Behind the scenes

What's the difference between spatial and engineering  coordination? How about the security of supply? Heinz Thommen talks about this and more in the following interview.


Heinz Thommen, coordination-head, building technology, SYTEK AG

Heinz Thommen, you are in charge of coordinating the building technology. What exactly does this involve?

Coordination in this context is two things, mainly. One is spatial coordination. This is about how to integrate and coordinate the various systems that make up building services, making the most efficient use of the space available – I’m talking about heating, ventilation, air-conditioning (HVAC) and plumbing, and also about electrical, building automation and refrigeration systems for Gastronomy.

Then, there is engineering coordination. This has four elements to it: coordinating all interfaces and schedules, from start to finish, and coordinating costs and ultimately quality within the building technology project. First and foremost, this coordination role is a lead mandate to manage the various building services for optimal process flow, at the engineering level.

How many engineers do you coordinate at the planning and implementation stages?

This may sound like a lot, but there are "only" 20-25 planning specialists, at certain stages 30, perhaps. Being the engineering coordinator, I only deal with the head of each specialist area, and there’s usually no more than ten of those.

Where are people most likely to find you, in your office or on the construction site?

My quick answer to that is, neither of the above. Of course, I do spend time at the office, on and off, and also on the construction site. More often than not, though, you’ll find me in meeting rooms. During the planning phase, I’d be in meetings with the architects. Now, in the implementation phase, I’m mostly in the meeting room in the container office on-site.

How closely do you work with the architects? How does their planning affect your work, and vice-versa?

I work very closely with the architects. As you might expect, there's planning to be done even before a building project enters the planning phase proper. With SRN, we were involved already in the competition phase. We advised the architects – considering their concept - on how best to integrate the building technology into the project/building. Very often, architects have ambitious expectations. In practice, for us, this often means having to go back to the drawing board to redesign the engineering so the building technology will fit squarely with the architectural design.

It’s often said that architects are mainly concerned with the aesthetics of their designs, sometimes making the engineering of the buildings a challenge. Has this been your experience?

That's a good question! Basically, there’s always some solution. Building technology by definition is very adaptable, after all. Very often, though, the architects will have a specific idea of what they want, and it is the engineers’ job to work out how to achieve this.

In the SRN project, these roles were sometimes reversed, actually. For example, we were instructed to engineer the building with a back-up or fail-over power system, which works much like an emergency power system. A system like that is guaranteed to switch over from Zurich city grid power (EWZ) in the event of an outage. In SRN, this system was planned as a rooftop design originally, for the ideal spot this would have been from an engineering point of view. As the planning progressed, it became clear that the rooftop design on the fifth facade – which is another name for a roofs cape – would negatively impact the visual experience of SRN at this exposed urban site. So the back-up power system was moved inside the building. With that, and by modifying the architectural layouts for the lower levels and also making changes to the landscaping, we made this new engineering solution possible.

Are there further interfaces with other systems?

In addition to the HVAC and electrical systems, there’s also the building automation to bear in mind. And it’s with building automation that we have major interfaces with everything from AV to stage systems. Then, we have interfaces with refrigeration systems for Gastronomy, also with safety and security systems, and so on. Here, again, it is the engineering coordinator’s job to find optimised solutions in liaising between building technology and architecture needs.

What’s also special about this building is that its specifications include ensuring security of supply for several days using an autonomous power source. This means that the building will have to be self-sufficient in the event of a primary source of energy becoming unavailable, such as if EWZ grid power is out. In addition, the communication systems in the building will have to be kept in service, including the related cooling systems. As you know, we’ll be using lake water as the cooling medium for cooling the building. If also unavailable, this cooling medium, too, will have to be replaced in line with supply autonomy standards. This will be done using back-up cooling systems. In other words, if Zurich were to experience a blackout of the sort seen in New York City some years ago, the SRN building, and with it the business, could keep going regardless for several days.

Which project phase are you in right now? And is everything going according to plan?

Right now, we’re in the hottest phase there is in constructing a building, as we're in the middle of commissioning SRN. Specifically, we're testing plants and systems. We first need to connect the primary systems, obviously, and this means connecting the building or generating power in-house. In a next phase, we then start up the secondary systems together with the building automation systems. These are above all the systems that users are directly exposed to, including the lighting, room climate, shading and so on.

It’s such a complex process, there isn’t a building where it’s ever worked 100% according to plan (he says, laughing). But we’re still on track to deliver on schedule.

Will your work be done once the employees move in?

Basically, yes, if you look at it from a conventional contractor perspective. Swiss Re took the long view, though, and was exemplary in instructing the general planning team to go on assisting SRN operations for another two years to fine-tune operations and processes. During the planning phase, we worked with theoretical assumptions, obviously, such as X number of employees using the building and Y number of workstations and so on. Based on all of this input, we then calculated and designed the technical installations. Once a building is in operation, though, actual data often diverge from the planning assumptions. That’s why we’ll continue working very closely with the operations management even after the building is commissioned and handed over, so we can adjust the plants and systems and fine-tune their operation.

Can you tell us what part of your job has been the biggest challenge for you?

There were or are two main aspects. One is the very structure of the building that proved challenging for us. A normal building will have its office space on the upper levels and utility systems or parking on the lower levels. In SRN, we have a mixed-use situation, with large tracts on the second lower level housing the auditorium along with its foyer and back-office rooms.

The second aspect, or challenge, is only about to start. After the commissioning, there is a whole battery of integral tests which, given the complexity of the building requirements, will also involve a certain amount of nail-biting. Will everything run in concert interrelated, as we planned?

What is special about Swiss Re Next, as you see it?

That would be all the specifications in combination with the architecture and the site. What’s also unusual, but very helpful, is that many of the specialist people involved in the planning have been on the project from day one. Having this level of continuity in a general planning team does play a part in successfully delivering an optimal building.