SCIFs, clean rooms, secure facilities present unique challenges for contractors
Almost every Christmas, the skills of a little-known division of Lewis Contractors shine during a novel holiday festivity. At the company’s holiday party (when such gatherings are permitted), organizers post a periodic table on one wall and place stickers beside element names to show the types of utility lines that project superintendents have installed the previous year.
“So if someone runs a liquid nitrogen line, they get a sticker in the N square. For a helium line, they put a sticker in the He square,” said Tyler Tate, President.
Superintendents who have worked on clean rooms and other secure facilities for the company’s advanced technology projects division, soon dominate the game.
“When we start getting into industrial gases and industrial acids that are used in some advanced manufacturing, you get a good swath of the periodic table covered pretty quickly,” Tate said.
Fun, a little nerdy and a camaraderie builder, the activity also demonstrates that when “you build clean rooms for advanced technology research and manufacturing facilities, you must be familiar and skilled with a host of building utilities and systems that you don’t often encounter in customary construction,” he added.
Construction of clean rooms, SCIFs (secure compartmented information facilities), SSAs (sensitive secure areas) and other highly secured facilities is a significant and growing specialty within the Greater Baltimore-Washington market. The presence of federal facilities, foreign embassies and government contractors has always created demand for highly secure construction. But major growth of cyber security operations and investment in research, development and manufacturing in life sciences, medical devices, semi-conductors and other technology is both driving up the number of secure facilities required and elevating the standards that must be met in those projects.
Thriving in this specialty requires contractors, subs and site workers to master a learning curve. Project team members require training and often certifications in overall standards for construction of SCIFs, clean rooms and other secure facilities, as well as certification in distinctive components, such as high-security locks and highly specialized filtration and air-quality monitoring systems.
“There is a lot of specialized equipment in clean rooms that you don’t find anywhere else. Even common things, like walls and ceilings, are specialized,” Tate said. “In a clean room, you are not installing drywall. You are probably installing aluminum honeycomb panels. Instead of acoustic ceiling tiles, you are installing clean room ceiling panels which, are often gasketed.”
Clean room project teams must adjust to a dramatically different sequence of construction (for example, installing floors early to reduce construction dust) and a methodical, phased process of ensuring site cleanliness through cleaning protocols, specified construction practices and extensive use of hats, beard covers, booties and other personal protective equipment.
SCIFs require equally complex but very different features, technologies and construction protocols.
To prevent any form of eavesdropping, SCIFs may include “radio frequency reflective foil in the wall partition to block electronic eavesdropping,” Tate said. “You have dielectric breaks or physical breaks in the design. If you have an aluminum tube shielding a fire alarm line that has to penetrate the SCIF, you put a break in that tube so someone can’t put a listening device to the unsecured portion and hear frequencies conducted from inside the SCIF. If there is HVAC ductwork that has to be connected to the SCIF, you might put sound baffles or actual bars inside the duct to prevent any physical intrusion.”
Although project plans may include ISO standards for clean rooms, federal requirements for SCIFs or other established facilities standards, each project involves a unique design, protocol and challenges.
“These are not cookie cutter projects even though there are some prescriptive requirements,” said Ed Hubner, Principal at EBL Engineers. “You are always tackling something different. You know what type and level of protection the client wants, but then you have to find the best technology to meet that requirement.”
EBL has worked on numerous facilities for the U.S. military, federal agencies and embassies, as well projects involving security requirements for other clients. Federal facilities typically require force protection measures which can range from physical barriers and intrusion-detection systems to “strengthening older, concrete buildings with carbon fiber and blast-proof windows,” Hubner said. Some high-security buildings require filtration systems capable of handling noxious chemicals or radiation.
Fortunately, “some Department of Defense technologies are becoming available for private use. That is making projects easier,” Hubner said.
Staying informed about new technologies, whether they are products privatized by DoD or new inventions employed in commercial or academic labs, is key to thriving in secure-facility construction. Clients often function in highly specialized and cutting-edge work, and periodically need to upgrade their clean rooms, SCIFs and other spaces simply to keep up with their own innovation. Those upgrades challenge construction teams to meet higher standards.
“Particularly in electronics and semi-conductors, products keep getting more refined. Components get smaller and more sensitive, and some firms are beginning to get into technologies we would not have talked about 15 years ago, like quantum computing,” Tate said. “As we see advances in semi-conductors and bio-pharma research, the tolerances for contaminants in these spaces will become lower and lower.”
The effort required to excel at secure-facility construction, however, is worthwhile, Tate said. “Sometimes you will read about research in a scientific journal and realize it is being conducted in a facility we built. In a small and humble way, we played a role in that innovation. I remind our people that our work has touched the space program and that has helped other people do work that touches other planets and moons. That is tremendously rewarding.”