Lerch Bates Inc. Building Insight

Global Leaders in Technical Consulting for the Building Industry

Looking Beyond Price

Sure, these days everyone wants more for less. Who doesn’t? After all, we all are consumers and we really don’t want to spend more than necessary, but even when we make purchases for ourselves, price is a factor, but not the ONLY factor. For example, think about the last time you bought a car.  What did you think about? “Have I had this type of model before? Has this model been around for a few years or is it new? Does it meet my needs for myself and/or my family? Do I like how it drives? Where can I get it serviced?” And of course, we asked ourselves “How much?”

Shopping for a consultant is not really too much different. Price is not the only factor in determining whether or not to hire a consultant or which consultant to hire.

Before joining Lerch Bates, I worked as an architect for several years for design firms.  In that time, I was responsible for hiring consultants, consultant coordination, consultant contracts, and regular communication with consultants.  These are all an essential part of an architect’s job to complete a successful project.

When choosing a consultant there are some other factors to note, beyond price.  Below are only a few:

  • Expertise: Does the consultant have the expertise that pertains to the scope of the project?  Does that expertise add value to the project?
  • Experience:  Is the consultant familiar with the needs of the project?  Have they done this before?
  • Past working relationships: Have I worked with this consultant before and had a positive experience?
  • Responsiveness: Is the consultant responsive and able to meet the needs of the project schedule?
  • Longevity: How long has the company been in business?
  • Local Regulations:  Is the consultant familiar with local ordinances and codes that may pertain to the region?

Some of the items above are just a few of the things that a client may be concerned with when looking to hire a consultant.  These are also a few items that may be requested when responding to a request for proposal (RFP).

So, price is important, but there are a lot of considerations that can go well past the bottom line.

Building Life Safety — The Basics

One of the primary concerns of building owners and managers is the safety of the occupants in their buildings. Life Safety is an integral part of almost all buildings, but some building owners and managers may not fully understand these systems, the reasoning behind them, the way they work, and the ways in which they need to be maintained.

Life Safety begins with the methods of construction used in each building and proceeds through the installation of specialized systems to protect the occupants from fire and other calamities.

Each building in the United States is built to meet a complex web of standards and regulations known collectively as “the code”. There are building codes, fire codes, plumbing codes, electrical codes, mechanical (or HVAC) codes, elevator codes, and more. Codes in almost all jurisdictions are based on “model codes” which are generic codes produced by private organizations dedicated to the task. Cities, counties, and states then take that material, add or subtract any items that may be of local concern, and adopt the finished product as their legal code. Most legally adopted codes however, are still very close to the model codes, so we can make a lot of generalizations about the legal code requirements in almost all jurisdictions.

The first fire safety aspect of any building is its basic design and floor layout. For instance, every building must have a certain number of emergency exits and each exit must be a certain maximum distance from each occupant, depending on the type and number of occupants and the size of the building.

Next, buildings must be constructed using fire resistive materials and fire resistive design. Stairwells, corridors, and elevator lobbies are all required by code to be isolated from the rest of a building by fire walls or doors designed to resist penetration from fire for a certain time of ten one hour or two hours. Open spaces can be divided by fire rated walls, cutting down on the potential for the spread of a fire.

The next layer in building fire safety is the design and installation of specialized systems to detect or extinguish a fire, and to facilitate the safe evacuation of the occupants of the building.

Fire alarm systems are required in many types of residential and commercial buildings as well as all hospitals, schools, day care centers, nursing homes, places of assembly, and high rises. Fire alarm systems detect the presence of a fire with automatic smoke and heat detectors and also provide manual pull stations, generally at each exit, that enable the building occupants to manually alert others in the building and the appropriate authorities of a fire condition. A fire alarm, when activated either by automatic or manual means, will usually sound a loud alarm throughout the facility where it is located and send some type of emergency signal to a guard station in the building or to an off site central monitoring station. That monitoring station will in turn notify the fire department.

Fire alarm systems work in conjunction with fire sprinkler systems. Sprinkler systems are required in even more types of buildings than are fire alarm systems. Fire sprinkler systems consist of a large network of water pipes running throughout a building ending in sprinkler heads, which usually appear on the ceiling. These sprinkler heads are equipped with a type of thermal link which opens or breaks after sensing an ambient temperature above its rated temperature level, causing that sprinkler (not all of the sprinklers, as depicted in the movies,) to open and release a spray of water. When any sprinkler opens, the resulting flow of water in the pipes triggers a special water flow sensor, activating the building fire alarm and usually alerting the occupants and the authorities. Some sprinkler systems are installed in buildings with no fire alarm system and those systems usually are required to notify the fire authorities of a fire condition, although they may not sound an alarm for the building occupants.

Other non emergency building systems work with the fire alarm system to ensure occupant safety. In most cases, following an alarm sent to the fire alarm system, some or all of the air conditioning and heating fans will be automatically turned off to slow the spread of fire. Some doors located within fire rated walls may be automatically closed, also to prevent the spread of fire. And any elevators will usually be automatically returned to the ground level and deactivated so that the occupants do not risk accidentally traveling to a dangerous floor or being trapped in a disabled elevator.

A system provided in virtually all buildings to ensure safety during an evacuation is the emergency lighting and exit sign system. Emergency lights consists of battery or backup generator powered lights that will automatically turn on when regular electrical power fails, whether from within the building or because of an outside electrical utility problem. These lights are usually arranged to provide at least a usable path of light to the building exit. Exit signs are directional indicators provided to point the way to the exit. Exit signs are also always backed up by emergency power.

These are the major components of building life safety. Each one of these paragraphs scratches the surface of a complex subject. In subsequent entries I will try to provide more information on each of these topics.

I would like your input on further items of interest to building owners and managers within the topic of fire alarm and life safety. Please feel free to comment with ideas.

Cloud Computing in the Elevator Industry?

What is Cloud Computing?

Cloud Computing is quickly becoming the future of Information Technology for small firms.  Cloud Computing is a term that is typically used when leveraging the assets of another firm to host software, hardware, infrastructure, professional services, security, storage, and internet accessibility in an effort to reduce in-house Information Technology expenses, resources, geographical resource needs, and capital investment in infrastructure.   One example includes outsourcing your email hosting to another firm because they have better resources to access the internet, they have generators to keep servers running 24/7/365, and they have expertise to proactively monitor situations.

How will Cloud Computing affect me?

Cloud Computing will likely affect the elevator, field services, construction, facilities management, and architecture industries in the near future.  How?  In an effort to become proactive in all things that involve monitoring the engineering departments, plant management, and resources of a firm, Cloud Computing will allow mobile devices (think iPad) to continuously illustrate the current-state of the entire plant.  HVAC systems, electrical systems, elevators, escalators, moving sidewalks, pneumatic tube systems, swimming pool data, IT systems, security systems, telecommunication systems, and all associated assets will be configured on a single display that, when triggered due to a designed threshold being met, will display alerts in a visual communication format.  Workflows will be triggered to issue email alerts or phone calls to the engineer on duty, to kick-off document processes so that work orders are opened, and to initiate a JIT requisition for replacement parts, expert professional services, and pre-approved purchase approvals if the alert is deemed critical.

These workflows can be easily automated to respond to critical situations with pre-determined solutions so that making decisions at midnight while you’re on vacation are already implemented when the problem occurs.  Example; you’ve determined that if there is an air-conditioner that meets a certain threshold, then it triggers an alert to your controller card for HVAC.  The controller card alerts your Microsoft SharePoint site via email.  The email is automatically subjected to a workflow that starts approvals and scripts to order product from the closest Just-In-Time manufacturer for the part that met the threshold.  By the time you arrive the next morning you’ve had a part couriered to you and there is a technician that has been dispatched to install the part by the OEM of the asset.  If you have a goal of becoming proactive in the monitoring of your assets, then you should strongly consider Cloud Computing opportunities.  On a side note, Lerch Bates offers a proactive monitoring service called LiftSense for elevator management.

Why should I consider Cloud Computing?

You should consider Cloud Computing before investing in future software and hardware purchases for your Information Technology department.  New servers, routers, Storage Area Networks (SAN), and software (Exchange 2010, VMware, ERP applications, etc.) are considerable capital investments for small firms.  It is becoming the industry standard to outsource Cloud Computing services for email hosting and I expect that ERP systems will be the next platform to outsource.  Microsoft’s BPOS product is leading the way towards hosting Microsoft Exchange products.  GoogleApps is also making large strides in this marathon by hosting email, instant messaging, and other applications for city-wide installations around the country.  I expect that storage management will be the next big outsourced service for a VMware platform.  Clear Winds out of Birmingham, Alabama, is a firm that will manage your storage networks, as well as Lewan & Associates from Denver, Colorado.  Epicor, the maker of several ERP systems, is beginning to host their own ERP products for small firms and these Cloud Computing opportunities should be closely weighted and scored using scorecards by executive teams.

In the near future (think 2012) I expect that Information Technology departments of small firms (less than 500 employees) will outsource more and more applications and eventually complete infrastructures to Cloud Computing firms.  There is a financial incentive for small firms to outsource their Information Technology departments and when there is a problem the Cloud Computing firms have the best human resources to get fix problems quickly and accurately.  Consider your small Information Technology department of less than ten employees.  Cloud Computing firms typically employee 30-100 of these same experts except these experts have served as Consultants for many small firms so they have the expertise and exposure to hundreds of applications and situations.  The team of Cloud Computing resources is far greater than your small team and they are experts at what they do on a daily basis specific to several explicit technologies whether SAN management, Exchange, ERP applications, SQL, firewalls, or servers.

“Perspective”

How many times have we all heard or used the phrase “put things into perspective” in some way, shape or form? I’m willing to bet quite a few….Let’s face it, the phrase sounds wise, meaningful and perhaps even a bit philosophical… but what does it really mean? Not to be confused with the more urban “wake up and smell the coffee” or the general act of soul searching, is this one of many (probably countless) phrases that is used so often that it lacks relevance to any given application or situation?

I don’t believe so.

A quick check of a handy on-line dictionary yields several definitions of the word perspective. Here’s my choice:

“The proper or accurate point of view or the ability to see it.”

As summer is quickly waning, I find myself looking forward to the fall season (yes, my favorite) for a number of reasons: cooler weather, brilliant foliage, pumpkin anything, Halloween, etc. Soon enough, winter will be here and before you know it, the cycle begins again. Every year is getting shorter, and often times it’s the simple things in life that we tend to overlook amidst the hustle and bustle of society today. Little moments can have great importance.

Before I was ready to say good-bye to summer, one event caused me to stop and reflect. This past July 26th marked the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, having been signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. The ADA is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based upon disability. Without delving into the law, suffice is to say that there was (and is still) reason to celebrate.

Over the past several years, I had an opportunity to get to know and work with many folks associated with the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL). The BCIL, an organization that provides a variety of services to people with disabilities, filed a class-action lawsuit in 2002 against the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) for violations of the ADA. Though the lawsuit contained operational and infrastructure issues associated with the transit agency, elevator performance was a rather significant subject. A settlement agreement was reached in 2006; with an excerpt from the introduction section as follows:

“There is a mutual commitment and desire to comply not only with the letter but also the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with the complete understanding that all people with disabilities must have every opportunity to be fully participating members of our community and that fundamental to this opportunity is the right and ability to use public transportation in an equal, effective and dignified manner.”

Unbeknownst at the time, this particular statement would turn out to have a profound impact.

The settlement agreement contained very specific requirements for elevator management, maintenance, performance, upgrades and replacements. In support of the mutual commitment, the MBTA instituted sweeping changes. A new performance-based maintenance contract with KONE was procured, a first-ever team management strategy with Lerch Bates was implemented, and capital funding was allocated for equipment upgrades and replacements.

In the period just prior to the settlement agreement having been reached, elevator operational availability averaged in the low-90’s percentile on a monthly basis. This statistic sheds light on an individual’s ability to access and utilize the transit system. A very noticeable turnaround resulted from the afore-mentioned changes. Elevator operational availability increased dramatically, with current figures averaging in the high 99 percentile on a consistent monthly basis.

The MBTA’s vertical transportation system underwent a pivotal transformation such that public transportation is reliably accessible. Many stakeholders worked tirelessly to envision a new concept and orchestrate an innovative solution. The expectation remains that this type of hard work and effort will continue as equipment replacement programs proceed.

In June 2010, a Joint Initial Assessment that evaluated progress towards compliance in the settlement agreement’s major subject matter areas was published. Elevator availability was specifically highlighted and noted therein as exceeding expectations; this area having achieved excellent results. Positive results and good-news stories are always welcome (especially in a time when there are too few). But, surely there must be something beyond the numbers and legalese?

You bet…for me, there were two defining moments. The first moment occurred in June 2008 when a representative of the plaintiffs addressed the MBTA Board of Directors at a monthly meeting and characterized the elevator performance turnaround as ‘nothing short of miraculous’. The individual continued by stating that folks are able to access the system to go to work, go shopping, go to a doctor’s appointment….basically the normal day-to-day activities that most take for granted. The second moment occurred at an April 2009 summit to discuss the settlement agreement status. At this forum, one of the named plaintiffs addressed the subject of elevator performance by simply saying ‘thank-you, thank-you, thank-you”.

It all makes perfect sense, and I can almost smell that pumpkin spice coffee.