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Design Control Rooms Right

Aug. 2, 2021
Follow three steps to get the best results when upgrading or building a new facility

Any company planning to renovate an out-of-date control room or construct a new operations facility, perhaps to consolidate or extend its remote operations, should pay close attention to the design. We certainly think there’s a “right” approach to control room design; we have spent our careers promoting “ISO 11064 — Ergonomic Design of Control Centres” and the importance of designing an operations facility from the operator outwards. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many projects that we feel took the “wrong” approach. We’re not saying there’s a single “right” approach to design. Rather, we firmly believe that you must do a few things if you want a successful project.

First, let’s define what we consider a successful project. It must come in on time and under budget, of course. In addition, the facility, whether a renovation or a new building, must satisfy several other criteria:

• The mission-critical operators have a work environment that’s comfortable, efficient, free of distractions, and optimizes situational awareness (Figure 1).
• The facility provides adjacent rooms and services necessary to enhance operator effectiveness. Depending on the operating company, requirements may include, e.g., a cafeteria, collaboration rooms, an exercise room, access to engineering support, etc.
• It affords appropriate entry and egress, along with security to protect the people and the operation.
• The facility is well lit, with lighting that addresses human needs for circadian rhythm as well as ambient and task needs as understood by the latest research.
• The consoles are appropriate for the work and offer comfortable monitor viewing and convenience as well as accessibility for operator technology needs.
• The facility is quiet, with soft surfaces to absorb sound and ensure noise levels remain within the appropriate target levels throughout each shift.
• The design enables easy maintenance — without operator distraction.
• The facility is aesthetically pleasing and strikes the right balance with materials and design between cost and the needs for utility and durability.

Efficient And Effective Environment

Figure 1. Putting the needs of the operator at the forefront of the design process leads to a control room that optimizes performance.

When designed properly, applying ISO 11064 standards, a successful control room gives the operators an environment of situational awareness suitable for timely response to issues. This equates to a safe, well-thought-out control room environment that should reduce incidents and allow operators to more easily react to and address any incidents that do arise.

Adapting To The Times

The world of 2021 continues to surprise us. The speed of technology changes has accelerated in areas that traditionally have been conservative and slow to adapt. In a recent article in Hydrocarbon Processing, Sergio Fernandes of Yokogawa noted: “The chemical industry continues to look to the future, while embracing the revolution that autonomous operations will bring. The critical need for safer, more reliable, more profitable and more sustainable operations requires a smart balance when deploying human resources in an industrial environment.” We agree completely and believe our suggestions on how to design control rooms align with this.

While the chemical industry is beginning to appreciate how technology can enhance operations, technology alone — without a plan, proper training and appropriate information analysis — sometimes can make things worse. Nevertheless, some people still look for the silver bullet, the quick fix, the latest software app that promises some measure of improved productivity or reliability. Instead, companies must adopt a smart balanced approach to applying new technology.

Control room design faces similar issues. Designers frequently are viewed as rather staid and cautious; examples abound of organizations wanting to take short cuts in the design. For instance, the architecture and design of control rooms often starts with a request for proposal for an ergonomic study; that’s generally a good thing — but not always.

The completed study should provide a thorough analysis and benchmarking of the control room’s functionality against ISO 11064 and help the client understand what it has and needs, and what the gaps are.

However, we are seeing requests for ergonomic studies on control rooms that have been designed without putting the requirements of the operator at the forefront, as called for by ISO 11064. The aim is that we provide a “rubber stamp” approval of the design and assure the company’s management that they will get all the benefits of a well-designed control facility. We’re not saying that approach necessarily leads to a bad or poorly designed control room. However, looking at a design alone isn’t enough to evaluate whether a control room will wind up successful or unproductive, and whether or not it was designed to meet ISO 11064.

First, ISO 11064 defines a process, not an end state. If the process — a bottom-up definition of the requirements starting with the operator — wasn’t implemented to begin with in the control room design, a review of the completed design won’t improve anything. ISO 11064 Part 1 is the most critical and important part of the standard; it explains the user-centered approach as a foundation for the design. It describes the necessary process, which isn’t merely a checklist to achieve the goals. It is a thorough methodology to design a safe resilient control room where situational awareness is the priority, not an afterthought.

A Proper Process

Following three steps will help ensure getting an optimum facility.

Step 1 — Understand what you have, what you want and what you need. Our extensive experience designing control rooms and operations facilities for some of the most-demanding mission-critical environments has underscored the importance of starting the process with an operations assessment. This is a comprehensive evaluation of the control room starting with the operation requirements and including ergonomics, human factors, workflow, building and room design and layout, lighting, acoustics and finishes. It makes sense both for a new facility or the revamp of an existing control room.

We encourage you to employ an experienced control room design firm that has a credentialed human factors specialist on staff. To effectively evaluate what’s needed in a control room or operation building requires nothing short of a comprehensive understanding of the work to be done in that room by the people who will work there and the people who will interact with the people who work there.

Once you have a clear picture of the current situation, you should think about what you and your operations team want. What are the priorities of the operators and of management? What are the budget limitations, space constraints and technology issues? Will there be new risks? What are the implications to safety and productivity? Are you hoping the control room will help you to retain operations talent? These are questions that only the organization itself can answer. However, a good architecture and design firm can facilitate discussions to quickly understand the true wants and priorities.

Finally, what do you need? Today, that usually includes flexible console design with more operator-friendly attributes and improved cable management and maintenance features; lighting that addresses human needs for task, ambient and circadian, with minimal reflective services and harsh blue lights; and enough space for the operator to function with proper situational awareness and without distraction by noise, people and other visual elements. Technology offers new options for improving control room design with each passing year. So, make sure you consult a firm that can provide a clear and current rundown.

Step 2 — Integrate the learnings from Step 1 into a schematic design. Clients often are surprised by how quickly a 15% schematic design comes together once Step 1 is complete and understood. This isn’t magic, and isn’t done in a dark room by a junior architect hoping to build name recognition. Rather, if the client gathers the information for Step 1 using a cross-functional team consisting of operations, safety, engineering, maintenance and facilities management, then an effective design and architecture firm with human factors engineering capabilities should be able to facilitate a work process that will drive to consensus on the floor plan within a few weeks.

Step 3 — Continue the cycle of review, educate and design — hand in hand with your design and architect firm. This step can vary in number of weeks and intensity, depending on whether the project is for a renovation or a new control room. The cycle repeats itself. Some clients want design reviews at 30%, 50%, 90% and 100% completion of drawings. Others are willing to condense the cycle to just one or two review cycles. Regardless, it is an iterative process and one that involves education — in which an experienced design and architecture firm will share options and explain the value and tradeoffs. Each review may lead to adjustments. This approach concludes with the delivery of full final construction drawings.

Take The Right Approach

We think it’s worth repeating that designing a control room is a complex undertaking. Each design demands consideration of literally thousands of variables to ensure an optimum outcome. And there’s no such thing as a “rubber stamp” for ISO 11064 compliance. Designing a control room involves a series of decisions and tradeoffs while dealing with constraints — human, fiscal and risk-based. Whether you are designing a new control room or improving one you have, the key takeaway is to follow the process properly. Cutting corners only will increase your risk and, therefore, costs in the long run.

Advocating for taking the “right” approach to control room design sometimes feels like a thankless task. We’ve spent our careers promoting ISO 11064 and the importance of designing an operations facility from the operator outwards. Some clients tend to treat specialized architectural design services as costly and unnecessary but we would argue that, like with chemical engineering, automation engineering and information technology, an experienced partner with expertise and knowledge in a specialized area provides value and contributes to risk reduction and cost savings in the long run.

BRAD A. WALKER is an architect, president and founding principal of BAW Architecture, Littleton, Colo. PEGGY A. HEWITT is a Kingston, Ontario-based independent consultant as well as business development and marketing leader for BAW Architecture. Email them at [email protected] and [email protected].

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