COVER STORY: PRODUCT SELECTION
By Desiree J. Hanford Facilities Management
When facility managers lead product selection, the result is lower long-term cost, better operations, and happier occupants.
Whether it’s new construction, renovation, retrofit, or replacement, the first day that building occupants get to use a space is likely to be filled with excitement and congratulations. Then the real test begins. Will the carpet hold up to traffic? What about doors and door hardware? Can the new HVAC system be maintained? Are utility costs in line with expectations? Are occupants happy with the restroom? In the best cases, the new or updated building runs smoothly and efficiently, taking whatever occupants dish out. But every facility manager has lived through or at least heard about projects that produced years-long, even decades-long, headaches. And looking back it’s easy to see that choices about which products would be used, decisions made during the design and construction stages, went a long way to determining the long-term success or failure of the project. That’s why many facility managers take a lead role in selecting the products to be used in a building. They have found that the effort pays off in multiple ways, from lower life cycle costs to more satisfied employees, tenants, and patients.
As a result, leadership in product selection has emerged as a best practice for facility managers looking to maximize their value to their organization.
“Building owners should have direct specification responsibility for all building products and materials,” says Bradley Cardoso, principal architect at Hobbs Brook Management, in an email. “As a developer, property owner, and facility manager, Hobbs Brook Management believes that understanding our business requirements and corporate goals, as well as being knowledgeable of the performance and warranties of various products, allows us to make sound decisions as informed consumers.”
Hobbs Brook has a 50-person in-house staff that has developed tight building standards that apply across the firm’s portfolio of nearly six million square feet of office space. The staff conducts due diligence on product performance, relying on professional expertise, research, and experience. “With these guidelines, we are fully involved from the start of each project,” Cardoso says. “We can confidently specify products and build in a way that reduces our operating expenses by considering the cost over the lifecycle of a product.”
In-house specs enable Hobbs Brook to ensure that products used in its buildings meet corporate goals: tenant retention, profitability by reducing operating expenses, and sustainability. “We have years of experience in choosing the right products and knowing the optimal time for replacement,” Cardoso says. “Our product specifications offer us greater control of construction projects and deliver the preferred outcome — systems and products that wear well throughout the life of a tenant lease.”
Involvement in product selection pays off on the bottom line. “The up-front product purchase price is only a fraction of the overall cost; it is important to understand a product’s potential maintenance issues as ongoing repairs or premature replacement can far outweigh up-front costs,” Cardoso says. “We evaluate materials to identify ease and frequency of maintenance and replacement. For example, flooring that doesn’t require buffing and carpets that wear well and hide stains require considerably less maintenance. While the products tend to be more expensive initially, the savings in maintenance and replacement costs can be significant and lead to increased tenant satisfaction.”
Another benefit of having detailed product and material standards that apply to all new construction, renovation, and retrofits is that in-house staff knows what’s in the building and can be better prepared for repairs and maintenance, Cardoso points out.
“Additionally, it is important to monitor product performance and track metrics to inform our choices of future specifications,” Cardoso says.
How To Develop In-House Specifications for Product Selection
Standards for products allow facilities teams to work more efficiently with any architecture firm and be confident they’ll get what they want. But they must be reviewed regularly.
Froedtert Health takes a collaborative approach to the selection of products and technology. Froedtert Health has a standards committee that meets quarterly to make sure the system is current and looks at possible changes as to how selections are made, says Isaac Larson, executive director of facility planning and development. The committee includes leaders from facilities and plant operations, as well as other areas including security, nursing, and infection protection, he says.
The health system has a standards manual — put together by the in-house staff — that specifies what products go where in different locations of the building, and the manual helps when it comes to budgeting and scheduling for projects, Larson says. As the health system has become more integrated and has taken steps to standardize the look of its facilities, the standards manual has helped with everything from branding and imaging in a front lobby to making sure the layout of cleaning supply rooms is consistent, he says.
“We have specifications that tell us what type of wood products to use, and we have a layout that when you go into an exam room, you know where the trash goes, where the sink goes,” Larson says. “There aren’t 75 types of paint being used. There are four we use for the walls, and we know we can have them on hand.”
In addition, Froedtert Health has standardized furniture so pieces can be moved around and they all match, he says.
One of the advantages of having a standards manual is that Froedtert Health can easily approach new architecture firms to get new design ideas, says John Balzer, vice president of facility planning and development for Froedtert Health. “We can selectively team up with an architect we want and hand them the standards manual and say you can do anything you want as long as it’s in the book. And it allows us to diversify with consultants and know they won’t reinvent the wheel and come up with their favorite product and not ours.”
Froedtert Health has six to eight trusted design, engineering, and construction management firms that it works with on projects, Larson says. “This allows us to put the right firm in the right place at the right time,” he says.
Cushman & Wakefield also has in-house specifications for products, says Scott Offermann, critical operations manager for Cushman & Wakefield. Specifications for equipment allow the in-house staff to maintain it because the equipment is standardized, he says. The specifications need to be reviewed regularly to make sure they’re still applicable and that there aren’t better alternatives available, Offermann says.
The real estate services company also uses preferred vendors with preferred prices, meaning it has pre-agreed upon service prices so that Offermann knows exactly how much he’s going to pay per hour. Having preferred vendors also maintains accountability and credibility, he says.
“If I don’t have that, you can call your bother-in-law to fix the AC and I have no control over that,” Offermann says, adding that preferred vendors are reviewed about every three years but he can cancel any of them at any time with enough notice.
The project management team at the University of Texas-Austin is involved early on with the development of design and construction standards for projects and consultants are expected to follow them for the 160 buildings with 20 million square feet on campus, says Jill Stewart, associate director of the project management division.
The school has what’s called a technical review team of all disciplines — architecture, mechanical, structural, electrical, and environmental health and safety — and at different stages of design, a consultant submits documents for a project being worked on and the technical team reviews them to make sure they are conforming to UT-A standards, Stewart says.
“So we have a team that is really an expert in our standards, and they provide comments and the consultants are required to answer the comments,” Stewart says. “And before we issue a construction permit, the head of our technical review team has to sign off on it. I think we have a pretty good process in place. We get to define what we want or at least limit what we don’t want.”
About every five years UT-A goes through an RFP process and then hires consultants of every specialty it thinks it may need, Stewart says. The consultants get one-year contracts that can be renewed. The school has about 80 consultants it can select from, she says.
Crouse Health has a list of preferred contractors and suppliers and it uses the list, but it also puts work out to bid with its stringent specifications because sometimes there can be a limited number of vendors, suppliers, and contractors who are available, says Jeff Tetrault, vice president of facilities management.
One challenge with having preferred vendors is making sure that you’re getting competitive pricing, Tetrault says. “But there are far more pros than cons to having that list because, if it’s 2 a.m. and there’s a failed pipe, you can pick up the phone and you can get things done quickly and efficiently.”
Because the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is part of the state university system, any new structure is considered a state building and the state’s division of facilities development and management manages the construction of the building, says Geoff Hurtado, associate vice chancellor for facilities planning and management at UWM.
The UWM facilities staff is involved in minor renovations, such as replacing carpet and painting a group of offices or doing “modest” HVAC or plumbing work, Hurtado says. The staff brings its collective experience and knowledge of the latest technology to the decision-making table, he says. This led, for example, to make a change from broadloom carpet in many of the school’s buildings to carpet tile. The glue on the back of the tiles is much better than when it first came out and it lasts longer, Hurtado says.
The decision, Hurtado says, has saved money. “When someone spills or burns something, you only have to replace a tile or two as opposed to the whole room,” he says.
Get Operations Staff Involved Early in Product Selection
Who is going to maintain the products selected? Those folks should definitely be given the opportunity to weigh in on which products will be used.
Another important tool for effective product selection is to get the operations staff involved early in the process.
“They have to be involved because they are the ones that have to maintain it moving forward,” says Tetrault. “If you have new construction or renovation — the specifying of systems, equipment, technology — it should be 100 percent reviewed and approved by the facilities management team because they have to maintain it.”
Hurtado agrees, noting that it’s “common sense” to get the input of a group of people who “will have to clean, care, patch, and replace” the products and technology for years to come.
“It has to stand the test of time and they are the ones who know that best,” he says.
Offerman says that his facilities team must know how to service and maintain the products in the building, whether it’s in-house or third-party service and maintenance. A key step in doing that is writing specifications for a project that aren’t product specific but delivery specific, meaning that the products will match the needs of the project, he says.
“What would scare me is if they come in and say that we bought a new system but no one knows how to maintain it, and there’s one service provider for it on the other side of the country,” Offermann says. “So prior to a product being purchased, the selection should be reviewed by local teams or those responsible for maintaining it so that they can do their due diligence on it.”
Part of that review is making sure that the product will work in the space where it is to be installed. “It doesn’t do any good to put the air conditioning in the ceiling and there are cubicles below it so that folks can’t access it,” Offerman says.
Like Offermann and Hurtado, Peter Strazdas, Western Michigan University associate vice president of facilities management, says it’s important to involve the people who maintain the assets — the products and the technology — and live with the building long after the architects and contractors are gone. “We’re in higher education,” Strazdas says. “We’re not going to be bought by a company in New Jersey anytime soon, so we’re in this for the long run. So total cost of ownership is a great concept and where you find best value in the long run. That might mean higher costs on the front end and lower on the back end.”
It’s a matter, Strazdas says, of balancing the in-house staff with outside professionals and facility industry publications. The in-house staff has knowledge of the facilities, what’s in them and how to maintain them, while the outside professionals, such as architects and contractors, can bring a new perspective, he says. Industry publications contain useful information, so that facility managers can keep up with developments in technology. “We have to balance what we think is right, with the professionals and what the market exposes us to,” Strazdas says. “There are tough calls sometimes, but we’re biased with what we believe in: the best total cost of ownership.”
Strazdas advises facility managers to stay connected. He recommends being involved in associations with best practice papers that are written by peers, taking the time to meet with other peers, and reading blogs written by peers.
“Peers are the secret network,” Strazdas says. “What really works is sitting down at a conference at lunch or a session in the evening and talking to people about their challenges and issues.”
Cushman & Wakefield’s Offermann stresses that selecting products and technologies requires work: research, time, and effort. “It’s something you have to actually concentrate on and get done,” he says. “You have to find the time, period.”
Desiree J. Hanford, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a freelance writer who spent 10 years as a reporter for Dow Jones. She is a former assistant editor of Building Operating Management.
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