The design/build approach is one opportunity to find a level playing field in the construction industry. In it, a project’s destiny lies in combination with a contractor’s expertise and the cooperation of the entire construction team. Everyone shares the risk. How you as the electrical contractor (EC) foster success may lie in how you help manage the process.

hough the owner dictates the project and the general contractor typically assembles the sub or specialty contractors in a design/build scenario, hierarchy is leveled once everyone sits down to design. If you face a partial scope and completed engineering by another firm, grab hold, fill in the scope and secure your place at the table.

“To succeed in design/build, you need to make a mental shift,” said Barbara Jackson, professor in construction management at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and director of its California Center for Construction Education. “You’ve joined a team and are designing to fit a budget, not the other way around. The numbers come first, completed design second. Theoretically, there is no change detail. Depending on the size of the project, an EC should push to be brought in very early if they aren’t asked.”

Jackson explained a design/build project manager (typically, the builder or general contractor) supervises the design and construction, budget, schedule and performance across the board. That person assembles a team that can work together.

Understand what is expected of you

According to Jackson, to offer value, you first need to understand how design/build works. One thing Jackson hears about more than she would like is subcontractors who enter in design/build without understanding the cost and pricing unique to this construction approach.

“You have to price the entire scope of the work, not just what you see on the conceptual drawings,” Jackson said. “You can’t price such drawings as finished documents. It is your job and in your best interest to fill in all the different scope. You will protect yourself and the project. If you are involved in the early preplanning, you can help the general contractor [GC] understand the costs of the electrical design.”

Jackson added that as long as you and the GC have held project discussions early on and those discussions were the right ones, incomplete specs down the road will be “less deadly.” Your job is to deliver the electrical design and cost the GC is anticipating.

Mayberry Electric Inc. has been a design/build firm from its inception in March 2000. Paul F. Mayberry PE, president of the Atlanta firm, enters into design/build projects in different ways. For example, his company participated in one design/build renovation project put together by a consortium of GCs. In that case, all parties walked through the entire project from beginning to end.

“Design/build GCs chose people they trust and can work with from the start,” Mayberry said. “They lay out the budget and the scope. You may need to fill in the details and figure out how to stay on budget or speak up if some costs haven’t been considered.”

William Micene, regional vice president for Rosendin Electric Inc., San Jose, Calif., spearheaded a design/build education and training program for his company’s project managers and field personnel. The goal in 2005 was to alleviate some of the fear.

“The following year, we formalized the program as an ongoing training effort,” Micene said. “There are several types of delivery approaches in design/build, but the basic tenets to master remain the same: Have good conceptual estimates, get scope confirmation, understand the design schedule and document requirements.”

In the training program, Micene said the differences between design/bid/build and design/build are stressed.

“In design/bid/build, the owner and his team of professionals are mailing the warrant, ensuring the documents are suitable for us to use. In that case, our risk is minimal. In design/build, we are taking that responsibility,” Micene said. “We also teach that, while we must warrant the document plans and specifications, we want to make sure the builder is talking to all the partners, including the other subs.”

Micene added that design/build allows him to discuss space allocations he will need and which areas can be shared.

Be a resource

GCs or owners are not accustomed to subs coming forward to solve bigger picture problems beyond their section of the work. Your central goal is to make sure the electrical fits well within the overall building design and alleviates headaches down the road. Being prepared, committed and knowledgeable makes you a team resource.

“Be a strong contractor from the beginning,” Micene said. “Make sure to share pertinent information from past project successes with the team. Your years of experience help communicate expertise. Make sure the mechanical and electrical pieces are configured, logical and sized proportionally to minimize design conflicts.”

According to Micene, there is a skill every subcontractor needs to develop.

“Sometimes the architect comes up with a visual of what the project will look like and then develops backgrounds in CAD. You need to be aware of the period of time you have to place your equipment needs within the design. Know how much time it takes for you to develop a set of documents, and communicate that if needed. Let the design/build manager know how important it is for you to be involved in the design meeting stages of the project. You want to be there when the scope information is solidified and the overall build is outlined.”

Jackson explained that, for a specialty contractor, mastering and adding value to the design/build process requires both hard and soft skills.

“Start with helping the design/builder win the project,” Jackson said. “That’s a big victory. Show how you can influence efficiency and reduce energy waste through good design, thus saving the design/builder time, money or even improving the project for the same money. Even if the owner faces you with a fixed price, you can really shine by figuring out the bang you can get from those dollars. Check your ego at the door, and know that not all your suggestions will be implemented. Flexibility is important. Remember, you add value through solving problems, not creating them. It gains you reputation and advantage.”

Figure out who you are

For Mayberry, putting out a design/build shingle is not something he takes lightly. He suggests knowing what kind of design/build firm you want to be. For example, Mayberry is a professional engineer and added others to his staff.

“In Georgia, permits require drawing with a professional engineer [PE] stamp,” he said. “I made a choice to have PEs on staff. Eighty percent of the drawings that go through our firm represent our own engineering work. Some firms subcontract this out. In design/build, when you project manage your share of the project (electrical design and installation), you are providing value and authority. We are saving owners money by alleviating their need to go to a separate engineering firm. We’re consequently better positioned to secure all the electrical work all the way through the project.”

Mayberry characterizes his company as a smaller firm with the capabilities of a larger one. It has helped him win favor with owners. His firm is often their EC of choice before other partners assemble for a project. Many of these owners represent high-rise commercial structures. Mayberry said a decade of excellent work, service and counsel also helped make owners sit up and take notice.

Mitigate risks in design/build

Spreading the risk by sharing it is one of the attractive features of design/build. You mitigate the risk through your thoroughness and planning.

“Many people ask if [design/build is] more risky,” Johnson said. “I say it is far less so than traditional design/bid/build. Especially if subs are brought in early to have more control over the electrical design of a building. Make sure you are working with qualified design/build contractors. They are the ones who bring you on to the project from the start. You also want a team that meets and designs together. If faced with incomplete drawings, communicate with the GC what needs to be done and what it will cost. Complete the drawings with detailed pricing. You have just reduced your risk.”

“Complete” and “detailed” resonate with Mayberry, as well. In design/build, once construction is well underway, any mistakes become more onerous. A failure becomes the team’s failure.

“You may be the electrical contractor, but you need to look at the mechanical and the architectural work, too,” Mayberry said. “All of us on the mechanical side have project managers to punch along the design, but each player should look at the entire project. We also all need to keep the project on time and on budget.”

For any of this to work, Mayberry said an EC must speak up with the partners when there is a problem.

“Ask the questions such as, ‘Do we have adequate space to handle large switchgear?’” he said. “‘Do we have the power requirements for all the equipment?’ [The ability to] communicate and negotiate are two important skills to keep the design/build process on track.”

A word of advice from all three: While risk is spread in design/build and there may be group insurance under some projects, do not forgo errors and omissions insurance.

“Professional engineers carry errors and omission insurance,” Micene said. “Whether or not you have such expertise on staff, have your own insurance. It’s that added layer of protection, though you can assess the need on a project-to-project basis.”

“There’s always been this unwritten attitude where architects and contractors need to be skeptical of one another, which hampers partnership as everyone is trying to protect their own interests,” Micene said. “This is still very prevalent. Design/build is your opportunity to speak up and be in a more trusting and collaborative environment. You ask to be in control of your own destiny, and you need to be. In my 30 professional years, design/build projects have been the most fun. Earn your place, and provide value. Your success is the team’s success, and that achievement will open the door to more design/build opportunities.”

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.