In the past few years, colleges have been among the most avid users of design-build construction delivery. Unfortunately, they often don't receive the full benefits of this pragmatic approach to facility design and construction.

The design-build method came into existence through a natural progression within the architecture, engineering and construction industries. As the complexities of modern design and construction increased, traditional project-delivery systems became increasingly inadequate.

Today's college facilities are not the brick-and-mortar structures of the past. They are a collection of highly sophisticated, industrialized, custom fabrications of mass-produced products. As a result, much of the detailed knowledge of construction cost and technology now resides with manufacturers, suppliers and specialty contractors. Architects and engineers, once the experts on construction technology, often function as systems integrators.

Sharing knowledge

The design-build delivery method makes it possible, and imperative, for the system integrators to tap into the knowledge and experience — the intellectual capital — of the dozens of sub-contractors and materials suppliers who are involved in most significant construction projects. Accessing this knowledge base is a key advantage of the design-build strategy.

In 1998, Mark Konchar and Victor Sanvido of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa., conducted a national study comparing the cost, schedule and quality attributes of 351 projects that used one of the three predominant U.S. project delivery systems: design-build, design-bid-build, and construction-management-at-risk. The study shows that on average, projects delivered using the design-build system took 33.5 percent less time to deliver and had a unit cost 6.1 percent less than similar projects delivered under design-bid-build systems.

In the design-build system, a school contracts with a single design-build contractor, the employer of the system integrators, to provide both design and construction services. The design-build contractor may contract out part or all of the work. Under this system, the design-build contractor is usually willing to work with open books. Early in the process the design-build contractor also can provide the school a guaranteed maximum price.

The providers of design-build services, as in all markets, vary greatly in experience and competence. Many are simply a loose association of an architectural firm and a construction contractor. They may have come together simply to respond to a school's RFP. That shouldn't disqualify them from consideration, but it should prompt a school to be thorough in evaluating the working relationship. If the two entities don't have a long-term relationship, they probably can't effectively carry out a collaborative effort that will involve hundreds of distinctive products and suppliers, and dozens of contractors.

Part of the team

Even within a single firm that employs architects, engineers and construction management personnel, there often is a lack of teamwork among the professional areas. More often than not the problems result when some parts of the team do not recognize the contributions required of all those involved. Each professional has different agendas and thought processes. Those leading the collaboration must be able to obtain the best that each discipline can offer and keep everyone communicating.

Inadequate collaboration within often results in the A/E/C team neglecting the two most important phases of any project: project definition and design. The risk of this happening is greater if the A/E/C team has come together for the first time to respond to a school's proposal. Project definition must stem from a detailed understanding among all team members of a school's functional needs. The design phase must embrace a school's spiritual, social and emotional needs in the same way.

Within the A/E/C team, no one professional area can be permitted to dominate the others. Design considerations must not be permitted to dictate construction methods or material selection rigidly or to prevent the application of value engineering. At the same time, construction considerations cannot be permitted to diminish the contribution of design. When such an imbalance exists, the result often is the neglect of the crucial project definition phase.

The seriousness of this mistake is reflected in research conducted by the Independent Project Analysis Corporation of Reston, Va. It found that poorly defined projects cost 17 percent more than the average, while projects that are well-defined cost 20 percent less.

The practice of value engineering must be an acknowledged part of the design-build process. Value engineering is not a strategy for reducing costs by reducing quality. It is an effort that empowers all team members to contribute to the project. If a manufacturer, supplier, vendor, sub-contractor or contractor has a recommendation that will improve quality or reduce costs or construction time, that recommendation must find its way to the A/E/C team for consideration. Value engineering is the key to staying within budget without sacrificing design excellence.

Although all of the potential problems cited are A/E/C problems, the input of school officials is critical to their resolution and they reap the benefits.

Maximizing benefits

These are some of the actions that schools can take to make the most of design-build project delivery:

  • Before retaining an A/E/C firm, learn how the design-build process should work. Pay special attention to the intensive effort that must be focused on collaboration and project definition. A/E/C firms and the Design Build Institute can help.

  • Don't ask for a pretty picture and a price. That question will completely distort the design-build process. The A/E/C firm is on your side of the table; work with this firm to get the most the market can offer for your price.

  • Make the A/E/C team aware that you want a design that gets you the best design attainable within budget. Don't permit design to be scheduled as though it were bricklaying. It's a creative endeavor that can't be scheduled rigidly. It requires time and the participation of all team members. The responsibilities of the team of architects that design your facilities do not end when the design is presented and approved. The architects have a role to play throughout the process.

  • Make certain that the A/E/C team has an extensive and ongoing communications plan that will keep all project participants informed. The need for effective communications doesn't end when construction starts. It is essential from hiring to ribbon-cutting.

  • Emphasize to the A/E/C team the importance you place on value engineering, and insist on constant updates on what is being achieved through this strategy. If you don't see significant benefits from this strategy, re-examine the team's communications efforts.

  • The design-build team is hired for a flat fee that should have no relationship to the total value of the project. Under such a contractual relationship the design-build team's books should be open to the school at all times.

When properly executed, the design-build strategy gives schools greater input into design and selection of materials to be used in construction. It also improves the school's oversight of the project, expedites scheduling and enhances cost control. The results can be significant reductions in project delivery time and cost — and, perhaps more important, it offers greater assurance that the completed project will meet the school's needs and standards.

McClure, an architect with more than 30 years experience, is a senior vice president with 3D/International, Inc., Houston.