The Facility Technologist: Managing Facility Information – From Cradle To Grave

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the September 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Facilities, like people, go through various stages of life. There are the growing pains of construction, the hectic days in the prime of life, and finally the end of the facility along with its inevitable decommissioning. Each one of these phases has its own kind of associated information. Yet, while facility managers spend a good deal of time thinking about the best way to guide their facilities through these phases, many are not even aware that it is necessary to manage the facility’s information from one phase to the next.

Information has a life cycle just like the facility itself. This information can provide substantial benefits or cost a lot of money, depending on how it is managed.

Consider the phases of the facility’s lifespan, and think about how the different kinds of facility information relate.

  • Design: The majority of facility information is created here. Drawings, specifications, and equipment information are all created or gathered in this stage.
  • Construction: The transition of information from design through construction phases is the most reliable, since it’s essential to have access to the design information in order to build the facility.
  • Management: The transition from construction to management is probably the most neglected—and the most crucial for efficient management.
  • Decommissioning: Information from the facility’s management stage during decommissioning or deconstruction can be extremely important. For example, demolition of a facility that once contained toxic chemicals must be carefully managed. If this information is readily available, it can reduce the pre-demolition research and testing that’s required.

The penalties associated with poor information management can take many forms. A simple example might be the inability to find facility blueprints, thus forcing someone to spend extra time investigating problems that could have been easily detected, had the blueprints been available.

There’s also the cost of manual data re-entry at various points in the facility’s life cycle. For instance, once I implemented a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) for a large facility that had hundreds of pieces of equipment, and I had to hire people to look through blueprints, interview staff, and physically inspect the facility just to get a complete listing of all the systems and components. This was only necessary because the original computer aided design (CAD) files were not available. Those CAD files contained equipment tables that could have been easily copied out and imported into the CMMS, yet we spent hundreds of hours re-creating information that had been gathered during the design phase. Time and money were lost due to poor information management during the transition from construction to management.

Waste of this type really adds up. Unfortunately, the cost of lost information typically comes right from the facility management budget. Aside from the out-of-pocket costs, lack of good information can simply be the difference between the success or failure of facility operations.

So, if the evidence in favor of proper information management is so overwhelming, why isn’t it happening? One reason is lack of understanding. Remember, facility management as a formal profession is relatively young, and many of the associated concepts are still new as well. Also, there are numerous players who assume different roles in different phases of the project. The construction manager focuses on the construction phase and the facility manager on the operations phase. All too often, the facility manager doesn’t get involved until it is too late to ensure effective information transitioning from one phase to the next.

Another problem is the lack of standards for information. Construction data takes many forms: CAD drawings in several different vendors’ proprietary formats; digital spreadsheet and word processing files; and then there are bits and pieces of paper. These habits are starting to change as the IT industry gradually adopts universal information sharing standards like XML, but the pace is slow.

Finally, the sheer number and different types of assets (along with their distinct characteristics) make any kind of standardized data model extremely difficult to create. For example, the characteristics that might be tracked on an HVAC system are very different from those of an escalator; each one requires a different data model.

So what should facility managers do? First of all, get involved in the process as early as possible. Some may be lucky enough to become involved during the construction phase; if that’s feasible, get to know the people in charge. The architect will still be involved at this phase, and the construction manager will be very knowledgeable. Pick their brains to get crucial information. Attend the construction meetings whenever possible. It’s amazing how many construction issues will find their way into the daily management of a facility after construction is complete.

Next, gather information. Don’t wait until construction is finished and that giant package of documents is delivered. This “popular” method results in a mountain of information so overwhelming, that it typically just gets thrown into a drawer. Technically, the construction manager does not need to turn over any of this information until the job is finished, but many construction managers are willing to share information during this phase as long as it is returned promptly.

Try to obtain the following essential elements:

  • CAD drawings: Get all versions if possible; the first set and the final set are always different.
  • Equipment lists: These may be available in digital format from the architect or engineer.
  • Manuals: They can sometimes be difficult to find after construction is over, so get them now.
  • Specifications: Gather whatever engineering specifications are available. These can be valuable later, when it becomes necessary to replace components. Use these to write RFPs and get a reliable comparison of prices.
  • Commissioning documentation: There are a lot of tests that occur at the end of the construction phase, and the documentation can be valuable when diagnosing problems later on.

Request digital versions of everything, but, if paper is the only thing available, have it scanned whenever possible. And if the proper CAD software is not available, there are low cost (or even free) viewer programs available, such as Autodesk’s DWF Viewer.

Those serious about managing information efficiently should consider a full life cycle management software system. This is a new class of system that provides cradle-to-grave management capability. This continuity is lacking when standalone systems are used in different phases of the facility’s life.

These systems allow users to collaborate on drawings, track construction issues, and memorialize facility information in a system that can then be used to manage the facility. Some systems can even import CAD drawings, read them, and then create location lists inside a built-in CMMS that is then used to manage the facility. Two good examples of this type of system are Meridian Systems and Tririga.

No matter how it’s done, handling information is just as important as any other aspect of facility management. In fact, since so much hinges on this information, it actually needs special attention—regardless of whether the facility has just celebrated its grand opening, or it has one foot in the scrap yard.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago,IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.