Making waves

A factory in Dalian, China cherishes employee well-being and transparency

Rectangular, boxy, utilitarian buildings have been the standard for contemporary industrial factories, but this reality is changing. Increasingly, manufacturers depend on a skilled workforce and collaboration between engineering, marketing and manufacturing departments to maintain a competitive edge.  As companies seek to attract workers and to facilitate their collaboration, there is a movement which envisions the manufacturing workplace from a new perspective. As the manufacturing industry changes, so does its architecture.

Enter the forward-thinking American manufacturer, Deublin Company. Founded in 1945, Deublin manufactures rotating unions utilizing mechanical seals.  A rotating union transfers a medium (water, air, vacuum, hydraulic, steam) from a stationary source like a hose, pipe, or supply line into equipment that is rotating. Rotating unions are used in wind turbines, machine tools, steel manufacturing, heavy equipment, brushless car washes, color printing presses, paper making and many other industries. Deublin manufactures their products in four locations: Illinois, Germany, Italy and China.

Deublin had sold its products in Asia for many years, but in 2005 decided to establish a manufacturing presence in China because of the increasing demand for its product there. To learn more about the story of the American manufacturer’s unique facility in Dalian, China, we talked with Deublin Vice-President, Manufacturing Richard Shipway and President Ron Kelner.

Going to China
RS: In 2005 because the Chinese economy was accelerating so quickly demand for our products was at its peak, so we decided to manufacture there.  We looked at many cities in the country and finally selected the northern coast city of Dalian. In a new business park, we found a poured-in-place concrete office and warehouse building ready for its first business. It was the perfect size so we built it out and in 2006 moved in. The construction of the building was typical for the business park. We quickly discovered that the standards were quite different from those to which we were accustomed. We also knew that in a few years we would outgrow the space. Yet the park itself offered convenient access to our people, services and utilities so in 2007 we began looking for an open parcel to build on.

Earthquake proof
RK: We leased a six-acre parcel of land in the same park and started with the idea of a box or rectangle for the building. Around that time, the tragic Sichuan earthquake struck China and killed thousands of people. Don Deubler, the company owner, said that we have to make sure that whatever we designed was structurally sound. He put out an edict that our building design had to withstand a quake at a magnitude of 8.0.

Meeting VOA
RS: We were introduced to VOA by the builder Leopardo Companies, who had constructed our headquarters in Waukegan Illinois in the early ’90s. They knew VOA had been involved with many construction projects overseas, especially in China. VOA Principal Chris Groesbeck interviewed us to better understand our needs. What do you have now? What do you want? What does the parcel look like? We started with the idea of a typical square box for the facility, but Chris was experienced working in China and understood that lower construction costs would enable us to be a little creative.

Chris Groesbeck: Deublin’s requirements for a new facility in Dalian went beyond a typical economical big box program. The Deublin Dalian factory takes an enlightened approach to its image and the environment it creates for its employees. It reflects the company’s core values and identity.

VOA’s design for the Deublin Dalian building incorporates its factory, front office and staff cafeteria under one undulating roof, giving the appearance of an ocean wave. Emphasizing the importance the manufacturing hall and creating flexibility to allow for future reconfiguration were keys to the genesis of its unique design. Functionally, the building’s structural and mechanical functions are seamlessly integrated and expressed as a part of the architecture. Aesthetically, the garden in front visually connects to a spacious public park and to the mountains beyond. The project was designed to a LEED Silver standard.

The contemporary design, which references its location and culture, emerged from a successful collaboration with a client who clearly understood the role design could play in positioning their core business competitively in a global market.

RK: Chris introduced us to the structural engineering firm of Nayyar & Nayyar and supplemented our team with a Chinese geological engineer from the Illinois Institute of Technology.  This was particularly important as our site was located on land reclaimed from the sea.

RS: When we got down to the details of the foundation and the earthquake resistant structure, it became complicated. The design for the foundation required 128 feet deep caissons and 1,200 shorter ones. The deep ones varied from 60 to 100 feet, the short ones were 30 feet, all a meter in diameter. They are connected by grade beams.

Chris coordinated an excellent team, partnering with Hinkle Engineering and Nayyar & Nayyar International, to handle the structural, electrical and mechanical engineering. The team was strong, and Chris was very good when it came to the details of the design.

Building thousands of miles away
RK: The challenge was in the execution. From a prospective client standpoint, if I hear that delivery is a problem in the region, I need to partner with someone like VOA who can assist and drive that execution. If we hadn’t had that, the building would have gone nowhere.

A transparency rarely seen in Chinese factories
RS: Multiple angles intersect on the building’s front. The glass rises at a 15 degree angle and also curves. The interior offices feature glass facades with glass windows. If you’re on the outside, you look through the office and into the factory. A long span structure, the building is supported by large columns in the center rather than beams throughout. We went with an underground grid system for the electrical and air feed, concealing the pipes you’d normally see; giving the space a very clean appearance.

It glows
RS: At night, if you look through the windows, you can see the lunch rooms and the offices. From the upper windows, the large red columns are visible. Red signifies luck in China. With all of the shop lights on, it’s so bright that you can see the structural elements from outside at night. The glass in front protrudes at a 10-15 degree angle. The granite wall bends back at a similar angle; the design was meant to have a Great Wall-type effect.

RS: The VOA team was very hands-on throughout the process. There is a mechanical passageway under the floor, it’s about 4’ by 5’, and we were crawling down there with Chris and VOA’s Rick [Fawell] to help the contractor get it done right.

RK: I liked Chris’s commitment. I knew that I had him arms in, feet in; he was engaged in our building. We travelled all over the place to look at steel plants and drilling sites in cold weather, and Chris loved it. If I had to build overseas in a challenging environment again, I would want Chris by our side.

Final touches
RS: So once we designed and built this very stunning building, we had to determine how to select finishes that would complement the many unique features. This is another area where VOA succeeded:  with its strength in interior design. VOA’s workplace designer put together color boards and samples. The end result: everything fits together and flows well. They’re still the nicest bathrooms I’ve ever seen.

Designing to identity
RS: The building says quality, precision, state-of-the-art. Even though we make an industrial product, if you walk through our factories, you’ll see state-of-the-art capabilities in our machine tools, systems and processes. I think the building exemplifies that aspect of what we do. We wanted it to reflect a long-term commitment at this location, and this building has attracted some of the best talent in the Dalian area. People want to work in a place that offers opportunities and reflects our philosophy.

Size: 150,000SF
Team: Christopher Groesbeck, Rick Fawell, Nan Zhou, Clint Moewe, Joe Dietz, Su Jia, Manjula Riley, Jenifer Rzab, Keith Kreinik, Kai Toh and Runmin Yu

Photography by Fu Xing

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