Canadian Consulting Engineer

High Tech Check

With scientific advances happening at a rate unprecedented in history, and going on simultaneously in many different fields, we are seeing a chain reaction and avalanche of information. In fact, the s...

August 1, 2000  By Met Ulker, P.Eng. Reid Crowther & Partners

With scientific advances happening at a rate unprecedented in history, and going on simultaneously in many different fields, we are seeing a chain reaction and avalanche of information. In fact, the scientific knowledge of humanity is doubling every few years.

High tech companies are the organizations that develop technologies based on the recent advances in science and put them to work for us. Because scientific knowledge is being accumulated so quickly, and because it is available globally, these companies are in a race to develop their technologies before others do around the world, and before further scientific advances render them obsolete. Their window of opportunity is thus very short. They like to concentrate on what they do best i.e. research and development, and leave issues related to their facilities to the professionals. But consulting firms must understand that these high tech companies have extraordinary needs in order to fulfil these kinds of assignments.

As engineering consultants, our work for high tech companies is driving us to relearn and rethink how we design their facilities. High tech companies such as those in the bio-engineering, software development, and pharmaceuticals fields, for example, mostly employ scientists, and these people have specific, and at times unconventional, requirements for their work spaces.

The most important attributes of successful high tech facilities include:

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Flexibility

Expandability

Reliability

Economy

Sustainability/Green Design

Safety and Security

Aesthetics

Movers and shakers

High tech companies cannot afford lengthy renovation/construction periods. Furthermore, these companies have a very high staff turnover — 100 per cent annually is not uncommon. The flexibility of their building systems is therefore paramount. The building infrastructure needs to be able to accommodate new technology applications with minimal cost and effort.

Following are some of the primary amenities to consider:

Lighting. Flexible lighting systems and controls are very important. Ideally, they will enable multiple tasks to be performed within the same space and will require minimal changes when the work areas are reconfigured. Combining comfortable ambient lighting with increased task lighting helps the designer to adjust the lighting to particular individuals and their tasks.

Controls. An HVAC system with individual controls allows the individual occupant to tailor his or her environment to her own needs. A flexible base mechanical system also minimizes future renovation costs.

Power. A distribution system that provides any quantity of power anywhere on site is another must. The use of connections that do not need fixed wiring speeds reconfigurations. An effective solution is a raised floor system. In the past these were limited to computer rooms but now they are often used throughout a facility.

Communications. The communications system is the central nervous system of a building, allowing the occupants to communicate within and beyond the facility. Thus, providing communications structured cabling which does not need to be rewired for work station relocations is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Such systems, which are windows for the company to the outside world, can be used flexibly to communicate voice, data, and video globally.

Fire. A fire alarm system that is addressable (where the alarm signal can be identified by an “address” e.g. 123 North or 54 West) and that can be readily expanded or modified is necessary. Such systems allow devices to be added or deleted easily and the rezoning can be done via software.

The explosive growth often witnessed in high tech companies requires facilities that can be expanded without fracturing the organization. The employees need to work as a team and interact on a continuous basis. Therefore, facilities designed to accommodate high tech organizations should not only be flexible, but also have planned room for expansion.

Staying on line and clean power

Because of the time constraints they are under, high tech companies cannot afford to have their operations interrupted by a building system failure. Some of the ways to alleviate this risk include:

Providing supply power from two separate sources. This approach will ensure a continuous supply, minimizing the duration of interruptions from a utility failure or building operations.

In critical areas, redundant systems should be provided. The option of providing dedicated systems for critical areas should be considered.

A large quantity of power on site ensures that the distribution system is robust and will not be taxed to its capacity but has room for manoeuvring. This also helps reduce the effects of harmonics associated with computerized equipment.

The quality of power is also extremely important so that sensitive equipment used by high tech companies functions properly and within its limits. There are two main options for making sure the quality of the power is high: first, by taking power from the utility company at high voltage, where the supply is cleaner; second, by carefully locating the facility to avoid large industrial plants with major power consuming equipment such as induction furnaces, welders, etc.

A sure way of ensuring that power is clean enough is to test the building power quality before signing the lease. The results can also be used to benchmark the quality before occupancy, allowing the occupant to monitor it over time.

Uninterrupted power supply systems (UPS) are another option for supplying clean power. Systems that use insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) technology reduce harmonic distortion for both output and input, thus helping to reduce the size of the generator.

Lock the doors

High tech companies are prime targets for industrial espionage. Their facilities demand state of the art security systems to ensure their business confidentiality is maintained without creating a prison-like environment. The research staff so sought-after by high tech firms are hard to find and keep. These are unique individuals with mostly scientific backgrounds, and the global nature of their work can often have them working at odd hours. It is therefore imperative that they have a safe place to work around the clock.

Dollar signs

High tech companies, being mostly in research and development, and, in general, not having revenue-generating activities yet, might have limited resources. Building systems must be designed to suit not only their needs but also their pocket books. An effective approach is at least to put the infrastructure in place so that they can add new technology when they can afford it. Another important issue is ensuring that the building systems are energy efficient so that the operating costs are reasonable.

Earth conscious

Because their work is often in the health and life-enhancing fields, high tech companies are morally obliged to respect the environment and retain the earth’s finite resources for the benefit of future generations. Their facilities must be designed to be in tune with that commitment.

Also, as noted above, the highly skilled and talented researchers who work at high tech companies are difficult to find and keep. A healthy indoor environment helps a firm to keep such staff, and gives them a work setting that enhances creativity and increases productivity.

Energy efficiency enters the equation again here. At a minimum, the design should meet the requirements of the Model National Energy Code for Buildings. As well, these clients often want effective daylighting to create a healthy environment and minimize energy use.

Finally, aesthetics are important. A high tech company is expected to be at the pinnacle of its industry, and the architecture and aesthetics of its facility must project that image. They often rely on stock markets to raise financial resources and the impression they create can be the difference between success and failure. CCE

Met Ulker, P.Eng. is vice president of Reid Crowther & Partners in Vancouver.

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Engineering


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