Some industry experts say design-build will be the preferred project-delivery method in commercial construction within a decade. The practice is growing in acceptance—though the public sector is a stumbling block—and new and less-expensive design software could be a boost to contractors who want even more control of their work.

Developers of this affordable and increasingly easy-to-use design software say their products blur the line between the EC and engineer, though contractors have a right to be skeptical. Some design software packages—the kind an average EC might afford—have been described as limited, “number-crunching” programs that do calculations, not true design. True design-software packages—most often purchased by electrical engineering firms—can cost up to $15,000, out of range for most contractors. But at least two design-software developers say they can deliver the goods of an expensive program for less than $1,000.

If that’s the case, the ability to do design and take the helm of design-build projects could be on your horizon. Lack of control, poor designs that don’t work in the field and contentious relationships with design firms could be a thing of the past. Richard Belle of the Design-Build Institute of America lays out the scenario too many contractors have seen too often on low-bid projects:

“In the process of doing it, the contractor says, ‘I really can’t do it unless I substitute material X for material Y.’ Or, ‘It’s not going to work unless we do this rather than that,’” Belle said. “And so, inevitably you have a lot of change orders, or a lot of delays, because the contractor basically says, ‘The designer didn’t do it right.’ The designer is out of it because, you know, ‘You already took my design. I’m not really concerned with what the contractor thinks.’

“So you have basically an adversarial relationship between the designer and the contractor because they’re not part of the team, and each one, if there’s a problem, they would argue, rests with the other one. And the owner is trying to steer his or her way between the two,” said Belle.

James E. Mackey, president of NetVersant Washington Inc. in Seattle, had a more positive view. Mackey downplayed the conflict between contractors and engineers and said design-build has succeeded on its own merits.

“I see design-build growing for the following reasons,” Mackey said. “(It) decreases the time required to build a project, adds cost accountability and adds a team approach to the project.”

The design-build edge

Dan Laws, with Dolphins Software (www.dolphins-software.com) in Sacramento, Calif., said any contractor who can use a computerized estimating program can use his company’s design software program. The programs are similar in that they contain databases of conduit, wire, connectors and other electrical parts and supplies. Contractors armed with design skills have an edge in controlling projects.

“Because most contractors don’t get involved with any facet of the engineering. They say once it gets to that level it’s taken away from them,” Laws said. “That’s what I’ve been told by some contractors. [With design software] they can be as competent as the most competent.”

John Wood is an electrical engineer who does tech support and development for Solutions Electrical, an Australian firm. Their design software allows changes to drawings in the field as well as the office.

“On just about every commercial or industrial construction there are changes to be made,” Wood said. “Things get moved around and this changes the cable calculations and fault levels; to be able to readjust on the run again gives that added flexibility to any company.”

Wood noted that in the last 10 to15 years—in Australia, at least—engineers’ ability and knowledge base has suffered a noticeable decline, and they often perform poorly on design-bid-build work.

“Asking the electricians confirms this,” Wood said. “The fact is that most designs done by engineering consultants are 80 percent overengineered and this only adds to the uncompetitive tendering process.

“The use [of design-build] has been increasing amongst the electrical contractor for some years, we suspect partly because of the software tools such as ours and also because of high costs in employing additional staff making for an uncompetitive bid,” he added.

This makes design-build an increasing attractive option, though, as noted earlier, public-sector projects, are still the sticking point. According to ZweigWhite’s 2003 Design-Build Survey, state-procurement laws are the biggest hindrance to public-sector design-build work. According to their survey, 46 percent of respondents said state laws blocked them out of this sector, the highest percentage in the six years. Yet the respondents were hopeful: more than 75 percent think public-sector design-build will grow in the next five years.

And industry experts say design-build, perhaps because of its often-advertised efficiency, will overtake low-bid construction in all U.S. categories by 2005. In addition, a late-1990s study by the Construction Industry Institute in Austin, Texas, and Pennsylvania State University found that design-build projects result in a 6-percent cost savings when compared with the conventional project delivery method and take one-third less time to complete.

A different way

The DBIA’s Belle said contractors who are already doing design-build know it has different demands.

“It’s a different contract, there are different requirements, there are different risk assumptions, different liabilities. One of the biggest challenges of design-build is that it is different from what many owners have habitually done for their professional lives,” Belle said.

“It’s not a persuasive argument against design-build, but there’s an argument that it’s different from what you’ve ever done. But if you don’t ever want to do anything different from how you’ve done it, then you have a problem about changing your mindset, and that is a challenge,” he said.

NetVersant’s Mackey reiterated that design-build gives the contractor control of a project from the initial phase to completion. He began doing design-build before it became a widely accepted practice, and said he introduced it to customers as a way to streamline the construction process and give the owner more input, all without the arrogance of a typical consulting firm. It was also presented as a means to control cost. He would give a guaranteed maximum for the project—a design-build principle—with a specifically designed scope. His company designed the project to meet the owner’s needs within that scope.

“Obviously, for ECs, a major part of our business is cost engineering. Consulting firms don’t have any realistic method of doing that because they can put out a budget number but they don’t have to live with that,” he said. “Sometimes it’s way over budget and with a design-build contractor, if they say $200,000, I design a system that’ll come in at $200,000.”

But can any contractor become a full-fledged design-build firm, one that does its engineering in-house? According to Woods and Laws, the answer is an unqualified yes. Wood’s company, Solutions Electrical, has Version 8.0, a Windows-based program that pulls together 14 functions, including conduit sizing and short-circuit and cable calculations, and places them on one CD. Their Web site (www.cablecalc.com) says the software features “an intelligent engine, which spells the end of cable calculations and many other electrical tasks which, up until now, have been time-consuming, error-prone and often require specialized personnel.” The software “makes design decisions for you, calculating voltage drops and optimum cable size on every run in your installation, no matter how many cables.”

The result is a design that will maximize costs savings in material and labor, according to the Web site, which also boasts that single-line drawings can be quickly converted to three-phase, full-color schematic diagrams with an option to save as an AutoCAD file.

Wood’s customer base is 80 percent contractors and 20 percent engineering firms. Solutions Version 8.0 will sell for $695 and Wood says his company is preparing beta versions that meet National Electrical Code standards for testing by several U.S. contractors and engineering firms.

“So it’s actually put together for end-users; it’s guaranteed they will be designing in 10 minutes,” said Wood. “It can make you a one-man operation, and the more people you can take out of the loop, the more control you have and the better chance you have of making a making a profit.”

Domestic competition

Dolphins Software has the Volts 3.20 program, and spokesman Laws said it can be used for design and analysis.

“It’s incredibly accurate,” he said. “It analyzes the circuit, it tells you exactly what your voltage drops are going to be to the circuit, exactly how much horsepower you can expect out of that motor you’re wiring it to—and that’s predicated on every variable that there is—from the type of conductor you’re using, the type of insulation you’re using, the temperature that it’s experiencing, the distance of the run, etc., etc.”

Laws touts Volts as a simple-to-use program and said electrical contractors of all types are using it, for many different types of projects. The features, he said, can go way beyond their scope if they wish or fit exactly into their scope.

“You literally click on a circuit breaker and drop it into an electrical panel and you’re done. That’s it,” he said. “All your drawings, all your calculation sheets, all your directories are automatically printed.

“It can do a utility company all the way to a complete tract of homes,” he added. “It’s a multicircuit analysis program. It can do everything in between. You can completely go through an entire plant. You can have an infinite amount of subpanels, secondary panels and tertiary panels. It’s very powerful.”

The drawings can be printed out or be exported into AutoCAD, but Laws said: “For an electrical contractor, he’s not going to use AutoCAD. He makes his money by pulling wire and if he’s not pulling wire, he’s not making money. And Volts is designed so he’s into the program and out of the program. And he has all the information printed that he needs to have.”

Laws said it’s correct that many programs simply do number crunching, but all design programs do, whether high-end or low. The high-end programs typically have a base price of $5,000, but Volts can be had for a $349.

“Volts definitely crunches numbers, too; however, Volts also generates drawings and all the necessary reporting that goes along with it,” Laws said.

Sitting on the fence

A quick Google search of “electrical design software” yields several similar companies. It’s wise to be leery of extravagant claims, but most sites have demos and you might find something that fits your design-build needs or aspirations. With increased competition, Mackey said ECs were like blackbirds perched on a fence.

“One takes off and starts flying and they all do,” Mackey said. “They see a successful competitor in their town and they do a little sniffing around, and they say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s doing this design-build work, there’s got to be something to it. Or he’s now into the teledata market, so there’s got to be something to it and I’ve got to get into it.” EC

FULMER, editor of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR and SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, can be reached at 301.215.4516 or jfulmer@necanet.org.