The Anatomy of a Successful Construction Partnership

Compass was only a few years old when it committed to changing the way it approached engagement with architectural and design support. We had just lost a significant opportunity to build a data center for a big-name customer. Though Compass offered the most cost-competitive proposal, the prospect chose another provider in the 11th hour because they weren’t comfortable with the Compass design.

This loss put the company’s commitment to its long-standing ethos 'Humility In, Pride Out' to the test. Leaders had to ask the tough question - do we eat a big slice of humble pie and go back to the drawing board? Or stick with the design we’ve invested so much time and effort in?

The answer was obvious. This design created a competitive issue with the potential to arise in the future. The team had to admit that they may not represent all the best and brightest thinking and that bringing in partners to challenge assumptions and make bold moves might be uncomfortable and costly but was the right thing to do. This was when Compass resolved to approach engagement with architectural and engineering support differently.

Compass engaged HED five years ago to build a better partnership. Strategically, Compass’ leadership set out to reframe the client-service provider relationship, onboarding HED as part of the team in a way that it had never done with previous firms.

Rather than work at arm’s length, Compass and HED have developed a relational and collaborative approach to the challenges of building large-scale data centers. Together, they’ve worked to identify solutions to issues associated with data center construction. By challenging assumptions and the status quo, the collaboration has reworked designs and come up with better ways of doing things, positioning Compass to rise to the challenges of mounting demand for data center development in a cost efficient and environmentally responsible manner.

The fruits of this partnership have been many. The team has made some bold prototype design changes and implemented process improvements to constantly evolve and improve how Compass builds.

Uniformity in design pays dividends

Having to make adjustments in the field is a time consuming and expensive process, with potential to impact the integrity of the structure.

Early in the development of facility prototypes, the HED-Compass collaboration ran into an issue installing our power centers. Since Compass has multiple prototypical designs that utilize a kit of parts that are interchangeable from one prototype to another, neutralizing the interface for all long-lead equipment (like the power center) to avoid a disconnect between the pre-cast wall and the power center was critical. Otherwise, the precast provider would have to make new cuts which opens up room for errors. There were cascade effects on the electrical side as well.

To avoid future field adjustments, which throws timelines and budgets off, the team reexamined the design specifications for all prototypes to implement a uniform method of power center installation This change made it possible to plug-and-play equipment from different locations, which is paying dividends now with supply chain challenges. This lesson on uniformity was then applied to the offsite fabrication and onsite installation of plenums which has sped up and prevented bumps in the road during future plenum installs no matter the building type.

Design grouping for efficient change management

With multiple prototype designs, when a change needed to be made, the team was chasing it through multiple different designs and projects. While a lot of the detailing is the same, if there is a detail in need of modification based on a lesson learned in the field, the team was having to go through every step for each of the different prototypes.

The solution was to “lean-up” the process. HED carved out from the design documents a “common detail package” where all typical details that are shared across all prototypes live. This made it possible to provide one set of site- and building-specific documents and one common detail package. Now, there’s an orderly and efficient process for making adjustments on a quarterly basis and rolling those out to active projects and the prototypes. The team isn’t going project by project to adjust multiple different building-specific packages. This structure has created huge time savings when site-adapting any of the prototypes to allow for mass customization without “breaking our design” for all of our clients.

Taking time to save time

Reviewing hundreds of contractor submittals had become onerous, to say the least. By standardizing specifications and prioritizing what and how submittals are reviewed, Compass is saving the internal, HED-Compass team, as well as contractors, significant time on the front-end and bringing projects to fruition faster. Working together, the HED-Compass team overhauled the submittals and review process.

Using a standardized design means many aspects of the prototype share the same parts, construction processes and products. While each facility is tailored to the customer and site, the core elements of each remain the same and are executed in a repeatable manner. Repetition creates opportunity to streamline and prioritize contractor submittals and reviews.

As part of the effort to bring uniformity to specifications, Compass and HED grouped required system components by sub-contractor – architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical. For each group, they assessed every submittal type and determined whether it required full, limited or no review (for boilerplate specifications that will be the same from project to project).

While time consuming on the front end, this process revealed that almost half of the more than 800 submittals required for one facility fall into the pre-approved or boilerplate category. In addition to significantly narrowing down the volume of required submittals, this overhaul eliminated conflicts, duplications and ambiguity on the specification. 

Production scheduling drives down labor hours and improves safety

Super sizing data centers after the post-pandemic building boom required a rethink on traditional, dated construction methods. Compass and HED took a deep dive on process and procedure to identify opportunities to drive down labor hours and build a better facility without compromising safety.

To speed up the construction timeline, the team overhauled production schedules to create 12-, 14- and 16-week project development plans, with crews having full autonomy in a given area at a time. Because Compass’ data centers rely so heavily on prefabrication, it already had a speed-to-market advantage with many components built off-site.

Short interval production schedules make it possible for trades to work individual crew shifts (one crew per area) so no area is crowded or backed up. Crews work in designating spaces according to a carefully crafted work sequence. If they can’t complete the work during the allotted timeframe, they will have the weekend to work. All are incentivized to have zero punch list items.

Connectedness helps weather supply chain disruptions

Supply chain struggles have introduced an added layer of tension between design and construction worlds as a result of massive delays. The supply chain disruptions have caused a constant resequencing of work – based on the lack of available materials. This would be a challenge if not for the effective collaboration and interconnectedness between Compass and HED.

In this supply chain-constrained environment where things that once took 8 to 12 weeks to process now need to be ordered 8 to 12 months in advance, HED is designing elements months in advance. With the list of items considered to be long-lead equipment growing very long, design packages are released for fabrication well ahead of historical schedules

While time consuming, the team approaches this challenge in lock step, and with a lot of communication between Compass, HED and customers, who know about the challenges and help with solutions. In addition, Compass partners with its largest global vendors, who provide the most critical long lead components, to carve out manufacturing space dedicated to Compass and allowing Compass to make and keep schedule commitments to our valued clients. Together, the team has stayed ahead of supply chain interruptions and discovered opportunities to fine-tune the construction process.

In closing

As builders, sometimes we approach an engagement with architects like we’re acquiring a commodity to address a particular need rather than entering into a partnership. It’s not uncommon for a builder to bid out multiple designs, soliciting responses from a number of firms to drive down costs and keep options open.

Making the bold move to go back to the drawing board, investing time and money in its earliest prototypes, has paid dividends for Compass. The decision to enter into a long-standing relationship with HED, convening the brightest minds on both sides of the aisle – architects and in-house team – was undoubtedly the right one.

Five years in, the partnership continues to find opportunities to improve. Both companies’ eagerness to challenge assumptions and do things differently makes the partnership dynamic, engaging and rewarding. Egos are checked at the door. Great communication, mutual respect and trust support a free flow of ideas, new developments and big wins for the partners and, ultimately, our clients.

Nancy Novak

Chief Innovation Officer, Compass Datacenters