Six facility improvements to boost productivity

Marc C. Rohde, AIA, LEED AP, Director of Municipal Architecture, Legat Architects, Inc., Oak Brook, Illinois; Douglas J. Ogurek, LEED AP, Communications Manager, Legat Architects, Inc., Waukegan, Illinois

Public works organizations share a common challenge: to serve their communities as effectively and economically as possible. The facility and its spaces (type, organization, quality) impact the department's ability to meet this challenge.

Following are six improvements that administrators can apply to the short- and long-term planning of their facilities. The results: enhanced operational efficiencies, improved community service, and increased staff productivity and retention.

1. Consolidate and Organize
As municipalities matured over the last 50 years, public works departments grew. But lack of a master plan to guide them led to disconnected buildings, scattered equipment and personnel, and inefficient layouts. These shortcomings hindered departments' ability to serve their communities effectively.

Departments that unite and properly organize all functions eliminate these deficiencies...and save time and money doing so.

The Elmhurst (IL) Public Works Department had equipment and facilities scattered over an 11-acre site. This ad hoc layout made managing the facility difficult, according to Mike Hughes, Director of Public Works. "In winter, if I wanted to visit a superintendent, I'd have to get my boots and coat on and walk across the campus," he said.

A facility that houses all employees and vehicles under one roof brings organization and efficiency to the Elmhurst Public Works Department.

A new 112,000-square-foot facility consolidates all departments and equipment under one roof and organizes them to promote easier interaction. Hughes says that more accessible equipment and the proper adjacencies of work groups have dramatically improved communication and efficiencies.

The Village of Algonquin (IL) had an even more dispersed operation. Robert Mitchard II, Public Works Director, says, "We started buying up houses in the neighborhood to accommodate our staff."

A new, 67,000-square-foot facility houses all employees and equipment under one roof. It organizes staff much more effectively. Linear shops have direct access to the vehicle storage area. Across the corridor, a wedge-shaped administrative wing includes offices, an employee lunch/training area, and locker rooms. The design also designates two places for future expansion.

Safe and efficient traffic flow also brings order to the public works site. At Algonquin, for instance, operational trucks never encroach on public areas. A public drive leads administrative staff and visitors to a front parking lot. A separate entry leads to the yard, storage bins, etc.

2. Modernize Your Equipment Maintenance Facility
When maintenance facilities lag, public works departments lag. Undersized vehicle lifts and low ceilings slow down maintenance staff and increase the chances of injury. Dated fluid storage equipment compounds the problem. Employees get aggravated.

Twenty-four-foot ceilings and three different lift sizes enable the Elmhurst Public Works Department to service every vehicle the City owns.

Public works departments can avoid these problems by installing a variety of vehicle lift sizes, ensuring ceilings are high enough (typically 22-feet minimum) to raise booms, and modernizing fluids distribution areas.

The Elmhurst fleet maintenance area includes eight work bays, six of which have in-ground lifts (i.e., two 9,000 lb., two 36,000 lb. and two 75,000 lb.) and a 24-foot-high ceiling. Hughes says, "We can now lift and service, in a standing position, every vehicle that the City maintains. It speeds things up and reduces the chances of an injury."

Fifty-gallon fluid drums were stationed all around Elmhurst's old facility. Today, a state-of-the-art fluid distribution room allows for proper storage and efficient lubricant delivery. Additionally, in case of a spill, the recessed floor in the fluids room functions as a containment system, helping to minimize what could be a messy situation.

3. Heat Your Fleet
In many regions, when fleets outgrow enclosed vehicle storage capacity, winter pounces.
It tears into productivity and finances. It eats away the useful life of exposed vehicles. It gobbles fuel and forces staff to wait around while their vehicles warm up. It also deters pre-trip inspections; who wants to check a vehicle when the wind chill is 20 below zero? Exposed vehicles are also subject to vandalism or even theft.

Enclosed heated storage extends vehicle life and keeps vehicles where they belong—out on the road, so departments can serve their communities more economically. Also, by reducing warmup times, enclosed storage reduces the impact on the environment.

A few winters ago, you might have seen an employee hosing down a dump truck outside the maintenance facility at Arlington Heights' (IL) L.A. Hanson Public Works Center. Hanging from the facility behind him were icicles. Seventy percent of public works vehicles sat outside, unprotected from the elements.

Additions and renovations brought an 86,000-square-foot heated storage garage that enables the Village to maintain all of its 271 vehicles. Mike Reynolds, Superintendent of Maintenance, says, "It's resulted in much better fuel efficiency and cut downtime dramatically."

4. Honor the Unsung Heroes
"Functionality" and "bare bones" are words that we hear often in public works facility design and construction. But in the quest to get no-frills structures for the lowest possible price, municipalities sometimes neglect the public works department's greatest asset: its employees.

A cold, dark, undersized workplace hurts employee morale and productivity. Public works employees, the community's unsung heroes, deserve more than a lair. Employee-responsive facilities increase productivity, retain valued employees, and attract new staff.

Natural light fills a corridor along the shops at the Algonquin Public Works Facility.

The Village of Algonquin (IL) has a durable new facility designed with employees in mind. Mitchard says, "There isn't an office in the building that doesn't have access to natural light, fresh air, and a nice view. It's a very open and upbeat environment." He adds that employees are particularly fond of a light-filled arched corridor through which they can access shops.

Another highlight is the administrative area. "Because of the slope of the land," says Mitchard, "the office staff has good views of the beautiful Fox River Valley below."

The Algonquin facility also respects taxpayers by eliminating wasted space. Unlike a lunch room only used for a couple hours each day, a multi-purpose room performs a variety of functions throughout the day. This room features exposed wood rafters, a sink and counters, a refrigerator, a TV, indirect lighting, and a sloped exposed acoustical ceiling deck.

Another good way to keep employees happy is to involve them in the design of the facility. At Algonquin, we met with administrators and division superintendents to determine needs. Their input proved instrumental for the program, including rooms needed and adjacencies between rooms and divisions. Mitchard says, "[The employees] feel a strong sense of ownership with this facility, and do an excellent job of maintaining it. It looks as good today as it did the day we moved in."

5. Be a Good Neighbor
Traditionally, public works facilities were located off the beaten path. But today, many stand amid industrial parks, retail developments, and residential neighborhoods. Nobody wants to look across the street to see a 30-foot-high, flat-roofed, gray, concrete, windowless, warehouse-like box looming over them.

Facilities that respect their surroundings please residents, impress visitors, and position the public works department as a vital part of the community.

The property that the City of Elmhurst purchased for its new public works facility was located at the edge of an industrial park and adjacent to a residential area. With input from residents and a creative design, the City was able to construct a facility that serves as an excellent buffer between an industrial area and a residential neighborhood.

A flat-roofed, Prairie-style administration building energizes the Arlington Heights L.A. Hanson Public Works site and pleases neighbors.

Rust and dents covered the metal buildings that dotted Arlington Heights' original public works campus. The imaged clashed with the surrounding homes. Additions and renovations removed unsightly metal buildings, preserved brick structure, added new facilities, and linked everything together to create a complete structure. A warm, prairie-style administration building echoes the historic image of the downtown.

Public works departments can play down the size of their facilities by wrapping lower buildings around taller ones. At Arlington Heights, 12- to 18-foot buildings surround the 24-foot maintenance facility. Reynolds says, "It hides the garage well, and shows a much less intimidating face to the community."

Arlington Heights also made wise use of taxpayer dollars by spending more on public areas and less on private ones. The administrative building, which faces the neighborhood, has much more architectural detailing. For instance, the columns feature cast stone medallions with the village logo. The vehicle storage and shop areas, set back from the street, are more basic.

Visitors get frustrated when they pull into a public works site and have no idea where to go. A clearly-defined entry in a prominent location avoids this problem. Arlington Heights' administrative building greets visitors as they pull through the gate. The building's placement, style and canopy clearly indicate it is the main entry.

6. Play It Safe
The emphasis on Homeland Security has carried over to public works facilities. The question becomes: How do you get a well-protected facility that doesn't look like a fortress?

It starts by setting the building back from the edge of parking. Bollards, benches, and raised planters (typically concrete) deter vehicular assaults. A variety of techniques, from modern technologies (e.g., card access security systems) to classic barriers (e.g., brick or concrete walls), provide extra layers of security.

Bullet-proof windows in key control areas bring light in and keep criminals out. The bullet-proof glass at Arlington Heights' SCADA room enables light to enter, and safeguards water distribution for 78,000 people.

Cities and villages should also consider housing an Emergency Operations Center in the basement of their public works facility for two reasons. First, public works facilities are usually more secluded than other municipal facilities, making them a better refuge. Second, the function of the facility makes its less of a target.

Prepare to Succeed
Benjamin Franklin said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing for failure." Valuable advice for today's cities and villages when it comes to public works campuses.

Although departments that heed the above recommendations will see improvements, they need a point of reference. A good place to start is a campus master plan and space needs analysis. These studies enable the department and its architect to discuss and respond to what's working, what isn't, and what the community's future looks like. Reynolds says, "I highly recommend spending the time and dollars on the preliminary planning. It was critical for the successes we've achieved."

Marc C. Rohde can be reached at (630) 645-1926 or; Douglas J. Ogurek can be reached at (847) 406-1141 or