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Understanding the Frequently Misunderstood Design-Build Option

The Frequently Misunderstood Design-Build Option May Be the Best One for Many Colleges and Municipalities


Although this is bound to be interpreted as a dig at architects, it is a fact that architects don't really work in the real world. Theirs is primarily a conceptual business, one of intricate designs and grand plans drawn on large rolls of paper. They may specify the bricks and mortar, but it's left to someone else to lay the actual foundation of a building.

Contractors, meanwhile - and this is not meant as a slight on their profession, either - are not, as a rule, visionaries. Their job is to take the raw materials at hand and, guided by the architect's drawings, figure out the most efficient way to put them together.

One would think that, considering how much they need each other to complete the design and construction process, architects and contractors (and for that matter, all the other professionals and tradespeople inhabiting a building site) would have by now developed an acute sense of each other's needs. Surprisingly, though, many otherwise successful building projects - that is, those in which the building is eventually completed to the satisfaction of the client - are marred by litigation and general discord of the type that could easily be avoided by better working relationships between the various parties involved.

This may be why design-build, a truly ancient concept responsible for (among other less-famous structures) Egypt's pyramids, is re-emerging as an effective project delivery system for stadiums, arenas and recreation centers. Design-build exists in a number of permutations, but they all have one thing in common: The involvement of as many of the various principals as possible at the outset of the design process, giving them each an opportunity to shape the building's blueprint. Seemingly loved and scorned by an equal number of architects and clients, design-build may not be sweeping the sports industry, but even its harshest critics admit that some of its central tenets are creeping into the design-bid-build process, making the line between them hazier than ever.

Most architects save their strongest comments regarding design-build until after reporters' tape recorders are turned off. ("No one wants to be on record as not supporting partnerships," observes Mike Pratl, director of sports and recreation architecture with St. Louis-based Jacobs Facilities Inc.) If they do have issues with the concept, they say, it's only because so many would-be building owners are ill-served by its principles. Hogwash, says Tim Mains, manager of business policy for the Washington, D.C. based Design-Build Institute of America.

"Architects are concerned that they're going to lose their stature," Mains says. "Obviously, the architect is still the person designing a facility. But instead of that architect having an elevated position with the owner, he or she may be a subcontractor to the design-builder, which in many cases is a construction company. That scares architects. You also have a group of purists who don't think they should have to be part of a team. But you know, these guys have seen a third of their business go to design-build, so they've got a vested interest in the status quo."

What Mains calls the status quo (design-bid-build architecture, also known as low-bid construction) has actually only been the standard during the last 70 or 80 years in North America. For much of human history, the concept of the master builder, who was responsible for all phases of design and construction, held sway in the world of architecture. Gradually, however, the notion of the architect as the sole author of a building's aesthetic signature, coupled with heightened liability concerns, led to a conscious push toward accreditation of and specialization in all building trades. (This is most apparent when one considers the half dozen engineering disciplines, from civil to geotechnical to structural.)

In the design-bid-build world, a client hires an architect, settles on the program and budget, and sets the architect loose to give shape to the project. The client gets no guarantees: Using price estimators and experience with the building type in question, the architect produces a set of design documents that define a building that he or she believes will fit the client's budget and other specifications. Next, the client seeks contractors to bid on the project. Contractors are given a full set of detailed drawings to price out the particulars - and typically, since all prospective contractors are presumed to know exactly what is involved in building the project, the low bid will win the contract.

Classic design-build finds one firm comprising both disciplines agreeing to design and construct a project for a guaranteed maximum price - but before the building is actually designed. In such a scenario, the client has a set of specifications - the desired budget, extent of the program and so forth. The design-build firm uses its own price estimators and experience with the building type in question to produce a building that will meet the client's objectives as well as its own.

Sudbury, Mass.-based Stanmar Inc. is the only classically configured design-build architecture firm specializing in sports and recreation facilities. Yet, design-build has many stepchildren, which differ in the particulars of the contract agreed to by two (or occasionally more) firms in partnership with each other. The most common scenario has a design-build construction firm (North Attleboro, Mass.-based Hodess Building Company and Clayco Sports of St. Louis are among the best-known that specialize in sports facilities) hiring an architecture firm as a subcontractor. At other times, two entities will choose to form a project team and share the risk on the project equally (or unequally). At others still, two firms hired by a client separately will decide to team up on their own, with the owner's consent.

Prospective building owners might think of all this as something best left to their lawyers, but the fact is that each of these contractual arrangements will affect the owner's role in the process in different ways. In design-bid-build, for example, the architect serves, in effect, as an agent of the owner throughout the building's construction, making sure the contractor doesn't cut corners and that the project stays on schedule. The client on such projects may be forced to cast the deciding vote when the architect and contractor disagree on the best way to proceed with some aspect of the construction. In design-build, on the other hand, the client must leave much of the decision-making to the design-build team. For many clients who lack the staff or expertise to oversee a building project, this may be a positive. For others, ceding control may be an impossibility.

Lanson Nichols, project manager at HNTB Design/Build Inc. (a division of HNTB Sports Architecture), is currently finishing up work on the design-build joint venture at Invesco Field at Mile High, the new home of the NFL's Denver Broncos. Nichols has spent the better part of the past eight years on a variety of high-profile design-build sports projects, so he's a big fan of the process. He doesn't, however, think design-build is for everybody.

"What the owner has to surrender, sometimes, is involvement in every decision," Nichols says. "Take the typical design-build situation in which a cost has been applied early on to a structural system without knowing exactly what the structural system will entail. It's up to the design-builder to determine the best way to construct it. At those sorts of times, having an owner who is extremely hands-on may become difficult; they have to be able to let go some. Design-build is a trade-off in some respects. You get a guaranteed price, a shorter schedule and some understanding of the project, but as an owner you may not be able to dig as deep into the details."

Why choose design-build - and why not? So entrenched are many design professionals in their views that discussions of the subject frequently devolve into a "he said, she said"-style debate. To wit:

The management-structure debate. Design-build gives owners one entity with which to deal, rather than two. Those in favor say this means owners are no longer caught in the middle of sometimes warring parties; those opposed say this means that owners are at the mercy of the design-build entity.

Many first-timers don't realize just how often architects and contractors run afoul of each other. The trouble with design-bid-build is supposed to be that the contractor, who bid on the project and is supposed to have understood the architect's plans to the letter, will discover later that what looked perfectly reasonable on paper is extremely difficult (and costly) in practice. When such a disagreement arises, the client finds him- or herself in the difficult position of mediator, between two positions that he or she may not understand fully enough to help the parties come to a resolution.

Nichols says that such a situation can actually be beneficial to the owner. "With a direct contract with both firms, owners tend to play the architect off the contractor," he says. "They'll listen to the running battle between the two and pick whichever position is more favorable to them."

Yet, Nichols notes, design-build clients sometimes feel as though they haven't got anyone on their side. "There are times when they feel like they're not getting the architects' honest opinion, because the architect's aligned with the contractor," he says. "There have been times, I know, when the owner has felt that I'm suspect. Particularly when architects start to talk about value engineering, that's one of the times the owner will look at the architect and wonder, 'Who are you working for here?' "

Mains, though, calls the single point of responsibility "the greatest single benefit" of design-build. "The largest cause of overruns in cost and schedule are conflicts in which the owner is in the middle," says Mains. "The contractor says to the owner, 'I can't build that, it's a bad design, we have to stop and sit here until the architect rethinks this.' The owner checks with the designer, and he says, 'No, that's wrong.' And they go back and forth, with the owner paying delay charges to the contractor and hourly charges to the designer to go back and change things. In design-build, the team works together from day one."

True enough, say the naysayers, but who is looking out for the client's best interests. While no one will say so with attribution, design-build's greatest single disadvantage, some architects believe, is that the contracting firm is free to cut corners on the project to meet their low price guarantee - and there's no architect on-site to stop them.

"That's an argument that people use, there's no doubt about it," says Stanmar's vice president, Art Bodwell. "But if you look at our client list over the years, you'll see that the great majority are relatively small, private colleges. Our market is, frankly, very limited, so we'd be better off taking a hit on a project than cutting corners. All you have to do is cut one corner and your reputation is shot. From our point of view, it's not an option."

"Architects may tell you that the fox is guarding the henhouse," Mains adds, "but design-build contracts require that someone on the team is overseeing the construction and putting his or her personal reputation and license on the line." If anything, Mains says, litigation occurs at a greater rate on design-bid-build projects than on design-build projects.

The cost-control debate. Design-bid-build projects have a way of getting out of hand, according to design-build proponents. "It happens all too often," says Fred Volpacchio, general manager of Somers, N.Y.-based ICA Design/Build (a division of Indoor Courts of America). "You always hear about somebody who's planning a $3 million facility, and then the architect designs it and it gets bid out, and lo and behold, it's a $5 million facility. Projects grow in several ways: The owner wants more building, and the architect wants to design more, because that's what architects do."

Design-build, meanwhile, identifies the actual project costs early on in the process, saving time and money. As Nichols points out, a key advantage in having the contractor on board from the beginning is that it allows subcontractors to be hired early.

"Every manufacturer's elevators and escalators are a little bit different," he says, using one big-ticket item as an example. "In a design-bid-build project, the first time you do the drawings, you have to draw elevators and escalators in a very generic fashion. Then, after you buy a particular brand of escalator, you have to go back and redo the design based on those exact escalator measurements. On the Invesco Field job, since we were able to bid out the escalators while we were still doing construction documents, the escalator people were able to sit side by side with us while we designed those areas."

This sort of design efficiency is responsible for the biggest area of savings in design-build: The streamlined construction schedule. Mains notes that a study conducted by the Construction Industry Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Texas, found that design-build projects took about two-thirds the time of design-bid-build projects. Says Nichols, "With design-build, you can have concurrent activities going on. Once we complete the schematic design, we can get the structural engineers going on the foundation, and while we're finishing the rest of the design of the building, the contractor can start doing the mass excavation and foundations, things like that. Generally, that will compress the time schedule."

A compressed schedule might seem to benefit big-time customers like the Broncos the most, but Bodwell says that even the small colleges for whom his firm designs recreation centers tend to want their buildings opened as quickly as possible.

"A lot of them feel they just have to get it done," Bodwell says. "The recreation center is often a centerpiece of a campus plan, and if they lose a whole semester, they lose a place to hold classes and take prospective students, and they lose facility rental revenues. Time is money."

The counterargument? Architects agree that design-build's compressed schedule is a genuine plus, but even here, they say, there's a trade-off. One knowledgeable industry insider says to imagine two proposed recreation centers, one a design-bid-build project and one a design-build project. "Both projects might come in at $8.2 million," he says. "The question is, what do you get for your $8.2 million?"

Which brings us to:

The building-aesthetics debate. This is where things get, well, personal. Ask a roomful of architects the above question, and here are some of the terms you'll hear: "Unattractive." "Cookiecutter." "Wal-Mart."

Naturally, such a view galls design-build specialists - even if there is a grain of truth to it. Many design-build firms enjoy attractive franchise arrangements with manufacturers of prefabricated structures, such as the one between ICA Design/Build and Butler Manufacturing. "We use it primarily to achieve the long spans that we want in sports facilities," says Volpacchio. "But also, the efficiencies of pre-engineered steel keep our costs down."

Bodwell concedes that big architectural statements aren't the point of design-build. "The buildings we do are very pleasant, they're very nice, but they're probably not going to win a lot of awards," he says. "Our clients know they're going to get good value and that the building is going to look good, but they're not paying a lot of money for architecture."

Jacobs Facilities still does a fair amount of design-build work, although it hasn't done so in its home state since 1993, when a group of small, local contractors convinced the Missouri State Legislature to pass a bill forbidding municipalities from hiring outside construction firms to take part in design-build projects. Pratl says of the last such project his firm designed, "It was a very program-oriented facility, and it doesn't have the finishes of other St. Louis-area facilities. Program-wise, it's delivering what the community asked for - they got a lot for their money - but it's not as much of a looker as the others. Some architects look at it and say 'Ugh,' but this client had a particular vision of that facility and very limited funds."

Why does architecture tend to lose out to other elements in design-build? Because the process begins with a budget and a program, Pratl says, and when push comes to shove clients will choose to compromise on architecture before they'll consider cutting down the program options in their soon-to-be recreation center.

But is that really a disadvantage? Pratl considers this for a moment. "As an architect, I see design-build as frequently limiting what you get on the quality side," he says. "But working hard to save a client money is a service."

Indeed, says Bradford Noyes, a vice president with Washington, D.C.-based facility planning and operations consultant Brailsford & Dunlavey, "Design-build exists because there were problems with the traditional method. Or, let's say it another way: There were opportunities that were not being exploited by the traditional method." Either way, it's clear that design-build is to a large extent a reaction to an architectural community that sometimes seems to put a higher value on flash than on a client's limited cash.

Says Bodwell, "You can buy windows that are 5 foot 4 by 6 foot 8. So why would you design a window that's 5 foot 6 and a half by 7 foot 2 and three-quarters? Architects do it all the time. The architect says, 'I need this window to be just that proportion.' Meanwhile, you can get the other window off the shelf, and it costs half as much and you can get it in half the time. That's how you make a building look good but at a reasonable price."

"The down side of design-bid-build is that the designer is not highly motivated to keep the budget in check, even if creating the nicest possible building is in the client's best interest," says Noyes. "He or she might say, 'That $500 light fixture is gorgeous, and I want to use it.' The cost is not as pre-eminent in their mind as it is on a design-build project."

Depending on where you're coming from, you may view the $500 light fixture as an artistic statement, or as a sign that profligate architects are running amok. Certainly, the different approaches to it demonstrate a philosophical divide that is difficult for many in the industry - architects and contractors - to cross.

"I've always believed that to get licensed, an architect should have to spend one year in the field," says Bodwell. "What often happens is that architects - and even we deal with these issues internally - will draw something hanging out in space without giving any thought to how you can support it. Or, they'll draw these really fancy cornices that cost you a fortune in scaffolding, or necessitate bringing in a lift to build, where you could achieve essentially the same look much less expensively if you think about it. They need to realize that out on the construction site it's muddy, it's raining, it's cold, and if something's 50 feet in the air you have to be able to get to it to build it. But they often don't think about the problems that are involved in actually building something."

Many architects are seeing the need to bring contractors into the design process, and even if they don't think design-build is the ultimate solution, more are, knowingly or not, moving in that direction. One clearly emerging trend is the hiring of a construction manager (usually a consultant or a representative of another architecture firm) to serve as the go-between on the job-site, overseeing the contractor's work but also helping to anticipate problems before they become intractable. Another is joint-venturing of the type that has produced $404 million Invesco Field at Mile High. Nichols spoke to AB from HNTB's temporary office on the job site; on his right was the office of the managing director of the joint venture, and on his left the project manager for Turner Construction Company. Other adjacent offices were inhabited by Broncos representatives and by board members of the Metropolitan Football Stadium District. The joint-venture board was comprised of two representatives each of HNTB and Turner, and a managing director (from Turner) responsible for looking out for the interests of both parties.

Nichols says of this arrangement, "It's a good methodology because it gives the owner a single source of responsibility and transfers a lot of the risk from the owner to the designer. There's also better communication because you have all the parties at the table. So any time an issue comes up, the architect can weigh in on quality, aesthetics, longevity, warranties, things like that. The contractor can weigh in on cost, constructability and overall impact on the schedule. Put them all together, and the owner gets a more well-rounded picture of each issue that comes up."

Because of the stadium's compressed schedule, and to ensure their interests were served by the construction team, HNTB had a minimum of eight (and usually more) architects on the job site for the duration of the project - a hand'son approach that is another clearly emerging trend nationwide. As a result, whatever control Nichols' firm ceded in design discussions, it regained elsewhere by being more intimately involved in the day-to-day construction decisions.

"There are times when I have to weigh construction issues that may not be the preferred way architecturally, but I think the joint-venture situation gives us a great deal of control because we're there at the table as a participant in the discussion," Nichols says. "Architects and contractors are kind of taught from day one in school to distrust the other one. But with design-build, their problems are our problems, and we have to solve them together."

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