Facility Planning: Knowing What You Don't Know

By F. Joshua Millman, AIA, CFM, LEED AP

For three years our firm had participated in off-and-on discussions with an Ohio-based snack food manufacturer. Originally, the discussions centered around design and construction of a new 250,000 sq. ft. production plant to replace an aging existing facility, which was about the same size. However, when the phone call finally came, it was not what we had hoped; in fact, it was more of a bad news / good news conversation.

The bad news was that corporate management had elected to postpone moving forward with the new facility for five years. At that time, they planned to make a decision about either building a new plant and renovating the existing plant for warehouse and office space, or else fully-renovating the existing manufacturing operation.

Unfortunately, the client had invested very little capital in the existing plant over the prior three years in anticipation of their new “Plant-of-the-Future” becoming a reality. Maintenance was deferred, wherever possible, and replacement of major mechanical and electrical equipment postponed, even though the equipment was well beyond its useful life. Furthermore, there were plenty of retrofits needed to support a growing production schedule for the next several years.

The good news was that the client had decided to commission our firm to conduct a fast-track five-year facility plan to identify the scope of work needed, a schedule for completion, and a budget for the renovations and upgrades.

Based upon the expedited schedule and amount of work required, we developed the following framework:

Facility Condition Assessment (FCA) – Survey of the existing facility to identify all the deferred maintenance items as well as upgrades needed to bring the building into conformance with current SQF, Life-Safety, and ADA codes. We also agreed to look at energy-reduction retrofits that could realize a payback of fewer than five years.

Brainstorming – Meet with all the department managers within the plant to identify all the facility projects required to meet upcoming production, quality, and employee welfare requirements. Special emphasis would be placed on prioritizing renovations necessary to minimize the risk of plant shutdowns due to equipment failures or safety incidents.

Draft Facility Plan – Develop rough scopes and budgets for each of the identified projects. Ultimately, several projects were combined while others were separated into multiple phases. Some projects had to be split into study and implementation phases, as the solution was not readily-apparent and budget projections could range widely until a better investigation of existing conditions and possible solutions were completed.

Finalize Facility Plan – Part of the response to the plan by the occupant managers was to set aside about a third of the projects whose payback period would go beyond Year 5. These projects would be reconsidered if the long-term decision was to renovate the existing building rather than build a new one. Some projects were added, including those that had longer paybacks because they would be needed whether the facility continued as a manufacturing site or was converted to house warehousing and offices.


Unsurprisingly, of the 95 projects that were identified through the Brainstorming process, all but 20 proposed by the building occupants also appeared on the list from the initial FCA walkthrough.

Our final report presented a schedule and budget for renovations over the next five years, and the estimated cost in Year 6 to fully update the plant. The latter cost would become a benchmark of comparison as part of the decision-making process on whether or not to construct a new replacement facility. How would the cost of extending the life of the existing plant by ten years compare with the all-in costs of building a new plant? The total renovation budget in the plan exceeded our client’s initial projections.  This result likely hinged the long-term decision on the impact to the production schedule of renovating a building in phases during operations while maintaining SQF standards, or moving and recalibrating production and testing equipment.

When the client began this process, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. However, through the combination of a Facility Condition Assessment and Brainstorming with occupant managers, we were able to develop a five-year facilities plan that filled in a lot of the blanks, including budget and schedule, ultimately providing more detail to corporate management to have confidence when making their decision on whether to build new or renovate.

Questions about Facility Condition Assessments or Facility Strategic Planning? Contact Josh Millman at 717.434.1570 or email him at jmillman@nutecgroup.com.

Ice Age: Designing for Cold Storage Facilities

by David S. Miller, RA, NCARB

One of the most unique challenges in designing buildings for the Food & Beverage Industry is to provide facilities with low temperature requirements, such as a -20°F freezer. Most people have not experienced temperatures that low. Food, pharmaceutical, and other products sometimes need to be stored at low temperatures to maintain their integrity. Proper building design and construction is critical to keep the next “ice age” from coming within the cold storage facility!

Cold storage spaces have their own unique environmental climates and need to be properly separated from the surrounding spaces; otherwise, condensation, snowing and ice conditions will occur – the referenced “ice age.”  Proper insulation and vapor barrier design and construction are essential to minimize the risk of a building envelope failure, which can lead to loss of temperature control, ice on floors, and water on products.

With low temperature building design, there is a “warm” side and a “cold” side. The greater the temperature difference between the two sides, the greater the risk of moisture infiltration through water vapor transmission. Because of this, it is critically important to maintain the continuity of the envelope. 

Warm air is actually a gas blend that holds moisture. If moisture seeps through the walls around a low-temperature area, this gas will condense on the cold side, forming water and eventually turning to ice and snow.

Nutec was recently hired to visit the site of a freezer/cooler storage facility that was exhibiting these exact challenges. Unfortunately, there was visible evidence of vapor barrier issues – they were either missing altogether or not continuous in the wall assembly, resulting in snow and ice forming at the insulated metal panel joints.

Another pitfall occurs when companies in need of freezer space attempt to convert an existing cooler to freezer use  – often with varied results. Is it cost effective to convert a cooler to a freezer?

Like most things in life, the answer is … it depends.

Coolers and freezers do share a general concept – keeping spaces cooler than ambient room temperature. In practice, they are very different. The requirements for freezers and coolers will vary depending upon the temperature needs of each space. Although the vapor barriers for freezers and coolers are essentially the same, wall and roof insulation thicknesses, floor insulation, and floor warming requirements will vary widely. Coolers are also designed to keep temperatures above +34°F, so moisture within the space will not condense and freeze. 

Coolers do not typically have floor insulation under the entire slab. More common is the presence of perimeter insulation to reduce thermal bridging. Floor warming systems are not required in cooler spaces because of the higher temperatures;  however, for freezer areas, floor warming is a must.

Moisture falling from ceiling and freezing .jpg

Moisture falling from ceiling and freezing

Soil contains moisture, so it is critical that freezer floors be separated from the soil. If this doesn’t occur, over time the temperature of the freezer will transmit through the floor slab, and eventually the soil will be at the same temperature of the freezer. Once this happens, soil will freeze and expand, create an ice lens, and result in heaved floor slabs as well as building foundation and column issues. These conditions can be mitigated by installing an insulated floor slab along with floor warming. This floor warming system will heat the soil and prevent it from freezing.

Vapor barriers serve an important role in both coolers and freezers. These vapor barriers need to be continuous and be installed on the warm side of the space in order to keep the moisture vapor temperature from dropping too low. If moisture vapor does penetrate the cold storage space, it behaves differently. Within coolers, this moisture will condense and form water. In freezers, however, the moisture will turn to ice or snow.

Formation of ice stalactites from water vapor

The most critical design elements for freezers are:

  • Floor warming is present to ensure that the soil under the slab and foundations remains above 32°F. Techniques to prevent soil from freezing include vent tubes, electric warming, or heated glycol in tubing beneath the floor insulation.
  • Floor insulation is placed between the floor warming system and the building floor slab. The insulation thickness is dependent upon the freezer temperature. For instance, at -10°F, a minimum of six inches of insulation is recommended. 
  • Building columns that extend through the slab have a thermal break that is equivalent to the floor insulation.
  • A vapor barrier should be present in any facility, but this is absolutely critical for freezer storage facilities. If the vapor barrier is not installed properly or does not have a complete seal, moisture vapor will penetrate into the building, and over time ice will begin forming and expanding.
  • The building location’s annual outside temperatures plays a role in determining insulation thickness, both for walls and roofs. Room temperature is another driver of insulation thickness. For instance, a -10°F freezer in a certain geographic region may require as much as six inches of wall panel insulation and eight to nine inches of roofing insulation. 
  • Wall and roof penetrations through vapor barriers must be completely sealed and properly insulated to minimize the risk of condensation and moisture vapor infiltration. This is particularly challenging at personnel and forklift doors within freezer walls, and at duct penetrations in roofs.

Have you faced any challenges with moisture penetration in your freezer spaces? Looking for best practices to fend off the next “Ice Age”? Contact David S. Miller, RA, via email (linkto: dmiller@nutecgroup.com) or call him at 717-434-1577 to learn more and discuss your project.


Your FCA Can Become Your (Road)Map

by F. Joshua Millman, AIA, CFM, LEED AP

“I need you to tell me what I need to know but don’t know.” 

An age-old plea, and a consultant’s stock-in-trade.

In this case, Linda, a director of human resources who had I known slightly through my son’s school PTO, was scrambling to make sense of her newly added responsibilities for the company’s facilities.  An unexpected departure of the facility manager had stretched to a 4-month vacancy before Linda was designated, so there was no incumbent to show her the ropes.  Then, in her first month in the new position, a cracked water heater tank on the third floor had managed to flood the floors below over (of course) a long weekend.

I decided to respond in a similarly obtuse manner.  “We have an app for that.”  Quickly putting on my marketing cap, I explained to Linda that our Facility Condition Assessment (FCA) program was designed to address building conditions based on operational urgency. 

“What would be the most urgent?” she inquired.  I explained that the most urgent concern was actually the only part of the program that did not have a measurable return on investment, the one with which she had become most recently acquainted.

“You mean ‘shutdown’” Linda guessed. 

“Exactly,” I responded.  “Well, we call it the ‘Mission-Critical Assessment,’ and it deals exclusively with identifying significant operations risks from facility systems and nonconformance to government and industry codes and standards.”  In other words, those things that can bring operations to a halt and drop the stock price.  It’s the same type of assessment companies periodically undertake with their supply chain and IT systems.  For this assessment, we typically evaluate:

  • Integrity of the building envelope.
  • Indications of any building foundation and structural failure.
  • Condition and remaining useful life of major HVAC, utility, and electrical equipment.
  • Condition and remaining useful life and warrantee status of roof.
  • Emergency egress.
  • Handicapped accessibility.
  • Conformance to standards of OSHA, ISO, USDA, SQF, etc. as applicable.

“But that’s just the critical items, right?  There are other important building aspects I need to monitor as well, correct?” Linda queried.

“You’re right.  Our next tier is the ‘Maintenance Action Plan,’ or MAP,” I explained.  We refer to it as a five year GPS.  This is a comprehensive, systematic assessment of all building systems.  In addition to the items evaluated under the Mission Critical Assessment, we also address:

  • Building and site deficiencies.
  • Immediate actions and expenses to address deferred maintenance.
  • Future expenses to refurbish and later replace building systems.
  • Code issues that would affect future renovations.

The deliverable is a MAP that includes both the projected annual capital costs and maintenance expenses associated with completing the plan over the next five years.

Linda then correctly guessed that there is a third tier, which we have dubbed the “Performance Improvement Roadmap.” This is the transition from being concerned about a facility shutdown and preventive maintenance, to focusing on building performance and lowering the costs of building operations.  This tier is entirely keyed to return on investment.  It includes:

  • An ASHRAE Level 2 Energy Audit.
  • Verification of facility electrical load against rating/sizing of the electrical service panel to determine adequacy and capacity for future electrical loads.
  • Arc Flash study.
  • Recommended finish, lighting, BAS, and other upgrades with acceptable ROIs.

From her questions, Linda was evidently a great manager, and I knew she would soon to be a great facility manager.  I was looking forward to working together in her new capacity.  Once we initiated the FCA, I would suggest sensors she could relay to her smart phone that would not allow another weekend to go by with a serious water leak.

What Makes Medical Cannabis Facilities Unique

by Andrew L. Shakely, PE, LEED AP BD+C

In 1996, California became the first state to remove state-level penalties for the possession and use of medical marijuana for approved medical conditions. Since then, through a mixture of voter ballot measures and legislative actions, a total of 28 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing for use of medical marijuana. In 2016 alone, five states approved medical marijuana. Each state has its own requirements for the growth and processing of medical marijuana, but in those states that require indoor cultivation facilities, the design of these facilities must address unique conditions.

Production Goals

The construction and operation of a medical cannabis cultivation facility represents a significant investment, and the operators’ goal is to be able to produce a consistent, high-quality product that not only can be replicated between harvest cycles, but also maximizes product yield. To do this, the facility must provide a highly controllable, energy-efficient environment that minimizes risk of product loss. So, what are the key factors that make the design of these facilities unique?

High Energy Consumption

While companies are developing and experimenting with LED lighting options for grow lights, the standard of the industry remains high pressure sodium lights. Most cultivators believe high pressure sodium lights have proven to be the best lighting to maximize product yield. The impact of having these high-density lighting systems in an indoor facility is that they both consume a lot of energy and also produce a lot of heat. Not only does this require the electrical service and distribution systems to be much larger than with conventional buildings, it also causes the HAVC systems to be upsized to handle the high heat load of the lights.

Additionally, the HVAC systems must also be able to provide dehumidification in the grow rooms when the lights are off. During growing periods, when the lights are on, the plants are absorbing water and using it for photosynthesis. When the lights are off, a significant portion of the absorbed water is aspirated from the plants and released back into the grow room environment. The HVAC system must be able to control this humidity release, even though it doesn’t need to be providing cooling because the lights are off. Conventional HVAC systems aren’t designed to provide this type of humidity control when cooling is not required.

To reduce ongoing energy costs from operating this type of facility, it is imperative that the HVAC system be chosen with energy efficiency in mind. The energy savings from features such as free cooling and heat recovery loops will quickly offset the upfront costs of installing these systems.

Risk Control

Risk control in medical marijuana facilities typically falls into two categories: (1) Community Concerns; (2) Security and Crop Protection.


Security is almost always a primary concern of both states and communities in which these facilities are located. Security systems are typically a significant portion of the cost of the project. Typical systems include perimeter access control and video cameras for monitoring both exterior and interior areas of the facility. They also feature access control and logging of employee movement into and out of critical zones of the building. These systems must have back-up power from emergency generators and UPS batteries, in the event of a power outage.

Odor Control

Another concern to most communities is odor control. It is vital that a thoughtful method of odor control be developed to limit odor from escaping the facility. Carbon filtration, ionization, hydroxyl, and controlled exhaust systems are techniques used to avoid conflict within the communities surrounding a grow facility.

Crop Protection

Crop protection is the primary risk control concern of the cultivator and operator of the facility. A pest infestation or outbreak of mold or fungi can spread rapidly through a grow room and cause a substantial financial loss to a grower. Indoor grow facilities must be designed with compartmentalized grow rooms to contain an outbreak, if it occurs. The materials used for walls, floors, and ceiling construction also must not promote mold growth and must be easily cleanable.

As mentioned previously, the HVAC systems must be designed to control humidity. Controlling humidity spikes is critical to avoiding an environment that can lead to mold or fungi growth. Systems must also not be shared between grow rooms so cross contamination cannot occur.

Because mold and fungi can cause a significant loss, the HVAC systems are also often provided with back-up power from a generator. The extent of backup power provided can vary depending on the reliability of the power system for the region in which the grow facility is located.

Controllability and Data Gathering

Because maintaining a consistent environment is critical to the success of an indoor grow facility, these facilities often feature advance control systems that monitor and control lighting levels, space temperature, humidity conditions, and control the fertilization and irrigation systems for the grow rooms. These systems also allow cultivators to continually optimize their grow practices by analyzing continuous data of growing conditions. Close coordination of the controls for lighting, HVAC, and irrigation systems is critical to avoid delays and added costs during systems start-up.


Indoor medical marijuana grow facilities have unique needs that must be addressed by proper design to ensure that the facility infrastructure supports the mission of producing consistent, high-quality, high-yield product. While this post has highlighted some of the key concerns that must be addressed during the design of the facility, it isn’t a complete summary. Other issues that need to be considered include water conservation, employee hygiene, and waste management. For an indoor grow facility to operate efficiently, the design must be a close collaboration between the owner, cultivator, and the design architects and engineers.