Widgets Magazine


Slipping through the Cracks, Part I: What’s Huang with this Picture?

This column is the first part of a two-part series. The next segment will run next week.

“Inside any building you’ll find war stories,” Stanford Y2E2 Project Engineer Forest Peterson dramatically delivers in a recent meeting, and this line holds more truth than drama. In the building industry, the story of every building is ripe with tales of deadlines missed, costly mistakes and a final product that doesn’t always match its original plans. Stanford’s Yang-Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (Y2E2) was no exception.

This building on the Engineering Quad was designed with numerous energy-saving components to make it the most energy-efficient building on Stanford’s campus. Most importantly, it would use less energy than a comparable building – say, a lab building of about the same size – that was designed merely to meet building codes and didn’t strive for high performance.

Y2E2 has been pretty successful, according to analyses run by Stanford Building Management, as well as those of graduate and postdoc students associated with the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering. Their extensive analyses have shown that Y2E2 is indeed saving about 40 percent of the energy needed to run a comparable building.  Furthermore, the building’s actual energy usage comes pretty close to its predicted performance – something that is much rarer than it should be in the building industry.

But the building is not without its scars. Sloppy and rushed work created many cosmetic issues throughout the building and one fairly large structural error that could have been avoided.

The building is designed to have four atria; each atrium has a skylight, numerous conference rooms, a big open space from the basement all the way up to the roof, and a different color associated with it to make the building, as a whole, more navigable. But honestly, I’ve been in Y2E2 many, many times, having taken several classes there – and I still find it to be one of the most confusing buildings I’ve ever stepped inside.

In the first atrium, you can plainly see discolored square patches on the ground by the railings where safety rails were put in place for the construction crew, pulled out once construction was complete, and then filled in. Then there’s the cracks all over the concrete, the exposed pipes and ducts throughout the entire facility, and the numerous plugs and light switches that may or may not work. No, really – in Y2E2, some plugs and light switches really do not work.

None of these cosmetic problems are really even problems, though. So what if there’s some cracks in the concrete? Or if I can see some pipes overhead? The building is still very functional and high performing. But there are larger problems lying underneath the building – both literally and figuratively.

One large issue that arose during construction concerned the steel supports in the basement of Y2E2. Nearly everyone has heard at some point or another how triangles are the most stable support structure – because of which most buildings include the triangle in their supporting trusses. For whatever reason, the contractors of the building had the triangular trusses constructed so that at the very base of the structure, the triangle would point into the ground, instead of resting along one of its flat sides point up.

I’m no engineering expert, but luckily Peterson is. He informed me the builders had to add large pieces of sheet metal to the triangular trusses to bind them to supporting columns in order to keep the building together should a seismic event occur. Overall, this generated a waste of time and resources. More worryingly, the actual structural stability of this configuration is unknown because it was not tested extensively. This is cause for some alarm.

Realistically, I think it’s safe to say that Y2E2 will not come crumbling down around us in the near future. Furthermore, I would like to think that a building could not be erected without proper load testing first.

But serious mistakes happen in building and construction all the time, particularly when there is a lack of communication and good project management. “But that’s silly,” you’re thinking. “How could there possibly be this big of a miscommunication on a project like this? On a project run by Stanford?!”

The sad truth is, miscommunications run rampant on building projects among the many different groups involved in the project. Even a project commissioned or owned by Stanford could be riddled with these kinds of problems.

Traditionally, building projects are broken into many different pieces, and a different expert or group handles each piece separately. An architect designs the building, a structural engineer tweaks the design, a construction company is hired to build according to the blueprints and a general contractor oversees the material acquisition and construction. Over the course of the project, these different parties will interact only sporadically.

This means information is not flowing freely or quickly. It’s easy to see how some things could slip right through the cracks and no one, or at least a majority of the stakeholders involved, would be the wiser. Conversely, information lost in translation can manifest itself as one big, blatant, costly mistake.

The problem is that a building is a large, complex product that requires a bunch of different people with different areas of expertise. In turn, the building industry has evolved to make the building process really quite inefficient. However, more and more project management and organization strategies have emerged to combat the wasted time and resources that characterize the building industry. And these management strategies have emerged right here at Stanford.

Contact Haley Sims at hsims@stanford.edu.