Construction is a messy business in the best of circumstances—but trying to maintain a functioning vivarium while surrounded by the din, dirt, and disruption of construction is next to impossible. It happens often, though, with varying degrees of stress on the animals, lost or disrupted research, damage to facilities, and frayed nerves.

HERA recently consulted on a project that was to be constructed in phases. The vivarium would be built in the first phase, and the following phases would add more floors to the building—while the vivarium remained in operation below.

Before starting design on the project, we wanted to hear from the ultimate experts—the people working to keep their facilities functioning in the face of very difficult conditions—about how construction around and/or inside an occupied vivarium affects them. We posted a question to the AALAS COMPMED listserve to find out what problems were encountered, how the facility coped with them, and what lessons learned could be passed on by the “survivors.” Their stories, along with our own observations over several years, form the basis for this article.

There were plenty of horror stories—problems affected all aspects of the facilities’ operations, including:

  • Temperature and humidity control issues
  • Reduced production in breeding colonies
  • Structural vibration bad enough to affect the performance of rats in behavioral studies
  • Negative behaviors in mice, including increased fighting between males and cannibalism
  • Experiments stopped, suspended, or delayed due to concerns about unreliable data because construction activities introduced uncontrollable variables
  • Animals having to be moved to other buildings—not always buildings intended for animals—because their stress-induced behaviors were potentially harmful to themselves or the staff
  • Water coming through the ceiling into one vivarium, as a result of demolition areas above the vivarium not being sealed against the weather
  • A vivarium which suffered an infestation of disease-bearing wild rodents because the vivarium perimeter was not properly secured, requiring the entire facility be decontaminated

Fairy tales were harder to come by—every project had its share of problems, but in these cases, it was possible to mitigate the adverse effects to some extent by modifying vivarium operations and/or construction activities, including:

  • Assigning a representative familiar with day-to-day vivarium operations— not necessarily a veterinarian—to the project team during construction
  • Suspending research and/or breeding activities when feasible
  • Giving the researchers adequate notice of particularly disruptive activities, so they could move their animals and/or reschedule experiments
  • Using drilling, saw cutting, and hand tools in lieu of jackhammers and power tools for demolition work
  • Scheduling highly-disruptive construction activities around time critical experiments or breeding events; grouping those activities over periods of a few days when vivarium activities could be suspended
  • Increasing enrichment opportunities, such as “hiding tubes” and feed enrichments in mouse and rodent cages, which helped ease negative behaviors
  • Vacating portions of the vivarium to accommodate the construction work and reoccupying them after the work was completed

What the stories made clear is that good communication between all parties, especially the vivarium staff and the contractor during construction, significantly improved the situation. While that would seem to be an obvious conclusion, defining and maintaining “good communications” can be challenging.

Design and construction contracts usually describe how communications are to take place between the owner, architect, and contractor, as well as with the other consultants, subcontractors, and owner representatives. The traditional model is shown in Figure 1.

Communications are certainly managed in this situation, but it’s not a very practical approach—too much time is involved in moving information through channels, and the potential for loss of information along the way is very high. Construction in or around an occupied vivarium is too time-sensitive, and too dependent on careful coordination between vivarium operations and construction activities, for this model to produce a successful project.

Regardless of contractual requirements, lack of effective discipline among the project team members can lead to the situation shown in Figure 2.

This beehive of activity is better known as chaos. There is lots of communication, but it’s virtually impossible to get reliable information as to what is happening, or what needs to happen, due to the sheer volume of communications coming at every team member from all directions. One or more parties may simply shut down and not communicate at all, further escalating the situation as others try to fill in the blanks.

Even though design and construction contracts usually don’t— can’t—describe the situation exactly, communications on well-run projects often resemble Figure 3.

In this situation, the people with the knowledge and/or information are talking to the people who need it, but are also taking care to make sure the appropriate interested parties are also kept informed. There is still a lot of side-channel communication, but the team members are disciplined about how they communicate with each other. This discipline helps maintain the trust and respect necessary for a successful project. How, then, to find and maintain the appropriate level of managed chaos?

Experience helps. Every project is unique, but having been through the process before gives you a much clearer understanding of how it should—or shouldn’t—work and what to expect as the project progresses.

Given the current economic situation, it’s no longer a safe assumption that the architect and contractor are highly experienced with this project type— many firms are getting into new markets, and your project may be one of their first vivarium projects. This means you should not assume everyone else around the table knows more than you do—speak up when you hear things you don’t understand, or which sound like they could lead to problems later on.

More important than experience is having a broader perspective on where the other members of the project team are coming from. Every design and construction project represents a balancing act between the shared goal of a successful project and the goals and interests of each team member.

When the project involves an occupied vivarium, the balancing act becomes at the same time more complex and more critical. Our experience has shown that “walking in the other person’s shoes” is essential to understanding how the others are balancing these goals. The stories from COMPMED bear this out, so we suggest four lessons for everyone involved in one of these projects:

Figure 1: The traditional model of communication between the owner, architect, and contractor, as well as with the other consultants, subcontractors, and owner representatives.

Figure 2: Lack of effective discipline among project team members can lead to communication channels that look like this.

Figure 3: Even though design and construction contracts usually don't, or can't, describe the situation exactly, communications on well-run projects often resemble this.


Lesson No. 1 – Think Like an Architect: What is Driving the Phasing of the Project?
Understanding the issues behind why and how the project needs to be phased will help the architect develop a design concept that can be successfully built in phases.

Budget: The project may be funded in phases, so construction is likewise phased. If there is not enough funding to do the entire project, it may be broken into phases, with the later phases to be built when—if—the money comes available.

Schedule: There may be requirements to have portions of the building operational by certain dates, before the rest of it is completed. Reasons for this include class schedules, funded research start dates, time limits on budget authority, etc.

Site Issues: Especially on crowded campuses, existing buildings may need to stay fully or partially in service during construction of the new building. This is not unusual when the new building replaces the existing building, but it also may be that the occupants of the existing building are moving to another location which is not ready for them when construction of the new building starts.

The architect’s bottom line: The building has to work—and make sense architecturally—at the end of each phase, especially if funding for later phases is not guaranteed.

Lesson No. 2 – Think Like a Contractor: How Will the Project Be Built?
Contractors think out construction of the entire building before construction starts. They want the phasing to be thought through, so that the building will be fully functional at the end of each phase, and that construction of future phases does not unduly disrupt activities in the already-completed portions of the building.

Early on, the design team needs to develop the project concept to the point where there is at least a general understanding of both the fully-completed building and its intermediate phases. The concept should locate the later-phase work as far away as possible from the vivarium and/or other sensitive areas.

The design will likely need some adjustments to reflect phasing requirements. This may lead to some occupants of the building (individual departments, research groups, etc.) not being accommodated in a given phase—they may need to move in later (or, more rarely, sooner) than anticipated in order to provide reasonable breaks between phases.

The design should incorporate strategies to limit disruption to building operations. Utility distribution systems should be sized and configured to allow straightforward extension into the next phase, with minimal downtime as tie-ins are made. Temporary facilities—from temporary partitions to temporary holding, procedure, or support spaces—should be provided to keep the facility operational during construction. In fact, it may be necessary to design and build certain spaces with the understanding that new spaces would be built in future phases (e.g., a new cage wash to improve circulation and/or accommodate additional volume as the vivarium is expanded), and the original spaces repurposed or demolished.

The contractor’s bottom line: If you don’t figure it out before construction starts, we will, but you may not like what we come up with.

Lesson No. 3 – Think Like an Owner: How Will We Get Through the Project?
Owners—including users, researchers, facility managers, etc.—have one main goal during construction: Get through it as unscathed as possible. They need to know their concerns will be heard and addressed during construction, as well as during design.

Disruptions to normal vivarium operations should be limited as much as reasonably possible. Separate the vivarium from construction with tight, well-insulated partitions to limit dust and dirt infiltration, as well as sound transmission. Schedule dirty, loud work (jackhammering slabs, etc.) for after regular business hours to minimize disruptions to procedures and surgeries, meetings, and other “normal” daytime activities. Use quieter methods for demolition and construction work where feasible.

Utility shutdowns should be planned—and announced—well in advance. Every facility has (or should have) disaster plans for dealing with loss of power, water, etc. And yes, accidents can happen, but there is no reason to not inform the users so they can develop contingency plans for the planned interruptions.

Since it is often necessary to have some minor construction activities inside the vivarium, such as connecting new electrical wiring to existing circuits above the ceiling, connecting new piping to existing, workers need to be mindful of their surroundings—keep the noise level down as much as possible (no radios, no loud conversations, etc.), and try not to interfere with normal traffic flows.

Cleanliness and security are important to vivarium operations. Contractors working inside the vivarium need to clean up after themselves and enclose the work areas to limit the amount of dirt, dust, and debris that enters the vivarium. If the work areas breach the secured perimeter of the vivarium, the breaches need to be secured to prevent unauthorized entry— of both people and vermin— into the facility.

Above all, communication with the users is essential. The vivarium staff is most familiar with day-to-day operations and special situations inside the vivarium; the construction superintendent is most familiar with what construction activities are to be done, and when. These folks need to be talking to each other so that adjustments can be made, either to the vivarium’s operations, or to construction activities, to ensure the least possible disruption to both.

The owner’s bottom line: We have a lot at stake—please work with us to make it easier on everyone.

Lesson No. 4 – Think Like an Attorney: How Do We Avoid Problems?
Attorneys know that no problem is easier to solve than the ones that are avoided in the first place. They also like consistency, and they don’t like surprises—many problems have their roots in inconsistent behavior and issues that seemingly arise from out of nowhere. Many of these problems can be prevented if all parties are disciplined about regulating the flow of information.

Set the ground rules up front. Identify stakeholders, their roles, and their responsibilities. Identify the decision-makers. Set clear goals, and get agreement from the stakeholders. Establish clear lines of communication.

Communicate clearly. Be concise, minimize extraneous information— especially important when it is so easy to create endless email threads and “reply all”—and tailor your communications to the recipient or audience you’re trying to reach.

Communicate consistently. In the Internet age, the moment you email, text, or Tweet, you lose control of what happens to it—so it’s important that you minimize the number of versions of your story that you’re putting out there. Also, suddenly opening or closing lines of communication is disruptive and can lead to misunderstandings (Why am I no longer being copied on this subject? Since I am now getting these emails, what am I expected to do with them? And so on…). If it’s more efficient for Persons A and B to talk directly, make sure all of the affected stakeholders are informed.

Document, document, document. This is not just a defensive maneuver for if/when disputes arise. Good documentation of discussions and decisions helps form a common knowledge base for the project, especially important in phased construction, where the players may change between phases. Knowing, or being able to find out, how and why certain decisions were made will help provide a background and context for subsequent decisions to ensure they are consistent with the project’s goals and assumptions.

The attorneys’ bottom line: If you work it all out when and how you’re supposed to, we don’t have to sort it out later.

There’s No Magic Wand But…
Armed with this broader perspective, everyone involved in the project should endeavor to:

Communicate! Nothing will make construction in or around an occupied vivarium absolutely problem- free. However, making sure the right people know what’s going on, when, and why, will make those problems easier to deal with. Managing expectations about the entire process is important—it lessens the possibility of miscommunication and helps keep everyone on the same page.

Learn! The design and construction process is fascinating. It brings together people of widely differing backgrounds, skill sets, education, and training. Being open to their perspectives will not only help you understand what’s going on, it will give you the opportunity to learn things that are interesting for their own sake.

Smile! Cutting others some slack, and keeping your sense of humor, will help you deal with the inevitable ups and downs. There will be plenty of situations where the alternatives—crying and/or drinking—may be appropriate, but they are not helpful in the long run.

Keep in mind that each one of these makes the others possible, and together they make the experience of living through construction better for everyone—and that is the happiest possible ending!

Jim Cartwright, AIA, is a Principal with Health, Education + Research Associates, Inc., St. Louis, MO. Throughout his 26-year career, he has planned and designed research laboratories, medical facilities, and special use facilities for academic and academic medical, healthcare, and private sector clients. Jim is a published author and frequent speaker on laboratory and vivarium design.