3 Ways an Integrated Design-Build Firm Can Improve the Food Safety of Your Next Food Manufacturing Facility

Will your new food or beverage facility be the source of a future recall? The answer could all come down to communication. I’m not talking about how well your staff on the plant floor can work together or how effective your leadership skills are as an owner. The fate of your plant can be decided well before a big ribbon is cut and your processing lines whir to life.

The food safety quality of your next facility depends on whether the people designing and constructing your plant can communicate effectively.

This may feel like something that’s outside of your control — but who you hire can be the difference between a project with streamlined communication and a multi-million-dollar game of “telephone” where mixed messages put food safety (and your budget) at risk.

Let’s explore three ways working with a fully integrated design-build firm — one that provides process engineering, building & infrastructure design, and construction services with all in-house resources — can improve the long-term food safety of your facility.

1. Communication is consolidated by removing the middleman

A food processing facility is essentially giant puzzle where a variety of specialized experts each hold the different pieces needed to assemble it. No one discipline owns the entire puzzle, so effective communication is essential. Every element that is critical to your plant’s food safety comes down to communication between these teams, which can include:

  • Process Design
  • Architecture
  • Mechanical
  • Electrical
  • Refrigeration
  • Construction

But here’s the thing: Unless a fully integrated firm is handling the development of your plant, these different elements often get outsourced to a variety of companies — and the more companies you have involved, the greater the opportunity for miscommunication.

Let’s look at a common example of a food plant’s “heartbeat zone,” where the product first becomes ready-to-eat. All air that comes into this zone must be clean, high-quality air, and all air from the surrounding raw-product zones, or packaging/palletizing zones, must travel away from the heartbeat zone to avoid contamination of the ready-to-eat product. Ensuring that the heartbeat zone is the most positive pressure area of the building requires a coordinated effort between the refrigeration team and the mechanical team, which handles airflow and exhaust.

The non-integrated approach

The “old-school” approach with a non-integrated firm establishes the architect as the middleman for all communication to the construction manager. In other words, the architect would give direction to the mechanical and refrigeration contractors (likely 2 separate engineering firms), even though he isn’t trained in those disciplines. Obviously, this opens the door to communication breakdown.

The integrated approach

However, with a fully integrated firm, the mechanical and refrigeration departments are employees of the same company and are often located in the very same office. They communicate with each other directly and daily, eliminating possible confusion and streamlining the process to minimize any potential food safety risks down the road.

2. Design and construction teams are highly coordinated

Let’s stick with our previous analogy of a food plant being a complex puzzle. Not only do certain pieces of the puzzle belong to different specialized teams, but each piece is dependent on the pieces that come before it. For example, in order to properly design the structural framing of a building, you have to know the size, weight and location of the HVAC and Refrigeration units that will be on the roof. Getting from point A to point Z of your project is a carefully coordinated dance.

When it comes to ensuring the long-term food safety of your food plant, communication between design and construction teams is critical. In a world where the tiniest of oversights can trigger a massive recall, a food-safe design is meaningless unless it’s properly implemented by the construction team. This is where you can run into trouble with a non-integrated approach.

The non-integrated approach

Working with a non-integrated firm often means the field team is often receiving plans drawn up by another vendor and trying to implement them on-site. Plus, navigating the channels to contact a designer at another firm in a different city is nowhere near as efficient as calling your co-worker’s direct line back at the office

The integrated approach

This is a stark contrast to a fully integrated firm, where the field staff is in-tune with the design team’s work. The construction manager is on a first-name basis with the design team and has been sitting in on meetings from day one of the project — he understands why certain elements were designed a certain way and can easily call the design team with any questions.

Piping and the food safety risk of condensation

In terms of food safety, one of the most common examples I see of needed design and construction synergy is with piping. If the design team has a pipe running from a warm area to a cold area of the plant, there are certain factors that need to be accounted for in order to avoid condensation (of course, excess moisture can foster bacterial growth and is a huge food safety risk). Addressing condensation issues involves a number of disciplines including:

  1. Mechanical (the “designer” of the warm side of the wall and, possibly, responsible for the insulation and function of the pipe itself)
  2. Refrigeration (the “designer” of the cold side of the wall and, possiby, responsible for the insulation and function of the pipe itself)
  3. Structural (responsible for the steel joists that also pass through that same thermal condition)
  4. Architecture (responsible for the wall details through which the pipes travel as well as for the joist insulation detail — often referred to as a “doughnut”)
  5. Electrical (the possible provider of heat trace to fight against condensation)


In this scenario, working with a fully integrated design-build firm comes with a variety of benefits:

  • The field team can quickly and directly call the architecture department to ask about discrepancies that arise (e.g. need for insulation, etc.)
  • The construction team and field staff regularly hold internal design reviews
  • All team members have a mutual respect and comfort level that makes it easy to collaborate and get answers quickly

Bridging the gap between design and construction is clearly critical to the food safety of a facility. Contracting a truly integrated firm practically closes that gap.

3. Troubleshooting is focused on problem-solving, not finger pointing

A number of firms may say they offer all the elements of a fully integrated firm — process design, building & infrastructure design and construction services — but that often means subcontracting certain work to outside vendors that they will manage.

The non-integrated approach

This delicate house of cards can come crashing down should you ever encounter an issue, whether in the construction process or down the road when your facility is operational. When there’s a problem, the general contractor has to go down the line of their subcontractors to hold the responsible party accountable, navigating insurance issues and their separate, respective contracts along the way. It’s not uncommon for some subcontractors to point the finger at other vendors rather than accept responsibility for mistakes and work together to reach a resolution. Not only can this “blame game” be a cumbersome legal headache, it’s one more problem on your plate when dealing with a food safety discrepancy.

The integrated approach

A fully integrated firm can quickly resolve an issue no matter which department is responsible. If it’s a design miss, construction and design will work together to find the best way to overcome it. If it’s a construction issue, they take the same approach. Fully integrated firms naturally provide a checks-and-balances approach to take full ownership of the project, ensuring potential hazards don’t slip under the radar. Not to mention, such issues are less common with an integrated approach anyways, since communication barriers aren’t a factor in the first place.

There are a number of reasons a fully integrated design-build method will ensure your next project is a success, but if there’s one area where you can’t take chances, it’s food safety. It’s a no-brainer if you want to invest in the long-term security and safety of your product, your consumers and your company.

If you have questions about the fully integrated design-build method or if it’s the right choice for your next project, feel free to email me at foodforthought@stellar.net.

New Call-to-action

2 thoughts on “3 Ways an Integrated Design-Build Firm Can Improve the Food Safety of Your Next Food Manufacturing Facility

  1. Jason brings up some good points. This can go even deeper to the core of the design, including discrepancies between architectural and structural drawings. Some experiences from my past include things like:
    Having two adjacent columns, one tube steel and one wide flange, in opposite positions than shown on the A set.
    Finding that wide flange columns are actually a different size, and turned 90 degrees.
    While measuring footing distances to ensure clearance for a door, discovering that a footing (already poured, and with steel on the way) is about a foot off.
    Sometimes you just let it go, and sometimes you scramble, but you can’t help but wonder what else may have gone wrong.

    I have worked for two companies that had all disciplines in house (full disclosure: one of them was Stellar) and I believe it makes a world of difference.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *