Top 10 recommendations for successful design and construction in large operating facilities

A fresh perspective on streamlining a complex process


When it comes to design and construction projects, the conventional design process is relatively straightforward: The client hires the firm, the client shares expectations and requirements for the project, the firm develops and refines the design, and the design is constructed. Client expectations are confined to satisfaction with the final constructed state as it relates to functionality and aesthetics.

The rules change when the facility is already built and operating and cannot be shut down for the sake of the project. While the objective of the project remains the same as in a conventional construction project—a functional, code-compliant design—the path to achieving a complete design and getting the project constructed under budget is far more complicated. This is especially so in large facilities that contain multiple exhaust streams and scores of gas, water, and chemical distribution systems—particularly when these processes and systems have an array of “owners.”

From the perspective of designers and engineers, the difference between designing and constructing a brand-new facility versus designing and constructing for “live factory” projects is very important and can greatly impact the success of your project. 

Successful design and construction firms recognize the unique challenges inherent in taking on a significant project within an existing space. This article offers insights into these challenges and provides ten great tips that can serve as a checklist of sorts to evaluate whether you and your A/E supplier are employing best practices on your new design project.

Stakeholders and their roles defined 

Design and construction projects for large operating facilities typically include up to four types of stakeholders: Project managers, site/factory engineers, system owners, and process owners. Bear in mind that these are project roles and not necessarily titles. Depending on the facility and its size, as well as the complexity of the operations or the project, one person might wear multiple hats.

  • Project managers (PMs) hire the A/E firm. The project manager may or may not be an engineer or even have a technical background. The PM manages a construction project at the site and is responsible for completing the project on time and under budget. The PM also must control the scope of the project. It is up to the A/E firm to keep the PM aware of design developments or discoveries that could dramatically increase scope.
  • Site/factory engineer(s) usually interface most frequently with the A/E firm. These engineers generally identify the need for a project in the first place and provide to the A/E firm a general concept of what the project design will entail. 
  • System owner(s) manage the systems that support facility operations.  Their job performance is measured by the efficiency, performance, and reliability of the systems they operate. In some industries, systems must run 100% of the time, so system owners are on call 24/7. Because their work is so critical to operational success, system owners usually have the power to veto proposed changes and modifications to their systems. 
  • Process owner(s) maintain the manufacturing process throughput and quality. Process owners and system owners are usually aligned but sometimes they are not and the PM needs to negotiate a compromise. “Process owner(s)” may also include a person or a department charged with ensuring that the process environment remains intact.

To execute a successful project, at the very least, all stakeholders must communicate and understand each other and their relative expectations.

Key challenges

Faced with this often complex web of ownership and interests, the A/E hired to complete a design project for an operating facility must carefully and intentionally integrate and document the requirements, requests, and concerns of stakeholders into the design. Above all, the A/E is obligated to produce a code-compliant, functional design.

Challenges of integrating input from multiple stakeholders into a design can include the following: 

  • Important stakeholders might not participate at all or might not provide input until very late during design development. The PM must make sure that all pertinent stakeholders take part in the process at the onset of design development. Unexpected interruptions to both facility operations and construction progress can best be avoided with early input from all parties.
  • Stakeholder review can be perceived by the designers as tacit engineering or design acceptance, or proof of constructability. When stakeholder input makes a large impact to the design, the A/E may need to evaluate whether this input affects initial design assumptions or exceptions.
  • Stakeholders may attempt to add either design or construction scope not within the mandate of the project. The project manager must control overall scope, which includes design and construction considerations. The PM and A/E must agree on which changes should be incorporated into the project by taking into account design and construction costs as well as schedule impacts.
  • Stakeholders can change their minds or be replaced between design and construction, making it crucial that input is documented. Meeting minutes and notes need to be scrutinized either as they are written or when first distributed. Errors in understanding or fact must be corrected immediately.
  • Taking the time to obtain input can be time consuming for both the A/E and for the various stakeholders. The A/E design budget should take this into account. The PM must also ensure that all pertinent stakeholders participate in the design development process.
  • Process and system owner requirements for continuous operation may require the A/E to design work-arounds that allow systems to continue to operate while they are being modified. The A/E firm will not necessarily be able to ascertain the importance of a given system. Process and system owner input is necessary to identify these issues.

Ten recommendations

1. Always be mindful that the A/E firm is a consultant accountable only to the PM. As the design is developed and the A/E interacts with stakeholders, new requirements and scope will be discovered, some more justified than the rest. The PM must decipher which of these elements should be incorporated into the project and determine the value of added design and construction costs.   

2. Do not underestimate project impacts to pipelines, electrical panels or equipment. Necessary work-arounds may require engineered designs, bypass piping, or ductwork. Temporary facilities or HVAC and/or a plan for partial plant or equipment shutdowns may also need to be provided.

3. Keep the system owners in the loop. Generally, the purpose of projects is to upgrade or improve their systems. Being that they operate the systems, they can provide valuable insights for improvements or report system inadequacies.  Sometimes projects can be oriented to be “win-win” by rectifying already existing issues at no incremental cost. System owners are also very aware of what commissioning the systems will entail. Can elements of what they need be incorporated into the design package?

4. Field verification is crucial. Moving even small conduits, pipes or tubes in live factories can sometimes be impossible. Conflicts must be identified prior to releasing a design with foreknowledge that obstacles will be moved or the design will accommodate the obstacle in place. Diligence on the part of the A/E firm to identify conflicts between design elements and existing obstacles and decision making on the part of the facility’s stakeholders to decide how to accommodate these conflicts in the design in a timely fashion is crucial to project success.

5. When new equipment is being placed on a factory floor, consider move-in paths. Can the equipment physically get from the loading dock to its installation location in one piece? Equipment may have to be designed or ordered in pieces or scope may need to be included to clear a path.

6. Interim conditions can be a crucial consideration. While the existing state works for the facility and the final constructed state also works, what about the state during construction? Is there room for the work-around and the new construction to exist simultaneously? Can the facility continue to operate between the taking down of a piece of old equipment and the installation of new equipment?

7. Get buy-off from system and process owners during design development to shut down or modify systems. Sometimes the “obvious Plan A” is a no-go. For instance, the nearest available tie-in that can be used might be hundreds of feet further away than expected, which adds significant project cost. System and process owner input is crucial with these considerations.

8. Analyze connections to piping and ductwork during design development. Some piping and ductwork materials or contents are not appropriate for hot-tapping either for engineering reasons, facility safety, or operational protocols. That said, if the design requires connecting to a system that doesn’t have an available connection and cannot be shut down, the facility is going to have to consent to the use of an existing connection or coordinate a shut-down of that system to make a tie-in.

9. Focus design review sessions around the issue of system interruptions and associated ramifications. It is easy for an A/E to overestimate the effectiveness of communications within their client’s organization. Try to get system owners and process owners engaged in the discussion of anticipated system interruptions.

10. Consider air quality requirements within the facility. Air quality can be an important concern to process owners at facilities that make food products, pharmaceuticals, microprocessors, etc. Concrete saw-cutting, welding, painting, gluing and roof work are just a few construction activities that produce dust or odors. Watch where outside air is taken in relative to these activities. Watch also for pressurization relationships between areas within the facility and outdoors. 

Julian Quist, PE, is a mechanical engineer with SSOE Group

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