009 How Many People Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Q: How many people does it take to change a lightbulb? A: More than one when you have to erect scaffolding to do it.

“He may have won the battle, but I won the war,” she said with the click of her ink pen.

I laughed. “What happened?”

As a construction manager, she had just met with a subcontractor to install a small access panel in the soffit of a campus building. She attempted to have it installed while the building was under construction, but the architect had determined that it wasn’t suitable for aesthetic reasons. The architect provided an access panel, but it was too large and unwieldy. Knowing that a maintenance worker would frequently access a piece of equipment behind the panel, she thought it made more sense to provide a smaller access door within the larger panel.

She is aware of what designers often forget, the day-to-day operation and maintenance of campus facilities. Architects and engineers romance our buildings for a little while, but facilities and operations are married to them for life (and have to wine and dine them and keep them looking nice on a limited budget). In this blog post, I will discuss a few operating and maintenance items that designers should consider when designing campus buildings.

HVAC Shut-Downs

I sit on committees with lab building users who reiterate weekly that their tenants cannot be without air conditioning or heating….EVER. These groups are running sensitive (and very expensive) experiments that require consistent room temperature and humidity. On a recent project, after an internal review of the construction documents for the mechanical system, our maintenance staff and mechanical engineer, noted that the mechanical system would have to be shut down for up to three hours once a year for maintenance. I knew this wouldn’t work for the user, so I gathered all the stakeholders to meet and discuss the issue. As a result of the meeting, the users said they would gladly pay the extra cost for a redundant system, so that they would never be without air conditioning or heating.

Lesson learned. Users tolerance for shutdowns and maintenance schedules should be conveyed to the designer early in the project. If these parameters aren’t, I hope this post convinces the designer to at least ask the question.

List Structural Loads on Contract Documents

Every year, we are replacing several pieces of equipment on our campus and I am asked to determine if the existing floor structure can support the new equipment. To do this task, I dig through the archives to find the record drawings and then sit down to try to figure out the structural capacity of the floor and whether or not it can hold the new equipment.

When I was in practice, I would state the basis of design weight for mechanical equipment. As you may know, structural engineers design the supporting structure for a particular make and model of equipment, but the contractor has the option to buy a different make or model (because it might be less expensive). On one of our jobs the contractor bought a piece of equipment that was 20% heavier than what we anticipated in the design. We didn’t catch the equipment change in the shop drawing process, which resulted in an excessive deflection of the structure. As a result, we cost the project time and money, and received a frown from our client. After that experience, I would always list the basis of design on the contract drawings, which communicated my expectations to the contractor and made checking shop drawings easier. Forty years from now when the equipment is replaced, knowing what weight the structure was designed for will save the owner money and time.

Provide Access for Equipment Replacement

I’ve made the same mistake. Several years ago, when I worked as a structural engineer, I was the PM on a project and we designed a corrosive free and lightweight fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) grating that covered a large basement areaway. We assumed (didn’t ask and didn’t get feedback) that when they needed to replace a piece of equipment in the basement, they could remove the grating because it was lightweight (unlike steel) and we provided connections that could be unscrewed etc. What we didn’t know was that the panel sections were too large and too heavy to lift with the equipment available on campus.

Last year when I started my job, I was touring the campus with a facility construction manager and he pointed to the FRP grating on my project and told me that the grating had to be modified after it was built to allow for access and then went on and told me how engineers didn’t think about these things. I said “but …but” and tried to tell him my side of the story.

When stakeholders tell you what they want think of it as a blessing. Sometimes no one (not even the stakeholders) will think through the logistics of maintaining equipment, but when they do, listen. You will forever be regarded as an award-winning designer or at least your name won’t be cursed on a frequent basis.  I’m sure you’ve heard the quote “No one notices a good design, but everyone notices a bad design.”


If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably saying, “If it was in the ##$%%^ campus design guidelines, you wouldn’t have these issues.” To that I say, “I agree.” Email me your suggestions for campus guidelines and I’ll see what I can do.

Battles and the War

As design and construction professionals we are always fighting the battle of the unforeseen and unknowable conditions that come up during a project. Conditions that we weren’t aware of and didn’t know the right questions to ask to ferret them out. In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know. I hope that designers will consider the issues I discussed above because I know that it will help them build a solid relationship with the campus owners.

I am always looking for ways of learning about unforeseen and unknowable conditions and I’m sure you are too. Share a “lessons learned” design issue as it relates to maintenance and operations from one of your projects in the comments section below. We can all learn this together.

One thought on “009 How Many People Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

  1. Pingback: 017 Public-Private Partnerships: A Primer | Project Management Dean

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