditions, site constraints are observed that interfere with the proposed equipment installation plan. Specifically, the unit will need to be loaded into the building by crane from the opposite side of the building.

Unfortunately, the proposed alternate installation plan introduces potentially significant additional costs to the project. First, the existing corridor must be large enough to accommodate the transport of the unit across the breadth of the building. If clearance is not adequate, partial demolition and subsequent new construction of existing laboratories adjacent to the corridor may be required. Second, due to the weight of the unit, a significant live load will be introduced to the existing building’s structural system during transport. The construction of temporary structural shoring of the second floor plate along the first floor corridor is likely required. This will add cost and time to the project while also disrupting occupants on the first floor (e.g., through noise, lack of access, and use of spaces adjacent to the corridor during equipment installation).

Further on-site investigation (destructive coring and testing of the existing concrete structure) and observation of critical dimensions via field measurement were conducted. The tests confirmed that the existing structure was suitable to accommodate the temporary live load for the equipment transport and, with minor modifications to the existing corridor (temporary removal of a drinking fountain), the width was adequate to accommodate the equipment transport. So, by allotting funds at the beginning of the renovation project for onsite investigation, much added cost, time delays, and frustration were avoided.

Construction phase surprise brings costly trouble

In a final scenario, an existing building is relatively new, so on-site observation is removed from the design contract. Available documents indicate that gases are piped to each laboratory and subsequent workstations from a remotely located central supply room. The new laboratory project will utilize the central supply room for gases as well, to save time and cost to the project by minimizing the amount of workstation cabinetry and installing new piping only within the laboratory proper.

During construction, the contractor discovers that gas piping and the central supply room were not installed as indicated on the original documents. As a value engineering measure, the piping and central supply room were eliminated in lieu of localized cylinder installation and use. Because the selected cabinetry is a long lead item, the new workstations were ordered prior to commencement of construction activity. The cabinetry is delivered to the project site and is ready for installation; however, the new units do not accommodate gas cylinders.

A solution is forthcoming to add piping and an adjacent cylinder storage room; however, because the discrepancy between documents and actual built conditions occurred during construction and not the design phase, the project will suffer overages. This includes time and cost associated with the design of a new piping system, review of the design by authorities having jurisdiction, acquisition of materials, rework of new construction to accommodate the storage room, and installation of the new piping system.

This situation may have been avoided if field verification had been included in the project scope.

Substantially save on your next project

Plan for a successful project. Allot time and funds for on-site field observation, verification, and documentation to avoid unwelcome surprises and save substantially in the long run.