Engineering on an international scale

Working on projects clear across the globe may introduce more obstacles to overcome than mere distance and language barriers—each locale comes with its own codes, climate conditions, and unique characteristics.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 29, 2015


Mark Haboian, Senior Program Manager and Chemical Process Engineer, Optimation Technology Inc., Rochester, N.Y.

Brian E. Hagglund, PE, Assistant Manager—Middle East, Aon Fire Protection Engineering Corp., Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Bill Kosik, PE, CEM, LEED AP, BEMP, Distinguished Technologist, Data Center Facilities Consulting, Hewlett-Packard Co., Chicago

Erin McConahey, PE, LEED AP, FASHRAE, Principal, Arup, Los Angeles

CSE: Please describe a recent international project you’ve coordinated.

Mark Haboian: Our firm is currently working on a long-running process-engineering project located in Singapore. The project is a consulting, design, build, test, ship, and installation project. It involves designing and building multiple process-equipment test systems, the associated heavy-duty automated blast door for each test room, and the control system that integrates all of this equipment with the site utilities, building monitor/alarm systems, and site data-collection/information technology (IT) infrastructure.

Probably the most important issue of the program that we encountered is communication between international team members. What I would recommend to any engineering firm that designs, fabricates, and integrates equipment in other countries, is to be rigorous with upfront communication and design consultation with the multiple engineering firms that are involved with big projects. It is critical to get the process design information to the site structural/architectural firm that is building the complex on day 1, and not later in the project phase when it’s too late to make changes. Even conceptual design information is helpful, so that everybody is referencing it during early structural/architectural design.

On day 1, designing in the appropriate overhead structural support, side wall support, wall and door openings, trenches and sumps, drains and vents, site utilities, chemical supplies and storage, and IT infrastructure is a critical site setup activity. If you miss this at the beginning of your project and have to install it later, especially after the structural/architectural work has begun (or worse, is complete), it becomes very expensive and time-consuming to fix. So be rigorous and get all the engineering firms together on those late-night (or early morning) weekly conference calls, trade your critical design information with each other, and get agreement from your client manager. Although you’ll lose sleep at the beginning of your project, you won’t at the end.

Brian Hagglund: I have been overseeing Aon Fire Protection Engineering’s (FPE) work on multiple international airport projects in the Middle East over the past 5 yr, in additional to mixed-use high-rise developments. Aon FPE has been providing fire and life safety shop drawing reviews, inspections, and commissioning for all fire/life safety systems in a building. Aon FPE has provided the fire/life safety handover of numerous buildings to the local civil defense authorities upon completion.

Bill Kosik: To set the stage, I consult on data center projects by providing actionable data coming from system modeling and energy-use analysis. My work is done mainly in the early stages of the project and also during any cost-reduction exercises to make sure proposed savings ideas don’t increase energy-related operational costs. So it is important for me to gain a good understanding of the client’s goals for energy-efficient practices, as well as any local jurisdictional requirements for minimum energy performance.

Due to the sensitive nature of our project work, I cannot divulge project-specific details, but as a reference point, in the past 4 yr I have worked on more than 150 projects. If I look at it from a regional perspective, the Americas made up 45% of the assignments, Europe Middle East Africa (EMEA) 30%, Asia Pacific (APJ) 20%, and Latin America Caribbean 5%. So you can get an idea that outside the U.S., most projects took place in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific. If I look from a country perspective, the top 10 countries in which I have done project work are: Germany, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, China, India, Russian Federation, Singapore, Brazil, and Czech Republic. Certainly this is not representative in total of where the projects are, but it gives an indication of data center construction in different countries.

Erin McConahey: One recent project for a confidential client in East Asia was a combination of a research laboratory and office space, approximately 900,000 sq ft.

CSE: How has your engineering firm met the needs of international clients? Have you opened an office in another country? Sent engineers for short- or long-term projects overseas?

Hagglund: Aon FPE opened an office in Dubai in 2006 to serve the greater Middle East region. Staffing for the Dubai office has been achieved through a combination of U.S. engineers relocating on short- and long-term assignments, as well as local and regional hiring. We are currently operating with a staff of 28, including several multilingual consultants who are critical to serving the local and international clients present in the region. Aon FPE also serves Europe, Africa, and Southwest Asia from our Dubai office.

McConahey: Our firm has offices in more than 40 countries to serve our international clients. Depending on the project, we may deploy local people to service the projects or send people from the Americas region, depending on familiarity with the projects, developmental opportunities, and the willingness of the person to work overseas.

Haboian: We support our international clients in many ways. Three common scenarios are:

  1. Concept design and budgetary project pricing, where we consult with clients in their early phases of project justification. Providing a project design, scope of work, and overall pricing greatly helps client managers understand what they will be getting for their money before they actually get started down that road.
  2. Detailed design-build projects, where we have been contracted to supply a complete fabricated/commissioned assembly that will be installed at the client’s site. Not only do we supply the contracted assembly, but we also supply work-release instructions to inform site contractors how to install the equipment safely, efficiently, and with minimum disruptions. We even specifically call out “hold points” for a quality control (QC) person to approve the current installation before moving to the next phase.
  3. On-site installation consulting, where we send a company representative to the site as a consultant to work with the client’s installation contractors. The time frame could be anywhere from 1 wk to several years. For long stays, there are many considerations that factor into the decision besides project funding allotment, such as employee involvement in the stay (scope of work, duration, compensation, per diem expenses, etc.), customs tax on labor outside the U.S., foreign tax withholding issues and who will pay, and the ability to set up a satellite office to allow for the extended stay (probably the best option for long projects). For complicated installation work, our site representative is invaluable and can direct the critical installation activities, enforce the hold points (mentioned above), verify the installation drawings and specifications, and participate in the client’s final site acceptance test and product accreditation.

Kosik: Our firm was acquired by HP in 2008, so our expansion into international work really took off then. Although we were doing work worldwide prior to the acquisition, it was not on such a large scale as it is today. Our model is to have an office in a region or country that’s staffed by teams from the area who understand the particulars of the local practices and customer needs. Countries have different codes, bidding processes, permitting and review techniques, and other legal procedures. We have found that establishing a local presence is the best way to ensure growth and establish client trust.

CSE: What business-development techniques are you using to gain international clients and/or projects?

Kosik: We have regional leaders on the ground who are responsible for client development. These leaders are backed by worldwide technical teams that are available for further strategy and proposal-response development for potential projects.

McConahey: I would say that we support our local architects, and if they pursue work overseas we will mobilize the global network to help them. Generally, each region of the firm supports its own local architects or contractors, primarily in terms of repeat business as opposed to specific international marketing. However, we have some large-scale global businesses, such as aviation, in which it does make sense for us to target the whole global industry as opposed to working from the region outward.

Hagglund: We first entered the Middle East market through partnerships with existing U.S.- and European-based architectural clients working in the region. Aon established its footprint in the region by gaining certification from Dubai Civil Defense as an international house of expertise, approved to provide fire/life safety certifications and consulting services. This credential allowed Aon to expand its international client base to the local level within the UAE, and then throughout the Middle East.

CSE: How have the characteristics of international projects changed in recent years, and what should engineers expect to see in the near future?

McConahey: I think there may have been times when people from the U.S. or U.K. might have thought that they were bringing sophistication in design to another country—to teach others how to do things or how to apply the newest technology. My experience is that in many countries where we work, the owners have extremely well-educated engineering staffs with strong opinions about what should be done. The owners oversee multiple buildings, in most cases, and are typically not novices when it comes to constructing buildings. The level of sophistication also comes from the fact that many of the companies who have the capital to do large-scale buildings are multinational corporations themselves, who are perhaps even making the technology that we use every day. In many cases, they are more proficient in cultural competency when working with Americans than we are in working with them. I think that going into the future, I would expect to partner with the local engineers in a collegial way to share ideas during the design process.

Hagglund: Most Middle East countries are adopting NFPA standards as the basis for fire and life safety compliance for new construction. This trend has given U.S.-based companies a competitive advantage against companies that are not as familiar with NFPA requirements. Aon FPE staff in the Middle East are well-versed in NFPA codes and standards, and many of our senior staff have served on NFPA technical committees or are certified International NFPA instructors.

Kosik: Certain countries/clients will continue to be more open to technologies, but others are much more parochial and will need to be persuaded to consider alternate systems and equipment. Also, end users that have a global presence will continue to build data centers in multiple countries, and can play an important role in introducing (or being introduced to) new technologies and solutions to localities where they are building.

CSE: Which country or part of the world seems to be the most challenging?

McConahey: My experience is that the client makes or breaks the project far more than the country. I think it is definitely necessary to have local insight wherever you are. In most locations (even in the U.S.), there is the code and then there is how the code is applied and interpreted. In most cases, pre-existing relationships are useful for getting attention and advice from key people. In some countries, it is not unusual to just stop a project whenever the boss says so. In others, there is an overwhelming amount of detail with regard to formatting and presenting documentation. Some cultures require more face-to-face meetings to build a strong relationship before talking about business. Others you know will never pay out the last invoice. All of these little nuances are useful to know about when working overseas.

Hagglund: The Middle East region is a very challenging market to deliver complex construction projects. A key contributing factor is the nature of the workforce, which includes expatriates from various parts of the world. For example, when European, Asian, and American companies are designing and building projects, there are inevitable differences in approaches based on the standards and practices that were learned in one’s home country.

CSE: How does engineering systems for international facilities differ from facilities in the United States?

Haboian: We are a process engineering firm that designs, fabricates, and installs systems worldwide. Key questions always need to be asked at the beginning of any international project (such as project scope of work, requirements, cost and schedule limitations, etc.), but we also need to know other items that are not so obvious.

For clients in Europe, we determine if any additional certifications are needed (or compliance with European standards such as IEC, RoHS, Machinery Directive, EMC, CE Marking, etc). If needed, we partner with a local engineering firm that specializes in knowledge of these standards to work with us during the design and fabrication phases of a project. Likewise for projects in other countries, knowledge of their local codes and standards must be known prior to starting design.

For process detail design, it is critical for all parties to be in agreement for the project. We will verify project goals, determine any particular codes or standards that must be followed, inquire about their local equipment suppliers (so that spare parts are available when the project is completed), and review the next project steps to complete final design. Some equipment specified for their project may be available in the U.S., but not in their country (and vice versa), so equipment must be chosen wisely.

For final design, we are rigorous in getting agreement on the following:

  • Process flow diagram (PFD), with stream definition listed in their terms (m3/hr, lpm, bar, temperature, etc)
  • Major equipment list, noting different electrical ratings for motors (480 V versus 400 V, etc.)
  • Main piping and electrical specifications, noting standard pipe specs (imperial versus metric) and electrical installation standards (NEC versus DIN, IEC, CSA, etc.).
  • Process functionality, which would be the same regardless of country—the process, monitoring, and alarm systems have to work a certain way. The control system would describe how software interacts with hardware (in new equipment and existing site systems). All these items must be defined and agreed upon prior to starting detailed hardware and software design. Once agreement is reached, final design can proceed to detail drawing creation, major and minor equipment procurement, fabrication work releases, and eventually the installation phase at the site.

Hagglund: In the developing markets of the Middle East, older facilities typically were designed and built to varying standards, based on the background of the company performing the services. Based on the code development cycles implemented in the U.S., it is easier to forecast what types of systems would have been engineered based on the age of the building and applicable codes at the time of design.

McConahey: Electrical voltages and metric standards would be the most obvious ones. The U.S. has fairly strict life safety codes in the International Code Council and NFPA; these are not always found elsewhere. HVAC systems and fire protection systems are not that different in terms of basic equipment or design, but they are different in the level of documentation expected in the design documents versus being done essentially like design-build projects by the contractor.

Kosik: This will vary widely from country to country. Certain countries, like Germany, have very rigorous design-build requirements that add a layer of technical review meant to ensure maximum energy efficiency and environmental health and safety. Other countries/cities that have less experience with building sophisticated facilities, such as data centers, will rely more heavily on the design team.

CSE: On what aspect of the project do you see the most emphasis being placed by building owners?

Hagglund: Sustainability has become a standard part of the design process in the Middle East over the past decade. Schedule and cost continue to be the driving factors of a project.

Kosik: Because I focus on energy efficiency, my response might be a little biased; but I continue to see very detailed and rigorous language in requests for proposal (RFPs) on how the data center must meet certain energy requirements. We even see requirements for guaranteed power usage effectiveness values during the operational phase of the data center.

McConahey: Sustainability is definitely a strong interest, including using American, Australian, or European rating systems to prove it. Lifecycle cost is of interest, but in many cases the local electricity, gas, and water rate structures are very different from those found in certain parts of the U.S.; and so the systems that “win” the lifecycle cost analysis might be very different from what we might find here.

CSE: What unique tools, software, or systems do you use when specifying systems in or designing such projects?

McConahey: If we are planning to hand over the analysis or drawing files to the local engineer, then we would typically want to work in an Autodesk product for drawings and likely something like TRACE for the loads.

Hagglund: As a fire engineering company, Aon Middle East uses the same fire and smoke modeling software that is used in the U.S., namely Fire Dynamics Simulator and ContamW. The main difference is the authorities having jurisdiction are not as familiar with these applications, so additional effort is needed to explain and justify the inputs and results being applied to a project.

CSE: What unique fire-suppression systems have you specified or designed in international facilities?

Hagglund: In the Middle East region, the standard special suppression systems that would be applied in the U.S., such as water mist, gaseous suppression, and clean agents, are used. One difference is the general use of foam suppression systems in generator rooms, where U.S. authorities typically permit standard sprinkler-system protection.

CSE: Describe any unusual detection and notification systems you’ve specified in another country. What drove the design?

Hagglund: Aon’s recent experience is that NFPA 72 fire alarm designs are being implemented into new projects.