The First Step to a Successful New Science Building

Embarking on constructing a new science building is the beginning of an adventure, where you imagine the finest state-of-the-art laboratories, new classrooms, and research spaces. You don't consider the downside: potential cost-overruns, order changes, late deliveries and conflicts between trades.

Whether your new building ends up a sweat-inducing nightmare or a fantastic dream depends on what you do first. The secret to a dream building is pretty simple, but many colleges and universities ignore it and end up with a nightmare.

This article addresses this first step, appropriate really for any new building. A second article later this year will present individual examples to help with both capital and operating objectives. In either case, the time you spend now, early in the process, is critical to sleeping better later. Listen carefully: Assembling and leading your design/construction team is more important than anything else. Here you communicate your objectives, how involved you will be in the project, and the importance of your objectives. The more involved you are throughout the process, the more likely you are to achieve your dream building.

Yes, you could just hire others that have an excellent reputation and let them handle everything. Consider this, though: What do they actually know about teaching science, about the peculiarities of your institution, about actually operating and maintaining buildings? Everyone in the design and construction process has an agenda; however, no one knows your agenda like you do. To be certain of success, you have to lead in selecting your team.

The 2017 Laboratory of the Year is the Francis Crick Institute in London. Every week, beginning before building a new joint facility was even agreed upon, half a dozen leaders of different institutions met to ensure they not only knew what they wanted but to make certain they would get it. Every week they met until the building was done. These were not job site meetings but high-level leadership meetings to ensure the design and build teams stayed focused on what was important for their building. Any challenges along the way were addressed by the steadfast refusal of these leaders-each leading incredibly busy lives-to settle for anything less than their objectives. The design and build teams knew going in the oversight these six would provide and the creative approach to challenges expected of them. Like those six, articulate repeatedly what you and your staff expect for your building.

Notice I did not assume any qualities for your building as “a sustainable building,” “state of the art labs,” or other marketing jingoism-but instead assumed your objective desires, such as a net-zero energy building (recently accomplished by Bristol Community College in cold Massachusetts), multi-purpose laboratories suitable for semester-specific topics, room to support anticipated growth of x% over 10 years in science majors, etc.

Know what you want and continually remind everyone you expect it. Knowing what you want is one thing. Actually selecting your team gets tough. Whether an architect, contractor, or major sub-contractors, ask tough questions. Who do they recommend as other team members? Why? Which contractors or sub-contractors do they like working with, and which do they  not like working with? Why? Do they have a system in place to evaluate the other key team members from past projects? Describe it. Has a team member ever been blackballed because of poor performance?

Ask if any of their favorite team members do federal construction projects. On many of these projects only approved vendors can bid, and they are then scored on several key issues, such as on-time performance, meeting specifications, communications, handling jobsite issues, etc. The scores for each project are combined to create cumulative scores. If a contractor has a project with a priority for fast, on-time performance, do you really think they will select sub-contractors with low cumulative scores in that area, and risk their own cumulative score? Can any architects or contractors provide you with similar rating programs they use to evaluate vendors?

Keep digging deeper. You aren’t construction professionals, but you can trust that no building is ever built as smoothly as desired. Ask them what key issues typically come up and how they are handled. For instance, on-time delivery is always a challenge. Is past delivery performance considered in selecting team members, or do they only look at low price? Price is admittedly important, but so is being able to move in with plenty of time to prepare for that semester’s classes. And you do, repeat do, expect your staff to have that time available.

Dig deeper still. For instance, when it comes to on-time delivery, ask how they handle shortage and breakage issues. It’s a construction site; things happen, and you understand that. Approved vendors should understand it also and be prepared. You expect approved vendors to be dependable, based on experience from past projects. Correct?

Dig still deeper. Ask for evidence. Let’s continue with our example of on-time delivery. When I began in this industry over 20 years ago with the then-Fisher Hamilton, it was arguably the largest laboratory casework manufacturer in the world (and now out of business). They bragged about being over 90% on time. But they allowed themselves to change the ship date as often as they wanted, no matter whether the customer agreed, and then still gave themselves plus or minus one week to be considered on time-and, ironically, still struggled to reach 90%. Compare that with, for example, Diversified Woodcrafts, a manufacturer of wood laboratory casework. Half of their work is project-based and half comes from catalog sales. When customers buy from a catalog, they expect delivery “yesterday.” Diversified knows how to ship fast, including five-day quick-ship programs. This translates well for construction projects where casework is delivered near the end of the project. Diversified’s on-time performance over the last ten years is over 97%. More important is how they measure it against the original agreed upon date. If just one sink or shelf is not on the truck when it leaves the dock, the entire load is counted late, even though they air freight a new sink or shelf to the job site to still be installed on time. They even include the items sold through their catalog five-day quick ship program, and they include the shortage and breakage items they promise to ship in just a week, if needed, so they arrive while the installers are still on-site.

They even offer to show you their internal documents proving their actual weekly performance. This is not to promote Diversified, but to show there are different ways companies measure performance. Make certain you know the difference. Expect your design and build leaders to explain who their favorite vendors are and offer examples like I just gave. The importance of these questions is to ensure your team shares your objectives and philosophies. People who know how to work together, who trust each other, will be more successful with challenges later.

I understand the importance we all place on capital costs; after all, you only have so much money. But this isn’t just about money; this is about a science facility which will meet your needs for at least fifty years. What true innovations have they used to help past clients reach their impossible goals? What innovative ideas will they bring to you? Science and how it is taught is constantly changing. Shouldn’t science building design continue to evolve also? What new ideas and trends should you consider? Which do they not agree with, and why?

Now let’s put capital costs aside for a moment and discuss life-cycle costs. While architect and builder will be finished and gone after construction is completed, you’ll still be there using this building. What will make this an easier, more efficient building to operate? You should include facilities staff leaders in meetings. Be certain they are comfortable with what you will give them to operate. If design team references do not include facilities staff from past projects, ask for that information so your staff can follow-up.

You expect a great deal from your staff, so there’s no reason to make their jobs even more difficult in a new building they can’t operate and maintain efficiently. If you get this part right, assembling a team that understands and is committed to your objectives, the odds you will achieve your dream building are greatly improved.

About the Authors
David Withee is President of Withee Works LLC and advisor to Rotarex Firedetec North America; he can be reached at Michael McSweeney, Sales Manager of Rotarex Firedetec North America, can also be contacted with questions at

James Contratto is VP of McCarthy Building Companies Inc. Both have served multiple times as members of the R&D Magazine Laboratory of the Year judging panel.