Complex projects like data centers typically do not take a design-build approach. But in 2019, team members at Granger Construction, Integrated Design Solutions (IDS), IBI Group, Motor City Electric and Conti Corporation made history as their design-build data center project became the first in the state of Michigan to receive Uptime Institute’s Tier III Certification for both design and constructed facilities.
Not only was this project the first of its kind completed in the state, the Owner also tasked the team to complete the design phase within a challenging 12-week sprint and construction in just over a year. In the following case study, the project team shares best practices and lessons learned from their experience.
A Challenging Project
“When designing this project, we faced many challenges beyond planning for Tier III Certification,” noted Granger Senior Project Manager, Joanne Kulbacki.
Multiple Decision-Makers: As an enterprise data center for an International Fortune 500 client, this project included a number of stakeholders whose interests we needed to coordinate. The Owner had many individuals involved in approving each decision, including leaders from their IT group, facilities design, engineering, security and risk management divisions.
Aggressive Timeline: The Owner’s goals for the design schedule were very ambitious. Their Request for Proposal (RFP) asked for a design-build approach based on limited criteria, and included no drawings. The Owner also proposed a 12-week design timeline, and asked us to develop an operational strategy to complete the design according to the limited RFP criteria.
New Standards: Typically, design-build projects are designed based on project requirements outlined in the RFP, with little further input from the Owner. However, this project was the Owner’s first data center, and they wanted to ensure it was designed and built to the latest industry standards. They also wanted to maximize flexibility for future information technology innovations, allowing them to use this design as a template for future data centers. To accomplish this, our team needed to help the Owner establish design standards and specifications for a building category completely unfamiliar to them. In the end, we successfully coached them through 39 critical design decisions.
One of the most critical of these design decisions was the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system. Not only did it influence the layout and size of the facility, but it also allowed for the UPS equipment to be purchased during the design phase, which ultimately helped reduce the construction schedule.
“Designing an enterprise data center in only 12 weeks is a nearly impossible task,” continued Kulbacki. “But the biggest reason our team was successful was our operational strategy and agility.”
Three-Week Batching: To start, we organized all critical design decisions into a series of workflow batches that cycled through a three-week decision process. Week one, we introduced a new item to the Owner that needed a decision, and together we brainstormed multiple options or solutions to be presented in detail the following week. Week two, we presented a detailed analysis of these options, including cost. Week three, we answered any of the Owner’s outstanding questions. Then the Owner decided on an option or solution. Each week, the team started a new batch of decisions through the cycle, and by week three of each cycle, we finalized design decisions.
“The ability of the design team’s partners to step back with an open mind and objectively analyze the Owner’s data center needs as new concepts were being evaluated, weighing the functionality, budgeting and validating long term goals, was critical to achieving a successful design,” added Motor City Electric team member, Ray Fortier.
The UPS system was one of the first items we presented. Week one, we worked with the Owner to establish several UPS options, including
- Transformer-based static UPS
- Transformerless static UPS
- Rotary UPS
- Several stored energy options (ex. vented lead acid (VLA) batteries, valve regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries and flywheels)
We presented our analysis on week two, and the Owner made a decision on week three. The three-week batching process permitted the Owner to make an informed decision on a very complex topic in a relatively short time, allowing us to purchase the UPS equipment early in the design phase.
Weekly Meeting Flow: Throughout each three-week cycle, we also used an effective weekly meeting flow. Every Tuesday, our design team met with the Owner to:
- Review the budget
- Measure our progress in the design process
- Present design options outlined in the three-week batching plan
- Make critical decisions required that week
We conducted a plus/delta survey at the end of every meeting to ensure we were adding value each week. On Wednesdays, our team of 25 professionals (engineering and trade partners) set the agenda for the following Tuesday meeting based on the 12-week plan and any Owner feedback. Then we conducted discipline-specific breakout sessions per the agenda, where we developed solutions/options that included cost, schedule and cost-of-ownership analysis. The remainder of the week (Thursday – Monday), we used short huddles lasting 15-60 minutes to finish preparing the presentations for the Tuesday Owner meetings.
“These rapid-cycle, multidisciplinary design team meetings eliminated an end-of-phase ‘throw it over the wall mentality’ and permitted analysis of constructability hand-in-hand with design decisions,” stated IDS Project Manager, David Giroux, AIA. This weekly pattern also kept the team focused and coordinated, while setting a precedent early in the project for fast and efficient decision making.
Key Participation: “One of the biggest factors for success with our design workflow was having the right people in the room when we needed them, as well as the outstanding coordination and chemistry between the Owner, construction manager, design team and trade partners,” added IDS Electrical Engineer, Justin Kiriazis, PE. Our design team had subject matter experts from Motor City Electric, Conti Corporation and other trade partners and vendors to tackle specific challenges in preparation for the Tuesday Owner meetings. This meant we could have ongoing constructability discussions during the entire design phase, along with access to continuous, accurate cost information based on proposed design options.
For instance, Conti Corporation Mechanical Director, Vic Calleja, and Sr. Mechanical Estimator, Jon Tkac, noted it was especially effective being able to work with the team early to gain valuable feedback about the mechanical system requirements.
“After identifying the Owner’s mechanical needs, such as the capacity of megawatts required, we dovetailed a mechanical system to achieve the proper cooling required, along with redundancy in the event of any type of catastrophic failure, to ensure the equipment will operate without skipping a beat. Working with our team partners we were able to accomplish this monumental task and came up with our final mechanical design that achieved the Uptime Institute Tier III certification requirements.”
Having the right people in the room at the right time greatly contributed to effective and accurate analysis of the presented design options, quick decisions by the Owner and zero downtime during the design phase. The close coordination between our design team and trade partners and quick Owner decisions allowed us to pre-purchase equipment and begin construction efforts during the design phase, helping us meet the tight construction schedule. By setting a detailed agenda for the weekly Owner meetings, the Owner had great participation from their subject matter experts and decision-makers throughout the process; having the right Owner representatives in the room, week after week, was key to achieving a quick turnaround on complex decisions.
“Another key to our team’s success was utilization of various visual communication tools,” stated Kulbacki. With so many decision-makers and stakeholders involved, we needed to ensure even the most specialized technical details were communicated in a manner everyone could understand. To that end, we used simple diagrams/pictures to cover a variety of topics and ensure equal understanding among all Owner participants, regardless of area of expertise.
BIM Models: “Building Information Modeling (BIM) has become a standard for projects across industries, and our team found this visual communication tool especially effective for coordinating the vast complexities of mechanical and electrical infrastructure within this fast-paced data center project,” noted IDS Electrical Engineer, Scott Batzold, PE. Our team’s documentation and BIM modeling accuracy became critical factors in allowing uninhibited construction progress.
The team used BIM to run clash detections, coordinate trade designs and present design concepts to the Owner. BIM also enabled us to compare choices and answer questions about proposed options. For instance, we used BIM to explore the data hall layout and determine the best access route to chilled water piping underfloor and access points for maintenance.
“Building Information Modeling (BIM) has become a standard for projects across industries, and our team found this visual communication tool especially effective for coordinating the vast complexities of mechanical and electrical infrastructure within this fast-paced data center project,” noted IDS Electrical Engineer, Scott Batzold, PE
The team used BIM to run clash detections, coordinate trade designs and present design concepts to the Owner.
Choosing By Advantage: As we cycled through the three-week batch process, our design team used Choosing by Advantages (CBA) to help the Owner arrive at decisions for the complex topics. For instance, when choosing the UPS system, the Owner was presented a CBA matrix with five UPS options and attributes listed for each option based on nine attribute categories. The attributes were assigned weighted points based on importance to the Owner. A chart of the CBA results and the total cost of ownership allowed the Owner to visually see the flywheels option was the best solution. The CBA process made the Owner feel more confident in their decisions and helped streamline the decision-making process.
When choosing the UPS system, the Owner was presented a CBA matrix with five UPS options and attributes listed for each option based on nine attribute categories.
As we cycled through the three-week batch process, our design team used Choosing by Advantages (CBA) to help the Owner arrive at decisions for the complex topics.
Presentations: We created visually-rich presentations to illustrate real design content to the Owner every week. These helped ensure universal understanding of complex design concepts across a large and diverse audience, facilitating faster decisions.
Dashboards: We used a dashboard layout to track major metrics, weekly meeting attendance and progress towards goals. On this project, major metrics included LEED certification points and Uptime Institute Tier III Certification steps achieved to date. We updated this dashboard before every weekly Owner meeting to reflect the latest numbers.
Goals, Roles and Contingencies
“Our team is proud of what we accomplished with this challenging design-build project,” notes Kulbacki. “But one major takeaway we learned and would stress for future project teams is to plan ample contingencies for when things change.”
Dispel the misconception that there is no room to change your mind or alter decisions/design with a design-build approach. Things change on every project, and the best practice is to create a contingency plan to absorb these changes. It is vital to establish clear goals and key decision-makers at the start of the design period. However, you need to revisit and recalibrate these goals and role clarifications as design and construction of the data center progresses. Just like anything in technology, what is great today could be outmoded tomorrow.
Begin in the design kick-off meeting by explaining why it is important to clearly define individual roles/responsibilities and designate the final decision-makers.
The Owner may not know exactly what they want at the start of the project, or there may be information gaps in the RFP, so you need to clarify these things at the start of the design process so everyone is on the same page moving forward.
This is especially true for anyone striving to obtain Uptime Institute Tier Certification. You must first reach an agreement with the Owner and entire team about which certification elements to pursue, then determine if there is a desire and budget availability to enhance any of the systems to a higher Tier level for additional reliability.
Certification and Success
“Our design-build approach, workflow and team synergy allowed us to take an aggressive design schedule and achieve not only Tier III Certification for design but also for construction,” said Kulbacki.
“The Uptime Tier Certification process was invaluable to the success of our project,” notes Kiriazis. “Senior Consultant Scott Good went above and beyond to help our design team navigate the Tier Standards during design and construction of the facility. His expertise helped us achieve the client’s expectations for a top quality Tier III facility.
“It was an honor to be part of such a one-of-a-kind, monumental feet,” added Calleja and Tkac.
The team maintained fun, camaraderie, engagement and excitement throughout the project. This, plus everyone’s “can do” attitude and commitment to securing expertise and answers, were keys to success. We also had a great onboarding process as the project progressed, enabling us to maintain our design focus as the team size grew.
While aggressive, there are many aspects of this design process we would encourage other design teams to implement on their project. We have already implemented them on a sister facility for the same Fortune 500 client.
We are honored to be the first team in Michigan to use Design-Build with this operational strategy and achieve both of these certifications and join the group of over 60 data centers in the US that have been awarded Uptime Institute’s Tier III Certification for Design Documents (TCDD) and the Tier Certification of Constructed Facility (TCCF) for completed data centers.