VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Plans for a new building should include move-in

September 22, 2008

New buildings are energizing ventures. They magnify the impact of new programs, they enable new technologies, and they reflect the kind of places we want to live and work. Or, at least they should.

After the fanfare, the speeches and the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, the real users move in. Then the questions start: "Who decided this?" and "Why is this here?" and "What is this for?"

The excitement of moving into a new building can quickly turn into frustration.

It doesn't have to be this way if the entire team agrees-in advance-that the implementation process doesn't stop with the punch list. Like design and construction, occupancy is a process that demands time, attention, training and a budget.

'A lotta stuff'

Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, beautifully understated the intricacies of professional baseball in one single quote: "There's a lotta stuff that goes on." His comment could just as easily describe the complex process of completing a building and moving into it.

Think about the fiasco with London's Heathrow Airport earlier this year. When the highly touted $8 billion airport terminal opened in March, the baggage handling system didn't work, employees didn't understand how to operate the computer systems, customers waited in long long lines, and hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled.

While the baggage system was a major culprit in the terminal's troubles, many other problems were the result of poor training and orientation.

Employees couldn't find parking spaces, they didn't understand how to use the baggage system, and they weren't sure about the new reservations system, either. It wasn't because they didn't have time to prepare, because the project took more than 10 years to design and build.

The client of the client...

Creating and building a new structure-and pleasing the client who has commissioned it-requires so much mental energy that designers sometimes lose focus on the ultimate occupants of the building. But we must shift more attention to how the "users" will be using a new building. And the users of the buildings aren't necessarily the client.

More often, the "client of the client of the client" is the real user. A new building has to keep a lot of people happy.

Most of today's new buildings involve automation, more privacy and security, new techniques and technologies and, I hope, streamlined work processes. Everything happens at once, and these changes require people to modify their habits. Changing anything demands close attention.

Two ways of the move-in process

Too often, project leaders take the easy path and simply assume that building users will simply "get it" and adapt. No one is well-served with this process. The new building simply won't work if its end users are frustrated by ideas that don't work well in reality.

But another approach is a move-in process that is planned as carefully as the building itself, so that the new places and new procedures are fully understood.

The process includes plenty of time to modify procedures or make small changes to the building without creating panic or penalizing the entire project budget. How many times, for example, have designers anticipated a "paperless workplace," only to shortchange the amount of space needed for storing paper files?

"Transition" describes the second approach, placing a clear emphasis on what the client and users need to know to make the building work for its intended purpose.

In simple terms, transition describes the entire chain of change, from drywall and dust to operational effectiveness, including the normal project close-out. It's clear that Heathrow Airport would have benefited from a better transition!

Transition the path to success

The transition stage should be a line item in the project budget. The cost is very real, and usually the operations budget feels the pain.

But not planning a transition is costly as well; the savings anticipated by new methods are sometimes lost because users resort to the old way of doing things.

A proper budget should include approximately 2 percent of the total project cost for the transition, including the normal project close-out.

Time is also a factor. Transition actually overlaps the working schedule, starting as soon as the interior walls are in place. Then the process should extend through the first few months of operations to assure that the new systems and processes are really understood.

And, remember, there's a natural turnover in personnel, so new people need training as well.

"There's a lotta stuff that goes on" when a new building comes on line, and the client of the client of the client should not be forgotten in the final inning.



Altemeyer is vice chairman of BSA LifeStructures, the Indianapolis-area's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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