Lab Case Study: Resurrection Of A Relic

Dow Corning upgrades its old laboratory facility to a new "people hub."
Dow Corning upgrades its old laboratory facility to a new "people hub."

Lab Case Study: Resurrection Of A Relic

Lab Case Study: Resurrection Of A Relic

By Doug Aldrich and Sheri Wolford
Published in the March 2002 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

When we walked into our 33-year-old process building that autumn day in 1999, the prospect of delivering a successful renovation and/or expansion was daunting. A plethora of facility constraints and a litany of people needs came at us from every direction.

Our assignment was to develop strategic facility concepts and begin a transformation. This would start with the creation of a new people environment—as a central hub on a long corridor—that would prevail through future laboratory expansions.


The original facility was built in 1966 to provide laboratories, pilot plants, offices, and administrative and technical support spaces. The total size of the buildings—linked by an outdoor, covered walkway—was 45,000 gross square feet (gsf), and L-shaped, with pilot facilities at either end. Labs with adjacent offices were on a 390′ main corridor, while the administrative area was on the 150′ short corridor.

The department’s mission was to develop new silicone manufacturing processes, optimize existing ones, and prepare large quantities of new products for customer sampling and market introductions. For three decades, the building served its original purpose well. However, the winds of change (in technology and in people needs) had been felt by management and the facility by the 1990s.

The Plan

The original requests for facility improvements were piecemeal and fragmented. Users expressed needs, but they did so without a sense of how to integrate them into a long-term vision. Proposed solutions included re-doing and/or rearranging “soft spaces” (places people can spontaneously sit in and chat, put their feet up, etc.), storage rooms, laboratories, offices, and conference rooms, but without cohesion.

A step back was required. First, the entire existing building was assessed from engineering viewpoints as to physical conditions and opportunities for re-use. Second, sketchy ideas of expanding the facility in both lab and office increments were melded into a master plan, to be completed in four phases (including renovation of existing labs). This was a separate effort by an Architecture/Engineering firm, but it resulted in a strategic compass heading used many times to debate and resolve tactical actions taken with the first phase.


Phase I was to renovate and add 45 offices, build a kitchen/break area, modernize two bathrooms, and increase the number of conference rooms. The overall budget (turnkey: everything included) was $2,566,000. The actual spending was $2,355,000, or 8.2% under the approved amount. (For those who like ratios, this is about $195/gsf.)

There were two reasons we incurred higher costs than expected (although we ended within “estimate plus contingency” parameters). First, the construction of peopled spaces in a technical building on a manufacturing site involves more complicated and expensive standards (including costs of sprinkler systems, emergency sensors/alarms, and fire doors).

When we upgraded the fire water piping chase, it resulted in short-changing the width of the entrance path for the men’s bathroom. This required a minor correction. Also, Phase I is a link from the current facility to the next lab block addition. We decided during design/engineering to make infrastructure provisions for ductwork, conduit reinforcement, and future air handling units (AHUs). That was another late adjustment.

Original key milestones provided for ground-breaking on March 6, 2000 with a December 8 completion. The actual “dig date” was April 1, which revised the completion target to December 31. We moved in February 12, 2001, about six weeks later than scheduled. The project was delayed because we had to fire the steel sub-contractor for poor quality of work, and the glazing supplier measured the openings incorrectly, so the building was late in being closed for interior finishing.

Physical Needs

With this project, we wanted to improve or add several physical aspects in the new addition and within the areas that were to be renovated. Our overall plan was to:

  • Not only add more offices, but also standardize them for better space efficiencies and minimize build-out space.
  • Add more conference rooms of various sizes to support collaboration activities.
  • Install a much-desired kitchen/break area.
  • Bring the bathrooms up to ADA standards, as well as bring them into better gender/equity alignment with the current workforce.
  • Improve ergonomics and safety, as well as prepare for future occupant-inspired flexibilities.

For appropriate efficiency and flexibility, we created an open plan office environment. For consistency with an earlier office renovation, we continued our use of Steelcase furniture. Within the existing enclosed offices, we chose Context furniture, which would be “fixed” with only a small possibility for future reconfiguration. In the new office block, we anticipated a higher potential for future reconfigurations, so we used Series 9000 panels with freestanding Secant components.

At our other local facilities (not within our plant site), we have a dedicated, certified furniture installation crew. At the plant, we have a unionized service crew, whose members are not certified in furniture installation. Therefore, it was important to find a furniture system that could easily be reconfigured, such as Secant. The pieces are freestanding, so they can be moved easily.

The furniture also satisfies our ergonomic concerns, because it is height-adjustable and can be quickly raised or lowered (by the service crew) in 1″ increments. We carefully developed our office standards and our “kit of parts,” so we can rearrange the Secant furniture into a couple of different configurations within an office, without having to reconfigure the panels. While a professional has a single office, the space can easily be converted for two summer interns or college co-ops.

The strategy for electrical/signal wiring throughout the open plan space was to run the cables down the structural columns, which were boxed-in, rather than run under floors or through power poles. This was decided for both aesthetic and financial reasons. A field construction error located signal terminations at eye level–a decidedly unattractive feature, which will be modified in the near future.

For the break area, we worked to accommodate two different needs. First, we wanted to create a pleasing and comfortable place for employees to eat their lunch, since the plant’s cafeteria is a car drive away. We also wanted the space to double as a spontaneous interaction area. As a rule, fms try to promote teamwork and interactions with building layouts, architecture, etc. While this becomes more challenging as the walking distance increases, having to get into a car and drive is a significant barrier (more than you’d think). It’s time consuming, difficult in bad weather, and hard on cars during winter. We wanted to make it worth the effort of getting there.

The view out of the full height glass windows, which overlook a heavily wooded area, is very pleasant. We used bolder seating fabrics, a whimsical custom laminate on the table top, and had fun with the Milliken modular carpet tiles by creating patterns within patterns for a relaxed environment. The room is also wired with phone and local area network (LAN) connections, so it can double as a work or meeting area as well.

The lighting in the renovated areas was a challenge, since existing light levels ranged from 21 to 114 foot-candles (FC), and the floor-to-floor height was limited. The current building is single-story in the renovated areas, with 8′ from concrete ceiling deck to the finished floor. The ceiling was a high-gloss painted steel, low, glaring, and inflexible.

We chose a light fixture series from Lightcontrol, which met all of our needs with a selection of suspended pendant, flush mounted, and wall mounted models. We painted the existing ceilings flat white and used the flush and wall mounted fixtures, which had only a 3″ to 4″ profile.

In the new office area (with a comfortable ceiling height of 10′), we used suspended pendant fixtures, which were hung from the dropped Armstrong 2′ x 2′ ceiling tile. These are 80/20 fixtures that allow both downward and upward lighting to achieve desired light levels (65 FC) with minimum glare. The only lighting choice that needed adjustment was at the entrance to the two rest rooms, where the fixture’s FC level was too weak to accommodate the shift from corridor lighting to interior room lighting.

Behavioral/Emotive Needs

One of our significant strategies was to promote networking and interactions of the people, whether in idea generation, problem-solving, or general communications. With several additions (three drop-in “enclaves,” one eight-person and two six-person conference rooms, and a break/interaction area), and renovations (one service center and changes to the large meeting room), we created “planned and chance encounters” that foster people interactions.

All meeting rooms are set up for global teleconferencing with other company locations, universities, customers, and suppliers. The enclosed enclaves give privacy on a drop-in basis, as well as relaxed forums for informal conversations or private time. We furnished these areas with fabric wall coverings, artwork, and lounge furniture from Brayton and Metro, and we enclosed them with four opaque walls and a door.

A second strategy was to improve this process facility to make it consistent with our other laboratories. Our expectation is that employees should have comparable amenities and ambiance (to keep our facility competitive in hiring and retention) regardless of which building they work in. By eliminating feelings of “have and have-not” that can exist in a plant versus corporate environment, the morale and satisfaction of process engineers can be enhanced in a functional lab building at a plant site.

A process laboratory with pilot plants can appear industrial with minimum attention to competitive creature comforts; this does not mean being lavish or frivolous. The selection of colors, materials, and finishes with wise expenditures made the project look better than users ever imagined it could.

The demographics in this building have evolved over 35 years; we currently have a 25% female population in the building. The old bathrooms were dark, dingy, and deplorable; they did not meet ADA code nor have sufficient accommodations for our growing female population.

We renovated some existing storage space into our new rest room facilities. The new facilities are well lit, bright and cheery, meet code, and have a better sensitivity to privacy, especially in the shower area.

Safety (slips and falls) was also of concern, because there was a problem with snow, rain, salt, etc. being tracked into the rest rooms from the main entrance. To reduce hazards, we used Milliken’s Entryvision walk-off carpet tile at the building entrance. Inside the bathrooms, we used American Olean’s Egyptstone ceramic mosaic tile, which has a flat, matte finish, and a small grit or abrasive texture to prevent slipping.


At the project onset, our employees were skeptical that a noticeable improvement could be accomplished in an “old dog” building. They were wary of the “suits” (us) who couldn’t possibly understand their needs or wants.

We made a time investment up front to assess user needs through interviews, inventory, and observation. Based on this information, we created several prototype office spaces and asked employees to evaluate them. With their feedback in mind, we finalized our furniture selection.

When we looked at how to redistribute employees across the building, we had several tell us they would not move into the new addition. They liked their double office with a window and door; an open plan would bring loss of privacy and an increase in noise and interruptions.

Until the project was completed, it was difficult to convince our employees that we could do the layout, acoustics, and lighting correctly–that life could exist without a door. After the furniture was installed, however, several people asked to be moved into the new office block.

Response to the new spaces has been overwhelming; employees even volunteered to move into the new addition. The department manager said it all, “This is the best office area in all of Dow Corning!” (Of course, this wasn’t said until almost a year later!)

Lessons Learned

If managers of other facilities are thinking about embarking upon a project such as this one, there are a few things we might suggest.

Get a plan. This doesn’t mean updating CAD files; it means having good concepts, sound information, and clear direction. The true value shows up in decision making, problem solving, trade-offs, and helping people change. Fms who don’t have a plan should make time to prepare one.

The eyes have it. The contributions of a multi-disciplinary team are essential; their differing views and skills can make synergy happen on a complex project. Having others look critically at your work pays off in the end.

Set the rules. Defining the roles/responsibilities for your team is one thing; articulating them to consultants/contractors and employees is even more crucial. The win or loss depends upon these clarities.

Do your homework. Gathering information from employees should be a “contact sport”; networking with other organizations is useful. The prototyping of new lab/office concepts brings visual relief to future occupants, and may bring significant revelations to the plan.

Devour the details. Never just cope with details; use the opportunity to seek them out, understand them, relish them, and work with them. About 90% of user satisfaction lies in detail management.

Let the games begin. Once a facility is operating with people in it, the fm’s function moves to new heights: continuous improvement, reality checks, client satisfaction, self-examination, and new ideas. This is when physical and behavioral solutions merge especially well.

On balance, we blended a successful renaissance of deteriorated physical attributes and emerging employee behaviors into a new environment. Our focus was on meeting needs (and hopefully some wants–an important distinction). That’s what change is all about!

Aldrich is the global manager of laboratory facilities and Wolford is senior project planner at Dow Corning. For additional information, contact Wolford via e-mail at [email protected] or call (989) 496-5230.

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