by Alvaro Ribeiro
The impact of a global pandemic on the complex, interconnected nature of supply chains has quite literally brought home to us how fragile that infrastructure is in today’s global economy. While there are signs of recovery, it is impossible to predict the availability of commonplace products, let alone highly specialized building materials and equipment. This is particularly evident when owners, architects, engineers, and contractors are consumed by the frenetic pace of delivering life sciences projects.
In this perplexing new world order, architects must communicate, adapt, and respond more diligently than ever before. Gone are the good old days when specifying a product and receiving it on time was taken for granted. An apt example of how science and technology projects are impacted now is the delivery of essential mechanical and electrical systems equipment such as rooftop HVAC units, variable air volume (VAV) boxes, and generators. Even before the pandemic, these were considered long-lead items. Today, that list has grown to include such components as variable fan drives, electrical panels, lighting, glazing, specialty ceilings, lab gases, quick connect valves, lab furniture, and more. We are also seeing lead times become a moving target even after an ordered product has been given a ship date and tracking number. This can wreak havoc on construction scheduling and cost, stranding crews on site without the materials they need to complete the job as specified.
When facing such a predicament, an architect has two choices: Either accept information given as indisputable and move on, or commit to communication at multiple levels to connect the key players and develop a creative solution. On a recent life sciences project to design a relocating lab facility and its administrative and support spaces, we chose the latter course of action, because failure was not an option. Prior to March 2020, people who had been doing their jobs quietly and efficiently in the background without an architect’s intervention were suddenly integral to an all-hands-on-deck effort. For this lab fit-out, where a key piece of electrical equipment was unavailable by the deadline, we forged strong connections between manufacturing plant managers, distribution centers, and the electrical engineer and contractor to brainstorm different combinations of off-the-shelf products that would take its place and temporarily bridge the lead time gap so the owner could take occupancy as scheduled.
The results of such deliberate communication are measurable. Had we done nothing, an eight-month schedule would have been extended by five months. But in this case, through intensive coordination, the project team was able to re-engineer and redesign the component on the fly and shorten the delay to one month. Our MacGyvered solution allowed the owner to be up and running on day one, and the team is prepared to revisit the project once the originally specified product becomes available.
Although product bottlenecks are beginning to ease slightly, until the supply chain fully recovers, we foresee owners, project teams, manufacturers, and shippers working in tandem as never before to keep the wheels of commerce moving in the right direction.
Alvaro Ribeiro, AIA, is a senior architect at Margulies Perruzzi.