Best practices for engineering government buildings

Designing utilities, public works, airport, mass transit, transportation or other government projects is a big task. Learn how to design government buildings.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 6, 2021


  • Michelle Blake, PEng, Vice President, Industrial Buildings, Stantec, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Jeremy Cooan, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Electrical Engineer, Stanley Consultants, Minneapolis
  • Michael J. Rossini, PE, Associate, Senior Electrical Engineer, Bala Consulting Engineers, Boston
  • Ciarán Smyth, PE, CEng, PMP, Vice President, WSP, New York City
  • John Gregory Williams, PE, CEng, Vice President, Harris, Oakland
  • Matthew Williamson, PE, Associate Principal, Arup, San Francisco

What’s the biggest trend in utilities, public works or transportation projects?

Matthew Williamson: We have seen clients ask how to address design issues around electric vehicles, particularly electric buses. Electric vehicles have different requirements that affect the mechanical, electrical and plumbing design. Charging stations for buses, shared ride-service vehicles and private vehicles need to be included and with electric vehicles we need to consider the potential fire safety concerns of the many batteries.

Michelle Blake: While we continue to learn more about what can be done to reduce the risks associated with the pandemic, public agencies also remain focused on sustainability, resiliency and employee wellness. Community leaders recognize the services and infrastructure that form the backbone of our communities and the facilities that support them, must achieve broader community objectives and provide value to the residents.

Ciarán Smyth: We’re seeing a move toward more design and build when it comes to large transportation projects. This allows for greater collaboration earlier on in the process between designer and contractor. public private partnerships (which we refer to as P3) are also gaining more traction here in the U.S., where they have been used in Europe for transportation projects for some time. Most recently the LaGuardia project is successfully using the P3 model to deliver the new $8 billion redevelopment and the same P3 model is also being used for the development of John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Jeremy Cooan: One of the biggest trends that we’ve seen is the implementation of electric vehicle fleets for public entities including municipalities, public universities and transit organizations. This has ranged from fleet vehicles for employees to the electrification of public transit buses and service vehicles. These types of projects often involve incorporating electric vehicle charging infrastructure into existing facilities and coordinating with local utilities for new electrical services.

What trends do you think are on the horizon for such projects?

Michael J. Rossini: Trends in the airport industry indicate that air travel continues to grow, creating a continuation of infrastructure expansion and upgrade at locations such as Boston Logan International Airport. However, the recent global pandemic has, in the short term, impacted/paused this trend.

Ciarán Smyth: I think a greater emphasis on project collaboration, whether it be design and build or integrated project delivery. These processes allow for greater collaboration between planners, engineers, architects and contractors earlier on in projects which enable more efficient processes to be developed saving on time and cost. Additionally, it will be important to emphasize sustainability and safety, particularly in the current climate.

John Gregory Williams: The increase of public private partnerships (which we refer to as PPPs) and the use of more IPD methods are either already one of the biggest trends in this area, or soon will be. These types of projects are increasingly diversifying from their roots in toll roads and bridges to more vertical markets such as airports and other complex facilities. Removing the risk around design decisions from senior officials to a shared responsibility alongside planning, design and construction professionals for these kinds of projects helps reduce costs and increase the pace of delivery.

There are lots of variation in these delivery models, especially to meet varying Federal, State and institutional codes and practices. Without a one size fits all approach, there is a risk of confusion in accessing the marketplace and this may be a hurdle for significant growth. As well as complete projects using the PPP or similar model, portions of a project can be carved off for specific facilities such as parking structures, renewable energy generation, wastewater treatment or central utility plants.

At Harris, where we offer design, build, controls and service we are currently exploring the future trend, understanding that many owners and customers of large infrastructure or similar facilities and buildings have no real desire to necessarily own their own equipment for heating and cooling. Much like the more developed industry using power purchase agreements or similar to district energy provision, we see a definite future in exploring this model further with the right customers and trade partners.

Jeremy Cooan: Due to the high electrical demand for fleet charging infrastructure, especially as it relates to larger vehicles such as buses, the incorporation of solar power and energy storage systems into these types of projects will likely become a larger trend to reduce on-peak demand charges for vehicle charging. These alternative energy systems will also alleviate demand on local utility systems and reduce the need for new utility side generation on the grid.

Michelle Blake: A stronger focus on facility’s flexibility to adapt to changing conditions, whether that is climate, work environment or service delivery. The ability to expand, contract or change the use of the space with minimal impact to future operations and costs will become more important as our world changes with new technologies being introduced faster than ever. Alternate energy for buildings, zero emission vehicles, autonomous vehicles and smart buildings are just some of the technologies that impact these projects. For maintenance facilities, there will be an increasing expectation to look at the experience of staff and be responsive to their needs.

Matthew Williamson: I anticipate that the electrification of municipal bus fleets is going to continue, particularly as there becomes a growing need to address vehicle charging and larger electrical service feeds to bus stations. Municipal transportation hubs often have large areas available for solar photovoltaic arrays and we expect more clients to request PV arrays or PV ready structures. There are opportunities to integrate the two elements using the PV array and battery storage systems to partially charge the bus fleet during terminal stops.

Each type of project presents unique challenges — what types of challenges do you encounter for these types of projects that you might not face on “civilian” or other types of structures?

John Gregory Williams: Stakeholder engagement and management is a key area to be understood by the project parties. There is usually no single client or customer on a large-scale project. Larger programs should and usually do employ a program manager to help ensure there is consistency and understanding across multiple projects that will be completed to fulfil the program by different contractors and sub-contractors. When getting involved in this work, it is good to spend time at the outset to understand the human geography of decision-makers and other subject matter experts and documenting decisions and agreements well to ensure all needs are captured.

One area where we see unique challenges are the provision of utilities needed for the site. These are often very large loads and annual energy draws that need to be negotiated and agreed with several vendors, public entities, such as highways and the client. Some sites are so large that it is possible to have their own utility facilities on-site, such as a dedicated wastewater treatment plant, photovoltaic array or generation equipment.

Matthew Williamson: Most commercial or “civilian” projects do not have to address the extra structural loading from large numbers of municipal buses. The additional loads create larger structural systems which reduce space for MEP services in the ceiling spaces. BIM coordination and clash detection become critically important along with early space planning.

Michelle Blake: The challenge with these types of projects is identifying the future needs, primarily associated with vehicles types and the maintenance equipment required. The facilities are designed for a 50+ life span but predicting what the fleet mix will look like in just 10 years is challenging. We have seen an evolution of vehicle dimensions, fuel types, materials and technology. This makes it a challenge to design a flexible space that is cost-effective.

Jeremy Cooan: Incorporating these types of systems into existing facilities can present capacity issues on the electrical service and existing distribution equipment. Additionally, floor space for the vehicle charging equipment can be difficult to locate within an existing facility without making significant changes to facility operations. In the case of transit facilities, vehicle chargers are often located within bus garages or depots and vehicle charging operations need to be integrated into the overall operation of the facility. This may require hiring additional staff with specialized expertise or training staff on the operations and maintenance of the vehicle charging equipment.

What are engineers doing to ensure such projects meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Jeremy Cooan: Coordination with the local utility at the start of the project can be beneficial when looking at deploying electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The local utility will work with you on the best strategies for providing additional electrical services to existing buildings or reviewing the possibility of a separate rate structure for the electric vehicle charging systems. Involving them early in the project planning process can provide benefits to the project owner as well as the utility.

Ciarán Smyth: Engineers are typically investigative by nature. They want to ensure they have the best tools for their trade to ensure they are delivering the best results for their clients and their projects. There are multiple platforms where engineers can stay abreast of emerging technologies that can help meet project challenges. Examples for the MEP disciplines are newsletters such as Consulting-Specifying Engineer, manufacturer lunch and learns, technical journals (e.g., ASHRAE Journal). Additionally, there is more networking taking place among colleagues who are not necessarily in their own companies, but with peers at technical social gatherings etc. Given the current COVID-19 crisis, the use of webinars and virtual meet ups has extended the reach of knowledge sharing significantly.

Michael J. Rossini: One of the most important factors in the MEP design of transportation projects, such as Logan Airport, is ensuring that the base building infrastructure is designed to accommodate the rapidly changing technologies that are introduced at the airport. One such case is the electrical systems (power and data) that serves the TSA Checkpoints located throughout the various departure gate locations. TSA screening and scanning technology continues to evolve, requiring more network data bandwidth and electrical power. Ensuring that utility and generator backed power is available to the checkpoint locations, for today’s equipment and for the future, is vital to Massachusetts Port Authority’s (Massport) vision of being a 21st century air travel hub.

Michelle Blake: Staying current with emerging technologies allows us to provide for a current design that meets the immediate needs but also provides a design that considers flexibility to accommodate emerging technologies. The design also considers a plan that minimizes disruption and future upgrade costs to accommodate the technologies. For example, considering the space and equipment requirements for a fully electrified fleet, such as additional power supply and charging infrastructure, will enable a smoother and quicker transition to the new fleet.

John Gregory Williams: It is important to ensure that the emerging technologies for such large scale and usually long-term projects are fully considered and assessed. Are there enough training programs or service programs locally available and does the supply chain for parts to allow adequate maintenance?  Warrantees and guarantees are also reviewed in detail and must be agreed with the client.

Matthew Williamson: We are frequently brainstorming new ideas and technologies that enable rapid design prototyping. We can evaluate how architectural changes impact MEP designs virtually using VR, BIM and 3D model visualization tools such as Solibri and the 3D PDF viewer in Bluebeam Revu. For existing structures, we can use point cloud data acquisition systems to generate models of the existing systems. These models can then be brought into BIM systems and modified with the new design.

Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy. Please tell us about the location, systems your team engineered, key players, interesting challenges or solutions and other significant details.

Michael J. Rossini: A recently completed project at Logan Airport, the Terminal B Optimization project, used innovative window treatment that affected the design of both the electrical and mechanical systems at the facility. Massport selected “Smart Glazing” system as the fenestration product that provides a fully automated variable glass tinting system, which incorporates the latest in glass coating and digital technology, to reduce solar glare, solar heat gain, lighting power consumption and HVAC cooling requirements. The electrochromic coated glass is programmed to optimize natural light, working together with the lighting dimming controls and the BMS system. Challenges for the system design and installation included the management of numerous electrical conductors routed to each pane of glass, routing the wiring cable trays to the glazing control panels and the system wide programming to integrate all of the systems to work in unison.

Jeremy Cooan: I’ve been involved recently with testing, commissioning and charger monitoring for bus charging operations as part of a pilot project for Metro Transit in the Minneapolis / St. Paul metropolitan area. This project involved commissioning, testing and startup for eight 150-kilowatt depot chargers and two 300-kilowatt overhead on-route chargers and the purpose of the project was to determine the feasibility of fleet electrification for the public transit agency. The specific chargers provided for this project were originally based on European designs and being localized for use in the U.S. As such, many of the testing and commissioning protocols were revised throughout the commissioning process to be applicable to UL standards and U.S. codes.

Michelle Blake: The Sound Transit Operations and Maintenance Facility East in Bellevue, Washington is a (targeted) LEED Gold facility providing additional maintenance and storage capacity for Sound Transit’s new light rail vehicles. The project includes significant transit-oriented development, complex functional and operational requirements, stringent energy targets, public art, environmental commitments and multijurisdictional approvals. As part of the Hensel Phelps design-build team, Stantec is leading the design team providing all architectural and engineering services required for the site and building.

Ciarán Smyth: My most recent and current, project is the redevelopment of Terminal B at LaGuardia airport in NYC. I was responsible for the HVAC design and was the project manager for the HVAC and electrical services for Terminal B. The project was a P3 FastTrack design. The build has been extremely challenging, largely due to the need to maintain service at LaGuardia while the entire Terminal B area is rebuilt and the airport roadway system is reconfigured. The FastTrack design and build nature of the project required our teams to often work with what were effectively existing conditions, requiring much more detailed and focused coordination. The building structural design was so far ahead of the MEP design that the steel was out for fabrication while we were in early construction documentation design. So, we had to develop our mechanical and electrical systems to fit within those parameters. This created some unexpected conditions, such as reduced plant room space for our systems. Using the latest building information modeling (BIM) technology to assess, adjust and coordinate services to space requirements was one tool that turned a hurdle into an opportunity to improve the overall project. When a project moves this quickly, trust is everything. When you are continually engaged with everyone—the architect, the structural engineer, the contractor, multiple other trades—you can overcome challenges and get things done quickly and correctly. It was that coordination, working parallel to one-another that enabled the entire team to meet a successful delivery.

How has COVID-19 changed your work in these facility types? Has the coronavirus affected these projects, by either increasing or decreasing some aspect of them?

Michael J. Rossini: Funding for construction projects at Logan Airport is largely dependent on fees paid by the airlines. Since COVID-19, the suspension of airline flights has resulted in a significant reduction in funding causing the suspension or cancellation of many projects. We expect that it will take several years before the funding is fully restored and for improvement projects to return to full activity.

Ciarán Smyth: Yes, COVID has turned not only the building industry upside down but also most people’s way of life (for now at least). We’re all heading toward a “new norm” and the design, construction and operation of all projects, transportation included, will change. Anything from touch screens and door operation to revisiting HVAC systems for indoor air quality will all be reviewed for a post-COVID world.

For large gathering spaces, which airports are, engineers will have to think about social distancing in a way they never needed to previously. In the new LaGuardia Airport, the additional space the new terminal provides is greatly assisting social distancing, but strategies to overcome all aspects of COVID are still being developed. For example, ASHRAE is providing advice on the use of HVAC and their filtration systems for the use in helping combat the spread of COVID in buildings. But currently, testing of filtration for COVID is in its infancy, so we’re somewhat in unchartered territory. Right now, there is no “silver bullet” to combat it. More testing is required.

Michelle Blake: COVID-19 has added a layer to our consideration of safety, workflows and space associated with the design of these facilities. We have considered approaches from our health sector colleagues related to mechanical systems and anti-microbial surfaces as well as examining the space and visibility needs to achieve physical distancing, where necessary.

John Gregory Williams: Our Bay Area construction group is working on a wastewater treatment plant for SFPUC. COVID-19 has affected the field workforce labor cost due to increased project check-in times to complete attestations, temperature checks and necessary documentation, we have fewer personnel actively working in an area to maintain separation reducing productivity and thus extends the time to complete activities. There have also been added materials and equipment costs such as hand sanitizers, tool wash solutions, gloves, face shields, etc., this also has led to additional rental equipment including lifting gear, storage containers for supplies and to keep tools separated, which can no longer be shared, let alone that all equipment and tools must be washed and sanitized daily.

How have local taxes and bonds changed the ebb and flow of these projects over the past three years? What do you anticipate over the next three years?

Michelle Blake: Overall, there has been a reasonably steady amount of local, state and federal funding for these types of projects over the past three years. There has been significant commitment to stimulus funding to address the economic fallout from COVID-19, most notably for transit agencies. In the short term, this funding will likely be directed to operations. Once the immediate needs are addressed, the funding will likely be directed to capital projects that address pandemic preparedness but also target broader policy objectives, such as resiliency and sustainability.

Michael J. Rossini: Massport is a quasi-public agency that operates Logan Airport in Boston with operations funded by revenue and fees paid by the airlines, parking fees, rents and concessions. The Terminal B Optimization project was largely driven by the expansion and repositioning of American Airlines at Logan Airport. Other airlines also implemented various improvement projects. The steady increase in airline flights over the past three years or more has led to an increased demand for gate positions, which drove the need for these expansion projects. The COVID-19 crisis has changed this picture dramatically and has already resulted in a freeze on projects. We anticipate it will take the better part of the next three years to recover.    

How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery (IPD) or virtual design and construction (VDC) into a project? Define the owner’s project requirements and how the entire team fulfilled them using these methods.

Michael J. Rossini: Large Massport projects do not currently implement an IPD approach, but they have incorporated a Lean Project Delivery System where all stakeholders develop a timeline for the completion of the design and construction elements and how they are connected and interact with one another. This results in a more efficient design and construction process which reduces requests for information, time delays and overall first costs associated with their capital improvement programs.

Michelle Blake: Our maintenance facilities design team has been taking advantage of collaborative and virtual design tools for many years as we have clients all over North America. We have always used an integrated design approach that includes the entire design and engineering team, the client, end-users and other stakeholders. We provide “real-time” access for our clients to our design through our digital collaboration platforms. For existing facilities, we use 3D laser scanning to facilitate “virtual” discussions with stakeholders. Our clients typically haven’t been prescriptive in their approach to VCD, but we include it as standard practice for our designs as it helps our team develop a coordinated responsive design solution.

Ciarán Smyth: The LaGuardia project is a design-build project, so as a design team we are inherently aligned with the contractor much earlier than a traditional form of contract. This allows for greater collaboration between planners, engineers, architects and contractors earlier on in projects which enable more efficient processes to be developed saving on time and cost. For example, the air handling units and major electrical switchgear used for the new terminal were procured during the early stages of construction documents. Working in close collaboration, often collocating in the design or site office, our design and contractor VDC teams were successful in implementing efficient strategies for adequate and timely installation of procured equipment.

What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing utilities, public works or transportation projects?

Ciarán Smyth: I know this won’t be a popular answer, but red tape. Working on government and public projects tend to have greater amounts of time expended on regulatory issues than those in the private sector. Having said that, we are constantly looking at new ways to improve project process efficiency by working in close collaboration with our public sector colleagues based on previous project experience.

Michelle Blake: The biggest challenge for the facilities is strategically defining the end-user needs rather than jumping immediately to a solution — to help optimize workflows and design a more safe and efficient facility. Another significant challenge is resolving the sometimes-conflicting requirements and priorities amongst the different user groups.

What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these a facility?

Michael J. Rossini: The most common delivery method continues to be a design-bid-build managed by a CM. The Logan Airport Terminal B Optimization project used this method. Early bid packages were first issued for enabling, foundations and steel followed by the architectural and trade bid package. A GMP was established based on the bids including contingency allowances.

Matthew Williamson: Our firm is frequently included in the early high-level conceptual design phases through the design guide and performance specification phase. This sets the specific criteria to use in final design and construction without becoming so restrictive to prevent appropriate value engineering by contractors.

Michelle Blake: The two most common project delivery methods are design-build and design-bid-build. We recently completed the Whitby Rail Maintenance Facility in Whitby, Ontario for GO Transit’s commuter rail service. This project was delivered as a Public Private Partnership (P3). We were the designer for the builder, a joint venture between Bird Construction and Kiewit (BKJV). The project included collaboration with the owner, Metrolinx, BKJV, the facility maintenance provider, Honeywell and the local approving authorities.

Ciarán Smyth: Traditionally and certainly for smaller projects, it would be design-bid-build. However, more and more clients, both public and private, are seeing the benefits of delivery methods such as design-build and IPD. Engaging the major stakeholders much earlier on in a project setup when compared to traditional design-bid-build allows for vetting of issues early on in the process, which in turn leads to increased efficiency in terms of time and cost. Design-bid-build also has the ability to improve communication between project stakeholders who otherwise would not meet until much later on in the traditional project set up (e.g. MEP designers and MEP subcontractors).