By Mary Hart, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, MBA
When I hear the words "Command Center," I am constantly reminded of my early military days as a communications officer. I was a second lieutenant in the California National Guard. My first time in the field was at Fort Irwin, California. We had set up a communications site to support the combat troops for annual summer training. We provided the radio and telephone communications to several of their Tactical Operations Centers, allowing them to communicate throughout the area. It was 1990, so the technology was nothing like what we see today but was considered critical infrastructure to support the soldiers. What an eye-opening experience that was, on so many levels.
Fast forward to my first deployment in 2000 to Bosnia-Herzegovina. I oversaw a team to install and maintain our secure communications systems in support of the peacekeeping mission. We were in an old, dusty building with a room converted to serve as our operations center. There was a big steel door with an electronic keypad for entry. We had to cover our screens and maps when the maintenance staff came in. Plywood partitions separated everyone, presumably for acoustics. I recall wondering how they could function in such a divided space, so we updated the room to be more open. I used PowerPoint to develop a new space plan as part of the effort since I didn't have access to any drawing software. We moved outside to a tent, refinished the floor (which was a beautiful hardwood), and had the local nationals build new plywood workstations that lined the room walls. The center of the space was converted to bench seating to accommodate the twice-daily briefings for the commander. The new environment allowed everyone to see the screens that monitored the communications network, and we could quickly work through any issues with the open plan. It was an important experience and has a lot of similar design considerations that I still use today.
Corgan's control center expertise is rooted in our deep understanding of mission-critical architecture and our data center practice. Our clients include airports and airlines, utility companies, commercial businesses, and data centers. This experience goes back over two decades but is rooted in one simple principle: provide a great design that supports the user and the infrastructure. The most important single requirement is having the ability to collaborate across an open space. These buildings are for people and machines, or as my former boss and mentor at Corgan, Brian George, used to say, "silicon and carbon-based life forms."
One of our largest control centers is the American Airline Integrated Operations Center. The control center handles all of American Airlines day of departure operations. The column bays are 90' x 90', providing unobstructed views across the space for collaboration and monitoring. There is also an elevated platform war room dedicated to crisis intervention. This room has a clear view of the entire control center floor with controlled access and extensive audio-visual capabilities. The building employs resiliency principles that include hardening for winds associated with an EF-3 tornado (185mph) and glass that is projectile resistant, allowing the entire facility to function in severe weather. The data cable required to support the facility if strung in a single line was over 40 miles long.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the severe winter weather we experienced in February have caused us immediately to question the control center's future. How does this project type evolve to support the changing landscape of our work environment? What happens when everything is down? While it may seem that the virtual world is the new normal, the ability to collaborate and manage a crisis requires a hands-on approach and the ability to communicate effectively. The limitations on bandwidth, power, and personal access still demand a dedicated space to manage this interaction. Using a familiar military phrase, having "boots on the ground" is always best. Trying to monitor the system from afar is not the same. We must explore where the technology is taking us and anticipate the future of these facilities.
The fundamental core of the control center is the user experience. These are usually high-stress environments, and the space design must accommodate individual needs promptly. Amenities are a necessity when thinking of a mission-critical facility. The technology must be seamless and reliable, 24/7. The facility must be scalable, secure, and provide flexibility as technology evolves. The question becomes how we extend the technology to support the control center operations? We see utility companies looking at drones to assess outages for power lines. Boeing already uses augmented reality to help maintenance and assembly for aircraft parts, reducing assembly time by 25%. These technologies can bridge the gap between the remote technicians and the control center operators, saving both time and money. As we look to the future, we will continue to explore the boundaries of design and think outside the box, engaging our clients with data-proven research and employing agility at every turn.
Mary Hart is a Senior Practice Advisor for Corgan. Contact Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org