What does good control room design look like?

BAW Architecture employs user-centric, human-factor principles such as ISO 11064 to design control centers from the operator out.

By Mary Ann Lane & Peggy Hewitt

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“Of course I know what good control room design looks like.” Anyone who’s ever spent time in an operations center for a large refinery or chemical plant knows a good control room when they see one. Or do they?

In our experience, having been in many 24/7 mission-critical control rooms in continuous process industries, finding examples of “good control room design” isn’t easy. Think about your own experience. How many control rooms have you actually been in where the spaces were crowded, messy, disorganized, even perhaps mildly depressing? Did the room feel something like a dark, subterranean dungeon? Perhaps the image below recalls your own experience with control rooms (Figure 1).

Awareness and ISO 11064

However, there have been improvements over the past decades in control room design, along with our understanding of the role design plays in the efficiency and safety of these mission-critical spaces. There’s been a spreading, international awareness of safety in control room design due to standards published in 2000 by the International Organization for Standardization. In particular, ISO 11064 spells out standards for ergonomics in the design of control centers, and the layout and dimensions of workstations for maximum efficiency and safety. Adherence to these best-practices guidelines is recommended in all industries with control rooms. Indeed, compliance with ISO 11064 standards can aid a company’s defense and help mitigate legal liability in case of an accident, incident or personal injury case. In the U.K., ISO 11064 is cited in guidance to the legislation as best practice, so companies are advised to use it. Also, facility siting and building design from the operator-out and good control room design can be measured against ISO 11064. The result are facilities that offer return on investment via maximized efficiency and minimized abnormal events.

ISO 11064 helps establish good design standards with measurable results to avoid control rooms like many of us have experienced. BAW Architecture designs control rooms, control buildings and operation camps that feature a user-driven approach, work with ISO 11064 requirements, and integrate architectural, interior design and human-factors elements to optimize performance. Our buildings for Fortune 100 companies can be found worldwide.

Starting with control room safety

The first critical step in good control room design is facility siting, and hiring an experienced control room architect can assist with planning the best location of the building in proximity to the process plant. Will it be in a blast zone or located outside the process plant fence?

Since the BP Texas City explosion in 2005, the American Petroleum Institute and regulatory agencies, such as OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, have focused on developing new and revised recommended practices for risk assessment and mitigation requirements for temporary and permanent buildings located in or around processing units, including API RP-752, “Management of Hazards Associated with Location of Process Plant Buildings,” and API RP-753, “Management of Hazards Associated with the Location of Process Plant Portable Buildings.”

API RP-752 covers permanent, occupied buildings at refineries, petrochemical and chemical operations, and provides guidance for managing risk from explosions, fires and toxic material releases. Development of new technologies pertinent to building siting evaluations include prediction of blast damage to buildings, determination of occupant vulnerabilities, and estimates of event frequencies. APR RP-753 adds that, if using occupied, portable buildings, their use should be minimal and should be located away from process areas. During periods of increased risk, including unit startups or planned shutdowns, it adds that occupancy of these portable units should be minimized. If using portable buildings, they should be designed, built and maintained to protect occupants from potential hazards.

In addition to the regulatory compliance and liability benefits of developing a facility siting risk-mitigation plan, developing a master facility plan is critical to the longterm planning for a site. It not only addresses the immediate risk assessment requirements, but also addresses longterm (five-, 10- and 15-year) facility infrastructure improvements and asset optimization, addressing security, IT infrastructure, site circulation and workforce optimization (Figure 2). 

Brain of the process plant

Once the control building is sited properly, the next step is to focus on the control room. As the center of operations and production, control rooms are where businesses make or lose money, and where catastrophic incidents are identified early and mitigated. Their operators often work long shifts in front of computer screens to ensure 24/7 operations coverage.

However, even though it’s among the most important physical spaces in a plant, chances are its furniture isn’t nearly as comfortable or up to date as furniture in the conference room. More often than not, it’s one of the spaces that companies invest in the least. Many control rooms today were designed in the 1980s or 90s. Since then, technical upgrades have been crammed into these poorly designed spaces without taking a step back to consider the true importance of these spaces or their technology. Operators forced to work in these crowded rooms are the victims of this lack of foresight and investment in operations. Understanding the operator’s needs and how they interface with complex systems in a high-pressure environment is the first step, and subsequent design decisions emanate from it.

The risk of an abnormal situation escalation is always present in a control room. A state-of-the-art control facility enables operators to return the situation to normal in the shortest time. Dozens of factors must be taken into account, such as orientation of consoles, screen information, noise reduction, arc of reach, line of sight, clutter mitigation and manual placement. All have the potential to improve or degrade the operator’s reaction time and ability to communicate.

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