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Mechanical engineering and industrial buildings: Why we need to go above and beyond

October 21, 2021

By Jaimie Handscomb

Industrial projects require in-depth knowledge of ventilation guidelines. The right approach can lead to a safer facility and lower operational costs

Time to admit something: I like complicated buildings. I enjoy industrial projects. Industrial buildings intrigued me right at the beginning of my career because they’re all so different. Manufacturing facilities, automotive buildings, distilleries, chemical processing plants, warehousing fulfilment centers—I love them all.

Even buildings that have the same occupancy types and classifications can feature nuances that are complicated—and very interesting—to address. These nuances could be related to flammable liquids and vapours, combustible products and dust, hazardous airborne particulates, as well as requirements for industrial hygiene and worker health. Industrial buildings have the potential to store hazardous products or generate hazardous conditions that require specific consideration outside of most building types.

And since industrial projects can be so complicated, engineers can’t just rely on typical building standards. Industrial buildings need to be approached in a different way, with knowledge of additional standards. These facilities require a more in-depth review than typical heating, cooling, and occupancy load calculations that are found in most buildings.

ASHRAE—which stands for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers—does phenomenal work and provides outstanding standards. The ASHRAE fundamentals are some of the first standards that engineers reference when they begin the design of heating, ventilation, cooling, and filtration requirements for a building. But when it comes to industrial hygiene and industrial ventilation practices, I’d recommend to my fellow mechanical engineers and HVAC designers—as well as aspiring engineers—to take things a step further.

I realize that we all need to deliver projects in a cost-effective manner. But taking the time to design your industrial buildings properly will reduce risk. For example, you don’t want workers to develop occupational asthma from exposure to unsafe chemicals or biologicals. And you want to ensure that there’s enough ventilation to protect people from a build-up of flammable vapors.

When you approach industrial buildings properly—with a facility that’s appropriately designed for the work taking place within—it results in a safer facility with fewer risks to people and lower operational costs. A healthier environment for employees means less sick time and more productivity.

The next time you begin the mechanical engineering work on an industrial project—or when you need to review an existing building or modify a process—here are some pointers to keep in mind. 

Industrial facilities require more in-depth review than typical heating, cooling, and occupancy load calculations that are found in most buildings.

Understand the basics: What kind of facility is it?

First step: Understand how the facility will be used. Will people make, store, or fix things in the building? Learn about the products, machinery, and chemicals that will eventually live there. Find out about the processes being used in the building, such welding, machining, gluing, painting, repairing, filling, or charging.

Is your client storing hazardous products that require cooling to reduce evaporation rates of flammable vapors? Will charging electrical batteries generate hazardous liquids or gases? It’s important to know these details. This will inform requirements like air change rates, locations of supply and exhaust hoods, temperature and humidity control, and options regarding recirculation, exhaust, and filtration.

Once you ask the basic questions and learn about the building process operations, it’s wise to look at the company’s Safety Data Sheets (SDS). You can find valuable details hidden in these summary documents, which give information about product hazards and provide advice around safety precautions.

When you understand the risks of the processes and storage requirements needed within a building, you can better create a ventilation system that allows for contaminate control, flammable vapor control, and dust control.

Are you aware of all the proper ventilation guidelines for industrial buildings?

Show and tell: Share info with your team

Next, engage everyone on the design team early on to make sure that your industrial hygiene and ventilation needs are handled in a coordinated way. Don’t work in a silo. Share the information you’ve learned with your architects, engineers, and designers, because those details could affect their work (particularly electrical and structural engineering, as well as the building envelope).

Depending on the processes within the building, ventilation guidance and coordination is required between all engineering disciplines. For example, electrical engineers need to be involved to provide hazardous classification drawings to determine the rating of electrical equipment used in the space. Electrical engineers can provide guidance around ventilation requirements due to heat rejection of equipment and potential hazardous gas releases from battery charging and storage.

If you skip this step, it may lead to rework. Or worse, something important could get missed. 

Did you figure out an elegant and functional engineering solution for your industrial project? Well, don’t keep it to yourself. Share it!

Have a dialogue: Important client discussion

The next step? Have a talk about the risks and opportunities with your client. When it comes to industrial facilities, there’s no “one size fits all” solution. It’s all about weighing the code requirements, health and safety, operational needs, and economical constraints.

Ask the client about their concerns, their priorities, and how your engineering work could eventually affect their day-to-day operations. It’s vital to have that good dialogue. Otherwise, the building may not be a perfect fit for your client—even if it is safe and code compliant.

Tell a story: Providing criteria for your design

Don’t just produce a design. Create something that tells a story about how you arrived at your decisions. Document and provide your design criteria so that it’s clear to everyone involved in the project. Many people—from your client, to contractors, to the authorities that have jurisdiction like the fire department or municipal building department—will rely on your design in the future. If your design veers from a standard process, you need to explain why.

Provide a history or explanation so that it doesn’t look like your work was done in a vacuum. That way, once your work is done, you can remind people exactly why you made the decisions you did. 

As engineers and designers, we need to provide safe, functional, and cost-effective designs for our clients.

Spread the word: Share and inspire

Did you figure out an elegant and functional engineering solution for your industrial project? Well, don’t keep it to yourself. Share it! I know my colleagues in architecture do a great job of sharing their best work and I’d like to see my fellow engineers do more of that. Discuss your design with colleagues. Describe your challenges, how you resolved them, and what your client felt was most important.

Seek to inspire other engineers. Encourage people to step up their game and learn the proper standards. Along with promoting a safety-conscious approach, you’ll also provide engineers with examples of good work that they can reference when starting a new project.

Develop your reading list: Educating yourself

This is a big one: It’s important to educate yourself, your colleagues, and your clients. You need to have a proper understanding of the codes and standards that affect ventilation requirements in industrial buildings. Of course, it’s vital to know your local building, fire, and electrical codes. Aside from those codes and a knowledge of the ASHRAE fundamentals, I’d advise learning these guidelines:

  • ASHRAE Standard 62.1-2019 Ventilation for Acceptable indoor Air Quality. ASHRAE
  • Industrial Ventilation, A Manual of Recommended Practice for Design, 30th Edition, ACGIH

Pick up the books, take a course, or talk to your peers to learn more about these guidelines. These standards will help you navigate the world of industrial ventilation and keep people safe.

Jaimie Handscomb encourages mechanical engineers to share their success stories.

Taking the right approach

As engineers and designers, we need to provide safe, functional, and cost-effective designs for our clients. We must try our best to ensure the safety of building owners, occupants, and constructors. And a proper, informed approach to industrial ventilation and hygiene will lead to a safer facility with lower operational costs.

I’ve spent many years working as a project manager and mechanical engineering lead on industrial projects, and I hope you can feel my enthusiasm for this work. Contact me if you’d like to learn more about industrial building standards. 

  • Jaimie Handscomb

    Jaimie is a recognized leader in mechanical engineering design, analysis, and management of industrial and manufacturing facilities.

    Contact Jaimie
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