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The Unrecognized Problems of Relocating Laboratories

| By Richard P. Palluzi, Richard P Palluzi LLC

Follow the guidance provided here to avoid many of the problems that can arise during the relocation of laboratory facilities

The decision to move a laboratory from an existing space to a new research facility is often warranted. A merger or acquisition may require the transfer of some laboratory work, an aging facility may no longer be economically viable, downsizing or reorganization may call for consolidations or relocations, and numerous other business drivers may suggest or force a relocation. This can create an exciting time, as personnel see an opportunity to start over in a brand new setting, free of the persistent problems and issues they know so well in their old laboratory settings.

However, very few organizations realize how difficult a task it is to relocate an entire laboratory facility. Most research groups will never experience a major relocation so they rarely go through the process, and thus, their base of experience is little to none. Groups that have experienced a major laboratory relocation are normally so traumatized that they rarely analyze the overall relocation process closely — concentrating instead on fixing the problems, moving past them quickly, and hopefully forgetting them as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the problems resulting from a poorly planned relocation are often glossed over (and in some cases hidden) as company managers try to avoid the inevitable fallout (Figure 1). Certainly, the mistakes or deficiencies related to poor planning or execution are rarely shared with colleagues or competitors.


FIGURE 1.  One example of a last-minute contractor change that had significant adverse impacts was the replacement of a small strut support (1-5/8 in.) by a 4-in. tubular support frame. This prevented easy modifications to allow deeper laboratory equipment to fit on many benches

FIGURE 1. One example of a last-minute contractor change that had significant adverse impacts was the replacement of a small strut support (1-5/8 in.) by a 4-in. tubular support frame. This prevented easy modifications to allow deeper laboratory equipment to fit on many benches

Myths that hinder the process

This author has participated in more than 15 laboratory relocations, new facility set ups, and studies over his career. Discussed below are a variety of observations and recommendations related to some of the major problems that are frequently encountered, and some of the prevailing myths that stand in the way of a successful laboratory-relocation project.

Having an unrealistic schedule.When they fail to fully understand the complexity of the relocation process, stakeholders often develop a schedule that is geared toward meeting management’s desires, or that is based on an overly optimistic view of the work required. This almost always ensures major project problems later, as too little funding is appropriated for the study, and insufficient time is allowed to evaluate realistic options or address problems. Too often, the study results represent little more than inspired guesswork that reflects wishful thinking related to desired outcomes, rather than a sound basis using hard information to reach a truly informed decision.

Organizations tend to produce studies that support their biases when there has not been adequate analysis. For instance, when they think a new laboratory site can be developed at a low cost, their natural inclination is to look most closely at what seem to be low-cost options — often without taking the time and effort needed to recognize that the options being considered may not address their needs completely, or may not be based on realistic estimates. And the more these unrealistic options are presented, the more difficult it is to shed the so-called rose-colored glasses to bring the harsher reality to the attention of company management.

Such bias, as well as the resultant less extensive analysis, can lead to bad decisionmaking and a failure to really understand the full impact of the proposed plan. A lower-cost option may be chosen, but it does not necessarily meet the organization’s true needs, and may in the long run require significantly more funding or time to correct issues that surface later. Once the organization is committed to a relocation, it is virtually impossible to do anything except keep pouring in money and time into it until it is completed. This could have been avoided by taking the time and effort to really get an appropriate and realistic option evaluation, and to appropriately estimate, schedule and analyze the issues up front. It has been shown again and again that when sufficient time and effort is taken earlier in a lab-relocation project, overall project execution will be faster and cheaper, and fewer errors will be made that must be rectified later.

Assuming that the organization knows exactly what it needs. Few organizations really know everything that they need (or even a good part of it). They know what they have, what they’d like, and what their current problems are, but they have never really analyzed what they need to try to address these needs from the ground up. Many also tend to have only hazy (at best) ideas of what their future work entails. It’s not that they can’t figure out their needs; it’s that they are not given the time, resources or help to do so appropriately (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2.  A failure to carefully review preliminary drawings and confirm large equipment dimensions resulted in having to move large ducts by significant amounts in this laboratory’s process bay

FIGURE 2. A failure to carefully review preliminary drawings and confirm large equipment dimensions resulted in having to move large ducts by significant amounts in this laboratory’s process bay

For example, “We need more exhaust capacity” seems to be a perfectly logical demand for an organization that is short of hoods and is struggling to pass its annual hood-certification requirements. The right answer, however, may be that they need a better supply-air system to prevent starving their laboratories and making their hoods fail their mandatory annual testing, or a better understanding of what should and should not be in a hood to alleviate needless overcrowding. Conveying their needs to the contractor or design firm is equally difficult. For instance, indicating that you need a lower bench height to work on equipment may result in a 30–in. versus 36–in. height when 12 in. was needed or vice versa.

Another scenario is when the desire for increased flexibility results in spending on expensive mobile casework only to realize after relocation that the chosen solution is not stable (vibration-free) enough for your instrumentation.

Many laboratory-design firms showcase their ability to define the client’s needs as a key selling point for their services. Unfortunately, I have seen few that are consistently good at this. Most either view their client’s needs through their own perspective (often resulting in an unrecognized, subtle, but often significant shift in requirements), or they become focused on simply delineating exactly what the client has now and believes they want later, in minute detail (thus losing the bigger picture or the opportunity to consider other options).

Assuming that the laboratory owner’s own personnel can simply move their own equipment with some limited specialist help (riggers, equipment manufacturers, and so on), I don’t argue that this is not possible in theory; I do argue that this is impossible in practice. Normal operating personnel are too few and too specialized to relocate equipment effectively.

This author has seen organizations decide to simply move some laboratories across a street or within the building and rely on the existing operating personnel. This leads to excessive downtime and poor results, because the operating personnel don’t have access to the right equipment, they are neither trained nor equipped for all the minor modifications the new location will require, and no one has really evaluated the full impact of the new space. Not surprisingly, it is common that almost immediately, operating personnel (if not their management) will quickly note that their new space seems to have many of the same problems as their old space.

Having an unrealistic cost estimate and schedule. These two go hand in hand — if the work is underestimated, so is the cost and the time required. In many cases, estimates are prepared by contractors who have little (if any) idea of what is actually required. For example, plant personnel may tour an existing laboratory and see an oven with 5-ft, 2-in. duct, so they estimate it will cost $25 in materials and $100 in labor to install. In reality, the duct is designed to sweep the oven interior at six full air changes per hour. It needs to be larger than 2 in. in the new location. (It may have needed to be larger in the old system but was not recognized there as being inadequate). It requires an automatic damper to actuate. The ductwork and associated exhaust may not exist (although it was supposed to), or it may be buried in the ceiling and missed. Ultimately, the cost and effort to provide the right installation when the mistake is realized will be much higher than expected.

The sum of all these errors and omissions is enormous. In this author’s experience, when asked to check a contractor’s estimate, they were often found to be low, in both cost and time, by factors of 2–4. The result, if not recognized, of such poor estimating and planning will be severe cost and schedule overruns and ultimately shortcuts taken that lead to lower-quality outcomes.

Failing to review current practices and procedures to determine if they really do meet the needs for which they were originally designed. Moving to a new laboratory gives an organization a narrow window to revisit all current operating and design practices and update them to their current and (as best as possible) envisioned future needs. Few contractors are capable of assisting in this effort very effectively. Few organizations take the time and effort to evaluate using this framework — if they were starting from a clean sheet of paper, would they really do it the way they are doing it now? However, the potential for truly significant savings and increases in productivity and effectiveness arises from this willingness to look critically at the approach being taken from the ground up.

Having an unrealistic scoping cost for the new or modified facilities.It is common for the developer or real estate firm to develop scoping estimates based on typical dollar per square foot costs. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach as long as the costs are for similar research-style facilities. However, they rarely are. The developer asks what it will cost to provide a 50,000-ft 3 /min heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. A local design firm assumes it is going to cost the same as it would in an office building setting and gives a typical cost. When the detailed design is performed, the system cost turns out to be 5–10 times higher than what was estimated. This cost increase arises because no one recognized the need for corrosion-resistant ductwork, 100% once-through air, dehumidification and reheat, and a matching supply-air system that is 5–10 times larger than expected. In the worst-case scenario, the system gets built “for an office building” and is incapable of functioning properly as a research facility, leading to costly and time-consuming upgrades later. Even in cases when the “disconnect” between actual performance and the expected cost basis is realized early enough in the process, this mismatch often still leads to sub-optimal decisions; other, more suitable but apparently higher-cost options may have been discarded, perhaps because they appeared to be more expensive than the contractor’s “low-ball” estimate.

Once the full design work is done, these discarded options suddenly are realized as having been a better solution, but it is too late in the design process. Stopping the relocation progress and back-tracking to previously eliminated options is an action that rarely can be accepted even by the best organizations. Once committed, the momentum to keep going forward on the chosen path is almost irresistible.

Failing to recognize (and hence account for) the cost and time for upgrades, repairs and corrective actions to existing equipment.No matter how firm the management edict, some equipment will need to be upgraded (or even replaced), as it is impossible to realistically relocate some equipment components. While identifying replacement equipment should be easy, it often takes more time and effort than is allotted for the study. Worse, some equipment will be found to be in need of repair or corrective action after further review (This author has often found this out, to his horror, only in the midst of disconnecting the equipment, which was to have been shipped “as is”).

The disconnect that is blocked (in violation of code) will need to be moved, the gas system that is piped unsafely will need to be corrected, the furnace whose wiring shows signs of arcing when opened will need repair and so on. If you think that your organization is “too safety and maintenance conscious” for this to be significant, think again. These types of situations arise frequently — even in the best organizations.

Failing to fully understand the new facility and recognize where changes to existing systems need to be made.A sudden realization that the chilled-water return has a 5-psig backpressure could require a pump and tank on each installation. A failure to understand how the new HVAC system is designed to work could result in having to rewire all the low-ventilation alarms. Less obvious, but often more problematic, is the sudden post-move recognition that the organization has limited effective ways to prevent the wrong materials from being put down a drain in violation of the new location’s permits, or a sudden realization that the new materials-handling system does not really save the two full-time persons envisioned.

Assuming waste streams and emissions that are acceptable in the current location will be so in the new facility, or that needed changes can be easily accommodated. Regulations may have changed, older facilities may be grandfathered, new data may indicate that there was an unrecognized existing problem, and similar issues can arise. In many cases, older facilities may have only the haziest idea of their waste streams (for example, if it is shared with the plant), and may have no realistic way to measure them. Often, operators are forced to “guesstimate” the amounts with attendant risk of over- or underestimating. This can result in significant delays and costs to obtain new permits or design-appropriate treatment systems.

Not understanding all the intricacies of older systems and equipment that have worked satisfactorily for years.This author has often replicated existing systems in a new location, only to encounter unexpected problems. This is usually due to changes made to improve, upgrade or lower the cost of the system. The problems that surfaced were addressed by the older systems but no one remembered about them until they arose again. Institutional memory can be remarkably short. Detailed documentation of existing systems, particularly with regard to why they were designed a given way, is very rare (The prevailing sentiment at the time is often “everyone recognizes the issue, so why should we bother to document it?”).

This author has also encountered systems that worked well where they were, because of some unique local features — but then the system could not be economically replicated in the new location. If recognized in advance, a solution (even if it is costly and time consuming) can be explored. However, if such issues are only recognized during or after the relocation, the impact on timeline and budget will be even greater.

Failing to assess the true impact of relocation on staffing.Some experienced personnel will decide not to relocate. Others will relocate but not be happy in the new location and may suddenly leave. If enough personnel have to be replaced, the resulting burden to find and train new personnel can create unexpected extra effort for an organization that is always overloaded — at least in the short term — during a relocation.

And this problem is not limited to only technical professionals. A sudden drop in the collective experience and institutional knowledge of the operating personnel, maintenance staff and support staff may suddenly force an organization to recognize how invaluable these people were and struggle to replace them. Through many projects, this author has seen the organization show unwarranted confidence in their technical staff — not recognizing that the old operating staff will not function as seamlessly if everything changes and the replacement operating staff is not yet knowledgeable enough to support them effectively.

Assuming that existing information is accurate and adequately up-to-date.Whether it is process and instrument diagrams (P&IDs), layouts, operating instructions, or procedures, most of these essential documents are never truly up-to-date. Operating procedures will call for annual reviews. Reports will indicate almost complete compliance. Organizations will feel confident. All will turn out to be unfounded.

Equipment to be relocated must have completely up-to-date and accurate documentation available, with sufficient time and effort allotted to develop the needed documentation built into the project. For instance, the effort to trace out all the piping and wiring, to read and cross-check all the operating instructions and procedures is significant and usually consumes all of the operating personnel’s time, leaving little to support the actual relocation or even sometimes the planning (Figure 3).

What can you do to deal with these problems? Clearly, the recommendation to simply not relocate to a new facility is not always an option. You must take care during the planning and execution of the laboratory relocation, to help maximize the chance for success.


FIGURE 3.  Even a single instrument often requires significant utilities to be relocated and replaced. Sufficient time and effort should be allotted to properly document and tag each component prior to the move

FIGURE 3. Even a single instrument often requires significant utilities to be relocated and replaced. Sufficient time and effort should be allotted to properly document and tag each component prior to the move

Mitigating measures

Some proven strategies and best practices are discussed below.

Make sure that the scoping estimates that are used for decisionmaking are accurate and realistic enough to make an informed decision.This is likely to take more time and cost more than desired. Speed can be accommodated, to some degree, by larger contingencies, but only to some degree. Time properly spent during this stage has the potential to create the biggest positive impact on a project’s success.

It is better to have to wait longer for a thorough and accurate study to be completed than to hastily jump into the relocation projects, so that decisions that are made as a result are more likely to be good ones. There are more and less risky options to make up delays in later phases of the project. Make sure the group making these estimates is very familiar with research projects and research sites. A “big name” contractor — however effective and efficient — may not be the best choice. A smaller, and “less expensive” contractor may not necessarily have the right experience.

Independently confirm any set of estimates with someone experienced in both estimating and research facilities. Do not simply accept a confirmation from the original source that the estimate is accurate. If necessary, make sure you talk directly to the estimator and confirm that they understand the specific requirements and have done the cost estimation accordingly. Ask them for non-research figures for comparison (For instance, if they suggest that they have addressed the costs of a research HVAC system, but then provide a cost for an office-based HVAC system, only 10% less, you know they don’t have a clue). Develop a very skeptical attitude, and always presume that the actual costs will be greater than the estimated ones until you get the final estimates from the contractor who will actually do the work.

Develop a detailed design basis for what you are expecting to get.Everything needs to be included. Not just sizes and spaces, but how much power is required and in what areas, how you expect it to be distributed, whether or not you want the facility (building panels) to be separated from the research panels so that building maintenance does not shut down research equipment.

Similarly, you need to be clear about what type of casework you expect, what type, purity and quantity of utilities you need, and a thousand other points. This will be tedious and time-consuming and often is best done by someone familiar with both research and such documents.

Ultimately, the design basis needs to be clear and not open to potential misinterpretation. Have an experienced research engineer review the design basis for clarity and completeness. Always remember that creating 100 pages too many is a trivial cost, and one paragraph too few can lead to disaster.

Make sure the design firm is experienced with research support, and knowledgeable about research-specific codes and standards.Be sure that the design firm will assign their experienced personnel (with knowledge of both research and facility design) to your project, rather than assigning less-costly but less-knowledgeable personnel. Make sure you test their recommendations for safety and operability. Listen carefully to anyone raising concerns, as they often have become aware of some critical issue that has been missed. This author has seen many cases where drawings and submittals have received only cursory reviews and thus obvious problems or issues have been missed. If you can’t spend the time and effort to do it right, it won’t be done right.

Analyze your needs carefully and consider all the implications of new systems or approaches. Often, a new way is proposed to address an existing problem, which excites great interest and appears well worth the cost. However, once implemented, the new system or approach may incur a lot of additional work and lead to unanticipated additional problems. For example, it is easy to request overhead utilities to allow benches to be repositioned as needed, but have you considered how you will bring these down to the work areas safely and easily? Is the use of hoses carrying high-pressure hazardous gases really the best approach? Question the obvious solutions or new technologies to try to identify potential issues or problems that could arise.

Be even more skeptical about the needs for additional special features; they often are unsupported by actual requirements. I have seen numerous laboratories with expensive casework to facilitate flexibility covered with fixed equipment that never moves. In many cases, the funds and effort could probably have been better used elsewhere. Consider a “cold eyes” (independent) review of the proposed design and any additional features.

Manage the organization’s expectations.A key purpose of management is to provide leadership and direction. However, sometimes this effort results in unreasonable expectations that need to be rapidly brought back to earth — before they become so entrenched that they lead to inevitable lack of enthusiasm for the project. You need to be clear that not everything will be brand new (most lab-relocation projects involve moving a lot of old stuff). Not everyone will get all they want. The new spaces will almost certainly not be as large as we would all like, nor set up as perfectly as we might hope. The new location will be better — but within the prevailing constraints.

Plan to spend an incredible amount of effort planning for the relocation. Assume you will need to trace out all existing equipment and wiring, and develop or update all existing documentation. Be realistic about the effort this will entail and the resources available. Allotting just a few hours or days per week for each person to do this work is not realistic. A part-time approach either will not get the job done or will do the job so poorly as to be useless. Assume you will need to carry out every hazard analysis and risk assessment several times to completely address all of the potential effects of the new location. Recognize that every procedure will need to be reviewed for applicability in the proposed new laboratory location, revised as needed, and occasionally replaced.

Make sure you get a realistic estimate of the cost and schedule required to relocate all equipment.This requires research-knowledgeable personnel who are also good estimators — a rare combination. Make sure everyone is clear that if the work is not on the list, it will not be done. Develop a procedure that will ensure that research personnel will devote adequate time to review and understand all plans, layouts, drawings and so on. Often, personnel are busy with other pressing matters, and make the relocation a secondary consideration, but then raise real (but-hitherto-unarticulated) requirements that can destroy even the best plans during the actual implementation (Figure 4).

FIGURE 4.  Tracing something like this takes time. It also suggests that the new installation should be more carefully planned and labeled for improved future outcomes

FIGURE 4. Tracing something like this takes time. It also suggests that the new installation should be more carefully planned and labeled for improved future outcomes

Recognize that every piece of equipment will likely require some extra work to get it working again in its new home. Added steps, such as extending a utility, adding a more convenient valve, moving a blocked gage, will all arise, so be skeptical of any simplifying “plug-and-play” assumptions — they are usually wrong. (This author once spent extra weeks adding enough outlets for a laboratory to be sure such “trivial” equipment would have sufficient access to power.)

Plan for a small amount of time and effort in every laboratory or major area to address those items that escaped everyone’s review but are going to be needed. The lack of a vice, the missing air hose, the sudden realization that this or that needs to be raised or lowered — these are the types of things that will constantly surface and must be addressed. Recognize that any changes between the time the plans and drawings are finalized, and the actual relocation will probably be missed unless there is a very well-managed system to get it included. Adding it as a last-minute change order will always be proportionately more expensive as it always involves rework (in terms of design or construction).

Consider putting a freeze on any changes as the relocation date approaches. (This is easy to mandate but almost impossible to enforce.)

Assemble a dedicated project team, working full time on the relocation, if possible. Part-time efforts always take second place and result in little real progress. Make sure the team has enough expertise in the organization’s needs, estimating, scheduling, design and evaluation. Engage specialists or subject matter experts as needed. Be careful of assigning personnel who are passionate but may have tunnel vision. The outspoken activist who has pushed for more hoods for years will often take this as an opportunity to force that vision on the organization. And anything carried to excess or — more commonly — implemented impulsively without careful, dispassionate, wide-ranging analysis — is usually sure to create major issues.

How much will this cost? A lot depends on how you assign the work and the charges. If you assume your current staff is already compensated (and thus is “free” to the project), your cost estimate will yield a much lower figure than if you charge their time (at full rate) to the project. If you accept that your current staff is effectively down for months for the relocation, you get a much lower cost than if you hired contractors to do the vast majority of the work and your staff was only down for a few weeks during the actual relocation. If you need to modify, rebuild or replace significant equipment, you will get a much higher cost than if you do not need to do anything.

Is the recommissioning considered a project cost or an operating cost? These, and similar issues make giving typical figures difficult. My experience suggests that almost all relocations are in the range of $150–400/gross square foot (GSF). Efforts to obtain lower costs usually just transfer the actual costs to the operating budgets, and this frequently engenders significant additions due to lack of planning and stewardship.

How long does it take? Again, a lot depends on your plan. Do you try to move in small sections so only a portion of your total research operation is down at any one time, or do you shut down everything for an extended period? Is the facility complete and ready to move into all areas, or are modifications required? Is the facility relocation being completed piecemeal, thus dragging out the relocation? Are you resource-limited in the move and so have to carry it out in phases? Do you have commitments that require you to schedule relocations around them? And, finally, smaller relocations are usually much faster than larger relocations, as there are (usually) fewer constraints. Hence the range of durations are even wider. Typical durations for tightly phased, constrained relocations are 3,000–5,000 GSF/month. Typical ranges for essentially unconstrained relocations can be as high as 10,000–30,000 GSF/month. Schedules are usually constrained by how much downtime the organization can tolerate and, for larger relocations, how much effective contractor staffing is available, so these figures can be highly variable.

In summary, laboratory relocations create interesting challenges and such projects are often much more difficult than realized. If you understand the major issues and take the time and effort to address them properly, you will be able to settle into your new home with significantly less downtime and fewer problems. n



0217-EP(SAS)-RichardPaluzziRichard P. Palluzi, P.E., CSP, of Richard P Palluzi LLC (72 Summit Dr., Basking Ridge, NJ 07920; Email: [email protected]; Phone: 908-285-3782) is a consultant to the pilot plant and laboratory research community on safety, design and research project management. He retired as a Distinguished Engineering Associate after almost 40 years at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, where he was involved in the design, construction, and support of pilot plants and laboratories for ExxonMobil’s research site in Clinton, N.J., as well as affiliates worldwide. Palluzi is the author of two books, and numerous articles and presentations. He is a past chair of the AIChE Pilot Plant Committee, ExxonMobil’s Pilot Plant and Laboratory Safety Standards Committee, and ExxonMobil’s Safe Operation Team for their Clinton Facility. He is on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) NFPA-45 Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals and NFPA-55 Industrial and Medical Gases committees. Palluzi also teaches several courses for the University of Wisconsin’s Dept. of Engineering Professional Development. He has B.E. and M.E. degrees in chemical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology.