Unclear Terms of Engagement

Design-build project delivery results in higher quality and faster completion with less chance of dispute, but the definition has become blurred.

All successful design-build procurements incorporate collaboration. However, for some, “design-build” is simply a term used to encourage the use of a collaborative approach where contractors and engineers offer input during the planning and design phases of a project. In other cases, the contractor might or might not have skin in the game from a contractual perspective, but may still offer input intended to influence the overall success of a project. If he’s just giving input, though, he’s not ‘driving.’

Ideally, the architect, engineer, and contractor work together to define a means and methods for constructability that meet the schedule and budget. The process will also include a critical path schedule to achieve the inherent fast-track delivery. Everyone’s in it together, but it’s important to establish a single point of contact for the owner, whether it’s the architect, engineer, or contractor, to streamline administration.

Beware the High-Speed Project Delivery

When a project team moves too fast, they sometimes don’t get to think things through; and sometimes, the design-build schedule is just too fast.

The entire project team is forced to make decisions too quickly, which can negatively impact the schedule downstream. Perhaps the contractor is forced to proceed with material or system procurement before the design is fleshed out enough. These decisions seem to make sense during the planning process, but hit roadblocks when you get to construction sequencing.

To avoid fast-track issues, get creative in the earliest phases. The best projects are those where engineers and contractors brainstorm ways during the design phase to prefab systems, which saves time and money while delivering a better product. The engineer and contractor look good, and the owner is happy—which leads to my next point.

Project Partners Don’t Speak the Same Language

I’m not talking linguistically (though it helps), but professionally and technically. Design-build requires an owner to take a huge leap of faith. The owner is betting on the contractor’s ability to accurately and quickly interpret the engineer’s intent.

There are some very sophisticated contractors that do this exceptionally well. But what happens when they don’t?

Consider one particularly common technology-related issue. All parties agree to rely on building information modeling (BIM) for improved coordination throughout construction—a beautiful process when done correctly and organized by a skilled general contractor, superintendent, and foremen.

In the best scenarios, the owner will watch a project progress in what appears to be a coordinated dance. Then, one member of the team deviates from the model—probably with the admirable intent of trying to meet the fast-track schedule—and the performers trip and sometimes fall.

Remember, collaboration and coordination within 3D, 4D, or 5D models is only as good as what’s in the model.

The Devil is in the Deviations

Few owners can resist a tweak or two during design and even construction. However, even a seemingly small enhancement sets off a ripple effect that negatively impacts the project’s schedule.

Deviations occur with the best of intentions, but they often have a compounding effect. Every engineer designs a structure’s mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems to meet certain operational specifications. That makes deviations in the field a big challenge, particularly when it comes to equipment.

Let’s say the contractor finds a better price for a seemingly equivalent air handler made by a different vendor, which can be delivered faster, thus helping the schedule. The unit might have the same performance specs, but the internal fans are louder. The owner gets a mechanical system that’s louder than specified and may have to install additional soundproofing to compensate.

The best rule of thumb is to revert to the first point: Communicate!

A Lack of Humility

Every successful design-build project includes a skilled superintendent in the field and an engineer who’s willing to listen. Team members must be able to stifle pride in the interest of what’s best for the project, thus driving collaboration for the most successful delivery.

To see if your architect, engineer, and contractor are on the same page, watch their interaction during those early meetings. Listen to the engineer and contractor as they work out answers to questions, particularly as they brainstorm potential issues.

Even in a design-build scenario, you will see a distinct two-phase process. The team will go through the programming, or lift-out, phase where they evaluate existing conditions, critical sequences, owner requirements, budgets, etc. The contractor will talk about labor, materials, and long lead items. You should see the engineer and contractor virtually build the entire project in front of you, all the while evaluating risks and sequencing concerns. You should hear answers to questions such as “who owns the float in the schedule: the owner or the contractor?”

Finally, make sure your facilities people are there to discuss sustainability, operational, and maintenance requirements.

Bonus Point: Limited Commissioning Agent Involvement

One of the biggest challenges for a design-build contractor is the transition from construction to operations. Someone needs to address training, compile warranties, conduct measurement verifications, and verify overall system operations so everything works as intended when the owner flips the switch.

That transition, testing, and handover needs to be complete before the engineers and contractors leave your project. Consider contracting a commissioning agent to bridge the gap between construction and operation.