A year and a half ago, the Osceola County Public Works Division in Florida converted much of its road-construction program — 11 projects in all — from design-bid-build to construction-management-at-risk (CMAR).

Driven by direction from the county's commissioners, it was a bold move that required the department to completely reorganize, eliminating about 35 positions in the process. Many were design engineers whose lost expertise is being outsourced while the remaining engineers oversee various aspects — construction, plans production, stormwater, permitting, surveying, right-of-way acquisition, traffic engineering — of the fast-tracked projects. It also requires ongoing dialogue with local contractors wary of losing business to competitors hand-picked by the county's construction management firm, the regional Florida office of Balfour Beatty Construction.

But it was the only way that Public Works Administrator Ken Atkins and County Manager Michael Frelinger felt the county could satisfy an extremely aggressive local ordinance. With nearly 18 project segments behind schedule, construction on nine to 11 of them had to begin in 2009 to get the program back on track. It's the greatest number of road projects nationwide to be delivered using construction-management-at-risk. In total, $700 million worth of design and construction is scheduled to be completed within 10 years, and infrastructure managers throughout Florida are watching closely.

“While construction-management- “ at-risk is rather unconventional to use for road projects, we felt it was the most efficient way to handle the backlog that had developed over the past few years as development boomed,” says Principal Project Manager Gregg Hostetler, PE. Since the county had used the project delivery method to design and build a new courthouse, emergency operations center, and training facility for the Houston Astros, the county attorney tweaked the contract language for those “vertical” projects to accommodate requirements specific to roadway construction.

The department would've considered design-build, but working out the legal details for a program delivery method the county hadn't used would've postponed start-up by half a year. So construction-management-at-risk it was.

FROM THE ABSTRACT TO THE ACTUAL

Under standard construction management, the owner advertises for and retains the designer and construction manager directly, so both work together from the outset to identify and resolve potential problems before they burden the budget and schedule.

At-risk management goes a step further, with the construction manager taking full responsibility for advertising for, vetting, interviewing, hiring, and supervising all subcontractors. The firm guarantees the project cost, absorbing cost overruns and returning savings at mutually negotiated refund levels. Schedules are also guaranteed based on the firm's experience and the research its estimators conduct before making a commitment.

Like design-build, construction managers are chosen based on requests for qualifications and experience, not on cost components to do the work. After reviewing requests for proposals, the department usually shortlists several firms to make formal presentations. Once selected, the firm prepares budget estimates through the design phase based on costs for similar projects and statistics on labor and materials costs.

Because they both allow construction to begin before design plans are fully completed and right of way is purchased, design-build and construction-management-at-risk are excellent for fast-tracking a project.

But there's one essential difference: Design-build is a turn-key solution that eliminates the owner from the team once the owner chooses the design-build team and provides project parameters. From then on, the designer and builder determine how to meet those goals without input from the owner.