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“Everything is About Speed”: Factors that Delay Projects and Increase Costs

Culprits Include Talent Acquisition, Facility Design, and Mismanaging Metrics
Published 11/1/2023
A large room with mutliple lab benches
A graph showing fluctuations in operations and maintenance planning hours

Every project comes down to speed, whether it’s cost estimating, construction, or lab planning, says Dante Tedaldi, Ph.D., PE, director of facility management and operations for the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Frederick Research Lab in Frederick, Md. While talent acquisition and retention and supply chain delays persist from the pandemic, facility design elements and lack of project oversight can also unnecessarily affect both timing and costs. 

“It’s difficult to ensure on-time construction projects and smooth operations of facilities now, because it’s harder than ever to acquire and retain talent,” says Tedaldi. “Many engineering candidates still prefer to telecommute, and there is an extreme shortage of people going into trade positions who are willing to do behind-the-scenes maintenance. 

“In general, today’s job applicants don’t want to go get their hands dirty or do the type of work required to keep facilities operating smoothly,” he says. “Since demand is so high to recruit trade positions, such as electricians, mechanics, and millwrights, these positions can now demand higher salaries.”

Tedaldi warns that competition is so fierce for all candidates, it can be tempting to lower your standards and settle for the wrong fit. He recommends taking your time during recruiting to ensure you find the right candidate. Once the candidate is hired, companies need to focus on retaining employees with competitive salaries and amenities aimed at keeping them happy and engaged.

Tedaldi doesn’t typically see the expected benefit of collaborative spaces as a way to accomplish that. “We find that often when employees gather in these spaces they end up on their phones or laptops, not interacting with each other,” he says. “Instead, we would rather put more resources into amenities that center around food, such as the creation of contemporary indoor and outdoor eating spaces, since people cannot use their devices while eating and they are more likely to interact while enjoying food together.”

One solution NCI employs to combat hiring shortages and keep projects on time is the use of contractors who are pre-approved for blanket orders of $25,000 worth of time and material. Any contractor on NCI’s pre-approved list can be hired immediately without having to complete the lengthy bidding process.

Realistic Facility Maintenance 

Tedaldi’s facility management and operations team is responsible for all NCI’s construction and renovation projects and facilities maintenance. The NCI’s annual budget of $6 billion includes $30 million in direct federal funding allocated toward facilities. Other revenue sources include approximately $150 million from royalties provided to NCI from the human papilloma virus vaccine. Tedaldi led NCI’s $165 million refurbishment program between 2015 and 2023, which included renovation of 188,000 sf of space within seven different labs, offices, and animal facilities. 

“Architects are often tempted to design spectacular research labs with the wow factor on every floor, but then facility managers have to find the staff to maintain these facilities,” says Tedaldi. “Building elements such as floor-to-ceiling glass walls in every lab are not realistic from an ongoing maintenance standpoint, especially when it’s difficult to recruit maintenance staff. If design teams want to impress investors with glass walls, it’s enough to put this feature in just one key lab as a focal point. It’s not practical for the entire building if there is no staff to continuously clean it.” 

He adds that even if there are enough janitorial staff to routinely clean multiple glass walls, most labs are not kept orderly enough to be on display all the time. “Lab people surround themselves with lots of materials and equipment for easy access to ongoing research; they definitely desire as much usable space as possible,” says Tedaldi. “If the whole wall is glass, you defeat the purpose of the aesthetic by placing shelving or stacking boxes along that wall, which adds cost to the project by requiring separate storage areas.” 

Converting Administrative Space

With many companies still embracing the work-from-home model, there is an abundance of vacant administrative space, but Tedaldi cautions that converting it to lab space is not easy and can be very expensive.

“A lot of landlords here in the Washington, D.C., area are trying to attract biotech firms by advertising that their vacant office space can be used for lab space,” says Tedaldi. “It can be done, but it’s typically an extraordinarily painful process that involves tradeoffs and costly renovations. Most research laboratory design is best when it is purposefully built from start to finish.”

He adds that converting administrative space may be better suited for computational lab space that does not involve bench-top experiments with stringent HVAC specifications.

Factors That Can be Controlled

Tedaldi concedes that factors such as market conditions and supply chain delays are often out of project management’s control but adds that some scheduling and cost issues can be anticipated:

  • Avoiding the “Phantom Load Effect” – Tedaldi compares schedule delays to the phantom load effect that happens when too many appliances are plugged in. At first you don’t notice an increase in the utility bill, but over time it can rise dramatically. The same thing happens with schedule delays, if no one is monitoring all the small delays or missed deadlines. “Ideally, one project manager is monitoring the entire schedule to track the progress of all players involved and to measure metrics,” says Tedaldi. “One or two missed deadlines is usually not a big deal, but if numerous players miss deadlines, suddenly it becomes a big problem, and the project manager needs to be able to quantitatively assess how long things are taking.”
  • Having Difficult Conversations with Clients – Having a good relationship with customers makes it much easier to have difficult conversations, says Tedaldi, especially when it is necessary to convince the customer to stick to the original project scope. “On average, customer requests can add as much as 14 weeks to a schedule, which in turn leads to cost increases,” he says. “Ideally, all customer change requests should come in before the drawings are done, not after contractors are on board, and definitely not during construction.” 
  • Anticipating Unforeseen Conditions – When the budget allows for it, Tedaldi recommends implementing technologies up front that will help avoid costly delays. One example is using ground-penetrating radar before breaking ground to learn what is below the surface and whether anything might impede the project. Another example is conducting destructive testing to learn what is behind walls before any renovations start. 
  • Realizing Shortcuts Usually Aren’t Worth It – Tedaldi cautions against using shortcuts such as modular labs: Although they appear to be an easy solution, there can be a lot of complications since they are generally predesigned to a generic laboratory concept that doesn’t meet the unique research needs of advancing science within the NIH. “What many modular lab contractors consider to be lab-ready, usually does not meet expectations of the researchers and thus, extensive redesign and modification is necessary,” says Tedaldi. “Quality assurance of the fabrication is also a problem, since the labs are built off site in a cookie-cutter way, and usually it is too expensive to have someone from the quality control team go out to continuously monitor the actual manufacturing of the modular lab before it is delivered.” 

    During Tedaldi’s tenure at NCI he has used modular labs for many BSL-2 labs including a recent installation within a multistory animal facility. “Initially we expected that using modular labs would accelerate the speed of project completion, but often final commissioning of the labs is slowed down by problems such as improper fit or other elements that were broken during delivery, which ultimately added cost and slowed projects down,” says Tedaldi. He estimates that the modular units used by NCI averaged $500-$2,500 per square foot. 

Management Metrics 

“To truly understand your project metrics, you need to be able to capture and analyze the right type of data,” says Tedaldi. “If you don’t have good quantitative data, you really can’t understand your day-to-day performance other than anecdotally.” 

NCI’s facility team uses IBM’s Cognos® Data Analytics program to monitor metrics related to budget targets and actual expenses. The program provides data visualization and allows the customer to see the big picture yet also provides the ability to drill down into specific details as needed. In addition to Cognos, NCI also uses Microsoft’s SharePoint® to track workflow progress and evaluate cycle times.

“Providing a high level of detail to our customers helps us keep our projects moving,” says Tedaldi. “If our customer is already deep in the understanding of our project management metrics when an issue arises, there will be less time negotiating and more time solving problems that advance the project.” 

Tedaldi adds that these types of monitoring programs allow project leaders to pinpoint bottlenecks. Customers appreciate the ability to drill down into their workflows so that they can examine progress through multiple levels of approvals and reviews, he says. If you don’t have a meaningful monitoring system, it is difficult to talk with your customers about what needs to be done to move the project forward.

You can’t fix what you don’t measure, he says. 

By Amy Cammell