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Pittsburgh firm helps design colorful chip-making facility for IBM

A different clean room for Big Blue

Thursday, June 27, 2002

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's been known for years as Big Blue and, like most high-tech companies, its "clean rooms" have always been strictly white. But IBM Corp. is about to break out a bright, bold color scheme with the help of a Pittsburgh firm, IDC Architects.

Rick Yelton, of IDC Architects of Pittsburgh, is the project manager on a chip-manufacturing plant for IBM in East Fishkill, N.Y. The plans for the facility are tacked to the wall behind him. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

At a $2.5 billion computer chip-making plant IDC designed for IBM in East Fishkill, N.Y., there is a "clean room" that is a far cry from traditional, sterile clean rooms that have all-white walls, ceilings and floors.

This one features shades such as Harbor Blue, Indian Corn and Rio Red that were selected to complement the water and natural surroundings of the Hudson River Valley where the plant is located.

Clean rooms are areas in high-tech operations that aim to be contaminant-free. Workers wear booties, latex gloves and other protective coverings to maintain the "clean" environment.

"This is a very big, bold step for IBM after years of a standardized look," said Rick Yelton, IDC's project manager for the IBM facility. Among the challenges, he said, was "getting over the inertia and perception that clean rooms are always white."

Adding bright colors "should improve productivity and morale" of IBM's workers, Yelton said.

Ron Lorefice, IBM's lead civil architect for the project, said the colorful environment should be "psychologically more suitable for the employees" because color helps improve workers' moods, morale and creativity.

IDC and IBM collaborated on the color scheme for months, Lorefice said.

The Pittsburgh firm, which has been working on the 650,000-square-foot IBM facility for two years, has a long-standing relationship with the computer giant because of its specialty in designing semiconductor manufacturing facilities.

Based in Portland, Ore., IDC opened its Pittsburgh office in 1988 at Cherrington Corporate Center, Moon, to service clients on the East Coast including IBM and AT&T.

Since then, it's picked up a few local projects including interior work at the Seagate Technologies Inc. facility in the Strip District; clean rooms and laboratories at Westinghouse Electric in Churchill; and the master plan for the Tech 21 complex in Marshall.

IDC's Pittsburgh office employs 70 architects and engineers and had annual revenue last year of $22 million, said Tracy Rapp, office manager. IDC is a subsidiary of CH2M Hill, an international engineering and construction business.

For the IBM project, IDC had to design a total makeover of a semi-conductor plant IBM built in the mid-1980s but which was mothballed in the 1990s, said Yelton.

Once it's operational, the rehabbed plant will produce microchips that are a fraction of the width of a human hair. IBM claims it will be the most advanced chip-making site in the world.

IDC's design included expanding the building by about 30,000 square feet in order to raise the ceiling and add a duct system enclosure to the top.

The project -- IBM's largest investment ever in capital improvement -- required the architects to produce 2,800 construction drawings, said Yelton.

"That's as big as they get and the biggest we've ever done in Pittsburgh," he said.

The facility will employ about 1,000 IBM workers and is scheduled to be fully operational in September.

Several local firms were sub-contractors for the facility including Chester Engineers, Moon, which worked on wastewater upgrades; Cemline Corp. of Harmar which supplied steam generators; SSM Industries Inc. of the North Side which fabricated stainless steel ducts; George Marker and Sons of McKeesport which fabricated a boiler; and X-Mark, a Washington, Pa., division of Cable Design Technologies that supplied information technology components.

Whether IDC will ever design something as ambitious as the IBM project in Pittsburgh is a long shot right now.

"The sites are few and far between to attract this kind of company," said Rapp.

But the firm has been working with the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and Pittsburgh Technology Council to analyze potential sites for development, he said.

"We're looking for the next semi-conductor business to move our company forward."

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