The Art of Precision: Quality Assurance

Quality assurance is all about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, confirming that design details meet code regulations, stakeholder requirements, and quality standards. Architectural projects come in all different shapes, sizes, and complexities, and each one requires an intricate eye for detail.

Joining us today is BWBR Principal and Director of Professional Services Dan Hottinger, who specializes in projects with highly technical requirements and logistical challenges, and Senior QA Specialist Todd Warren. Both bring a wealth of construction and documentation knowledge to the table, along with over two decades of experience at the firm.

In this latest episode of Side of Design, they dive into the QA process at BWBR, outlining the steps, the stakes, and how we measure success following construction.

Step by Step

You may be thinking that quality assurance sounds like a huge responsibility, and while that’s true, there are resources and support structures in place to guide our design teams to success. Todd admits that the process can appear daunting at first glance. It’s two full pages of steps — and that’s just the outline. However, it’s meant to act as a roadmap for BWBR’s process.

Todd explains that there are seven different QA meetings recommended for every project, including a kickoff performance design meeting to outline sustainability goals, a project initiation meeting to help connect teams with resources for knowledge-sharing, and a code conformance check. Some specialized or large projects require even more steps – the process is customized to provide the best results and lowest margin of error.

After numerous check-ins throughout the design phases, a final review meeting helps our specialists confirm that no mistakes slipped through the cracks before documents go out the door. “I try to look at it as if I’m the contractor. Can I understand everything? Can I picture how we’re going to build this?” says Todd.

The Stakes are High

“Reputation is easy to destroy,” Dan says. “It can happen with one single project, and it takes a long time to regain.” He cites the example of automakers in the 1960s and 1970s that intentionally built cars designed to break down after a few years so consumers would be forced to repurchase. That worked — until other automakers joined the market and built cars to actually last. It seriously damaged their reputation, and many of the brands that survived are still working to earn a reputation for reliability decades later.

“On many projects I hear tales from clients or owners who had a terrible experience with the last architect, and I think it’s a warning to us that we have to do better. The reason they didn’t pick that architect again is because of that bad experience,” says Todd. Word of mouth spreads, and it’s an important lesson on the significance of thorough QA. 

At BWBR, our aim is to go beyond just protecting our reputation to provide exceptional quality work for our clients. As Dan explains, errors slow down construction and increase costs, so carefully proofing and coordinating design documents pays off in a smooth and seamless experience for everyone involved.

Hard Work Pays Off

So, how does the QA team measure the success of their work? Dan explains that repeat clients are a great sign of a smooth construction process and high-quality finished product. “An 85% repeat client rate is a really good target, and we consistently exceed that. Since 2019, we’ve been holding at about 94%. That is amazing, and it speaks to the quality of the experience out in the field,” he says.

BWBR’s goal is to prioritize care, precision, and efficiency, creating partnerships that last for the long run. Our amazing quality assurance team plays a major role in making it all happen, and we’re so grateful for their incredible attention to detail and hands-on approach!

Small Projects, Big Impact

Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs) face a unique set of challenges and constraints. With this in mind, it is imperative that they are able to create maximum value and impact from every single project, even those that seem small. In BWBR’s work with these facility types, we see how vital the role of the CAH is within their communities, both to the patients they provide critical medical services for and to the many staff that they employ, and our mission is to help CAH clients meet those needs.

The BWBR Omaha team has worked on numerous CAH projects recently looking for smaller-scale expansions and renovations, rather than completely new facilities. In examining these projects, a powerful theme has emerged — that these “small” projects can actually have an outsize impact. While in many cases it might be easier to build new, that is not always the most realistic or feasible option for our clients. We find a great deal of fulfillment in helping our clients use existing assets and resources to their best and highest purpose. This process often begins with a master facility planning effort, then continues through a phased implementation plan.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • For Providence Medical Center in Wayne, Nebraska, our team started with a master plan and is now working on an addition and renovation to provide a new campus main entry, central registration, and a concourse leading to a renovated surgical suite, clinic, and radiology spaces, all while minimizing impact to ongoing operations. Initially, the hospital team thought that their options were limited to solutions like retrofitting an abandoned ambulance garage for their new MRI suite. We listened, learned, and helped Providence to think strategically to solve that immediate need along with addressing multiple other limitations. By improving access and wayfinding, the design team was able to optimize clinical operations for the whole campus, while also creating a welcoming environment for visitors and patients.
  • At Antelope Medical Center in Neligh, Nebraska, BWBR was asked to remodel an existing inpatient unit, right-sizing and modernizing the patient rooms and providing accessible spaces for patients, family, and staff. The support core of the inpatient unit was also fully remodeled to create a more efficient workflow. The renovated core space includes a new teaming station, medication room, nourishment area, clean supply rooms, soiled holding rooms, and a sub-teaming station. The 1960s-era patient rooms have been brought up to current best-practice standards to provide state-of-the-art care that prioritizes comfort and safety all while working within the confines of the existing facility.
  • The design team worked with Crete Area Medical Center in Crete, Nebraska, on a master plan exploring multiple options for expanded clinical capacity. A multi-phased renovation of the existing family practice clinic and outpatient/specialty clinic only required a minor expansion to the building, while greatly enhancing outpatient capacity and throughput. The renovation also improved the current labor and delivery department by adding LDR and postpartum rooms. The project additionally included the renovation of an underutilized inpatient unit, transforming the space into a surgical services department with one operating room, one procedure room, and three recovery rooms. By strategically evaluating space needs, only a minor expansion was required to make a huge impact to the overall campus.
  • Mahaska Health in Oskaloosa, Iowa, started with a campus that had been built up by numerous additions over time. Each of these additions added a new patient entry location which had created a site that was no longer intuitive for patients to navigate. In fact, the back of house functions of the campus had become front and center upon arrival, while the primary entry was located on the back of the campus. The goal of the master facility plan was to flip the campus orientation, simplify the entry points and access, and create a simple way to navigate the building internally. The team was able to modify the circulation scheme from one single primary patient/service/staff corridor to a divided system of on-stage and off-stage circulation. The new design will enhance the brand and culture of Mahaska Health while also providing a modernized and expanded surgical platform and larger, right-sized ED and imaging departments, which will eliminate the need for mobile imaging — a huge plus.
  • Clarke County Hospital in Osceola, Iowa, initially engaged BWBR to update their facility as part of their federal government funding for COVID-19. This led to additional renovations throughout the hospital, including the cafe and kitchen, materials management, and pre- and post-surgery spaces. By improving both the infrastructure and the aesthetics of this aging facility, the team was able to maximize positive impact to the campus with minimal resources, empowering Clarke County Hospital to provide the very best care to their patients and community.

The common thread between all of these projects (and many others!) is BWBR’s desire to partner with our clients to make big impact with modest resources. Our team understands the nuance and uniqueness of Critical Access Hospitals, which allows us to optimize operational efficiencies and create the most value possible for our clients. We love breathing new life into these campuses and facilities, enabling them to provide continued positive impact for the communities and patients they serve.

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Putting Lab Design Under the Microscope at BWBR

The folks in lab design at BWBR have no trouble seeing common ground between their work as designers and their scientist clients’ work. In both cases, it’s about coming up with innovative, out-of-the-box, and creative solutions to intricate technical challenges.

Newly-appointed BWBR President and CEO Terri Ulrick, and Brian Lapham and Nate Roisen, both Senior Project Managers, are all highly experienced in lab planning. They excel at blending the technical side of planning functional environments with inspiring aesthetics, collaborating with scientists across markets and industries. Their job: Create spaces where scientific exploration flourishes.

What’s it like being a lab designer? What types of spaces do they design for? What makes lab design such a fun challenge? And how is it to work in a field that is changing so much so quickly? We covered all that and more in this fascinating conversation.

Whose Lab is it Anyway?

When you hear the word “lab,” you might picture your science class from school, or you might imagine a high-tech R&D facility for a major corporation—and either would be correct. BWBR designs labs for both higher education and corporate settings. We work on buildings dedicated to a single subdiscipline, as well as where multiple subdisciplines need to coexist seamlessly together. In a corporate setting, there might be an entire lab dedicated to a single product or project, or dozens of projects in progress simultaneously.

In short, there’s a vast range of applications for lab design, and no two projects are exactly alike. As Nate explains, in some design fields, there’s an opportunity for some replication between projects—you figure out what works within a given scenario and apply that framework to the next project so you can dive straight into the details. That’s not the case in lab design. While the team takes their previous experience into each new project, each space is completely customized down to the most intricate details.

Digging into the Details

In a lab setting, the details are critical. That’s true whether it’s a lab designed for microbiology, chemistry, engineering, or one of the myriad other subdisciplines. It’s true whether it’s a student running their first experiment or a highly trained specialist looking to make a significant breakthrough.

In most lab settings, there’s a challenging mix of static equipment, dynamic equipment, people, and materials. Hazardous waste is often produced, along with considerations of ventilation, humidity, light exposure, temperature, compressed air, high-voltage power, and other environmental and safety factors. Certain materials are strictly regulated regarding how they can be transported, stored, and removed, and all of this affects the flow of a space.

In an academic setting, designers need to accommodate flexible spaces for observation, learning, and doing, as well as potentially replicating real-life working laboratory environments. “This is the place where graduate and undergraduate students are learning the science for the very first time. These labs not only have to be able to do the science in them, but also hold a class of students,” Brian says. Meanwhile, in a corporate setting, lab spaces are highly specified to manufacture and develop products by professional scientists. In these environments, it’s all about delving deeply into the scientists’ processes and workflows. The level of variance is what makes the job so dynamic and exciting.

Engineering the Perfect Puzzle

Lab planning and design can feel like one big puzzle. Scientists often have big ideas they haven’t fleshed out yet, or they aren’t sure what they need or what that might look like. That’s where the lab planners step in, sketching out the blueprint from scratch and working closely with the scientists to fit the puzzle pieces together.

But these aren’t the kind of puzzles that get lacquered and saved forever once completed. Science and technology are evolving at rapid speeds, with new ideas and processes constantly emerging. “We’ve had projects where we might be designing for a particular type of research, and then maybe that doesn’t come to fruition, and they change paths,” says Terri. Redesigning throughout the process is common in lab spaces—sometimes even after construction has begun. “Being nimble and flexible is really important,” she says. The team’s range of experience and deep understanding of how lab environments function is key to skillfully adapting while keeping designs moving.

The Ideal Formula

Although lab planning requires a special mix of creativity, flexibility, and technical skill, our team is more than up for the challenge. They pride themselves on working collaboratively with their clients as well as learning from others at BWBR. “Part of our culture at the firm is that we share with each other, so we get a lot of context from other disciplines,” Brian says. Our firm’s work in markets like healthcare and workplace can certainly bring fresh perspectives and unique strategies to help inform science and technology environments. Plus, BWBR employs two former scientists who now work as designers, and they’ve proven to be a great resource in helping the team bridge the gap between design and science.

Of course, design itself is both art and science. Precision is essential, especially for a lab project, but the team doesn’t forget aesthetics. “We want to create spaces that are highly functional but also that inspire,” Terri says. It’s essential that labs are comfortable, pleasing environments that students and professionals enjoy spending time in and that fully support their holistic needs.

The Future of Lab Planning

What’s coming down the road for lab planning? That depends. As we all know, the landscape is changing rapidly on multiple fronts. The team at BWBR challenges themselves to keep pace with the evolving industry, but they also know they need to stay adaptable. Sometimes, that means building space intended to accommodate lab projects for decades to come. Sometimes, they need to develop a design that can be executed immediately so a corporation can promptly get a product to market.

It’s no wonder this field attracts top talents who thrive on challenges and constant change. “Lab planning is really fun, whether you’re thinking about the visual character of the spaces or getting into the puzzle of a workflow in the programming process.” Nate says. “I have a tough time imagining a job that’s more fun than the one I get to do every day.”