A Seat at the Table

By Chuck Ross | Sep 15, 2009
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The design/build approach to construction management has been hailed as a boon to both owners and contractors and a big improvement over standard design/bid/build arrangements. In their purest form, design/build contracts outline performance, time and budget specifications and then leave the means for reaching those goals up to the building team. However, real-world applications often differ from this rosy scenario, so electrical contractors need to understand what their design and specification role might be in any particular project.

In traditional design/bid/build contracts, owners first engage an architect to develop project plans. Those plans become the basis for subsequent requests for proposals. General contractors solicit their own estimates from various specialty subcontractors and develop proposals that may be evaluated by both the owner and architect.

In design/build, however, architects, contractors and specialty trades are assembled into a single team led by either the architect or the general contractor. Team members work collaboratively to develop plans that benefit from the input of each member’s individual expertise.

Design/build advocates say their approach offers win-win advantages to all project participants. The owner gets the assurance the pro-ject will meet performance, budget and scheduling requirements and the convenience of a single point of contact for any questions or con-cerns. And contractors get the opportunity to participate as full team members, with direct input into system design and product selection. Contract incentives help ensure superior scheduling and budget performance are rewarded.

Hybrid approaches to true design/build arrangements abound, however. For example, design/build/assist (also known as design/assist) projects bring the electrical contractor in after initial plans have been drawn to review the design and, potentially, provide alternative ap-proaches and aid in product specification. Under draw/build arrangements, the owner’s architect or engineer prepares partial design documents. Those documents form the basis for a request for proposal (RFP) for a general contractor/specialty contractor team to review, value-engineer and then manage the project’s construction. In both of these approaches, the owner loses the benefit of an electrical contrac-tor’s expertise during the initial design process.

“In a pure design/build arrangement, you get a performance specification, and the electrical contractor makes all the decisions,” said Thomas Glavinich, a University of Kansas professor and construction industry expert. “In the real world, it’s not that pure.”

Whether the project is being managed as pure design/build or falls under one of the hybrid approaches, electrical contractors are seen as product experts. This fact can make introducing changes easier—or at least less political—for the electrical contractor than it might be in traditional design/bid/build scenarios, in which the original designer may feel defensive regarding alternative approaches.

“It’s easier in a design/build process because you’re already in the role where that’s expected of you,” said Steve Juan, vice president of preconstruction services, Guarantee Electrical Co., St. Louis. “In design/bid/build, you may be ruffling the feathers of the designer. But the whole nature of design/build is to find a better way to get the job done.”

Guarantee is well-positioned to take advantage of design/build opportunities. The company has its own electrical engineering sub-sidiary, GECO, available to provide planning and estimating services. Such capability also aids its work in design/build/assist projects, in which it may be called on to review client-supplied plans for constructability and cost. Changes at that point can become more com-plicated because of the potential effects they can have on project schedules.

“It’s very important that the team is fully collaborative because, quite often, there’s a ripple effect [when changes are suggested],” he said.

For example, a change in the underfloor cabling design could affect the mechanical contractors’ ductwork placement, or a lighting controls alteration could have architectural design implications.

Some design/build teams co-locate their design professionals in the same office during the course of a project to promote active col-laboration and minimize the impact of changes to the overall plan. That’s the strategy taken on a recent hospital construction project in which Guarantee was involved. The design/build team was set up in a series of connected construction trailers, and large, wall-mounted, flat-screen monitors enabled easy display of 3-D computer-aided design images; that way, all involved could model potential changes and see the results instantaneously.

“Everyone could see what was going on,” Juan said.

“All of us were in there doing work; it was collaboration in its purest form.”

This is just the kind of team approach advocated by the Design-Build Industry Association (DBIA), a Washington, D.C.-based orga-nization promoting design/build concepts. The group sees great advantages—including, perhaps, significant cost savings—when the elec-trical contractor is involved in a project from the beginning.

“From DBIA’s perspective, specialty contractors need to be brought on early in the process,” said Lisa Washington, executive director, DBIA. “At least, they should have input in the design process. When they come in at the tail end, it becomes more of a prescriptive proc-ess, not performance-based.”

That difference between prescriptive and performance-based planning gets at the heart of the shift design/build advocates seek to en-courage. In prescriptive-based design/bid/build contracts, plans come down to contractors from architects and engineers. Contractors brought on later in the project then must force any changes back up the chain of command. This can be a cumbersome, time-consuming process.

With performance-based design/build contracts, designers and contractors are given specifications outlining project performance re-quirements and then work as a team to develop solutions for meeting those requirements.

Even for owners interested in following design/build principles, this new mindset can be a challenge.

“One of the reasons for change orders [in design/build projects] is that many owners are still learning how to write proposals for per-formance, rather than prescriptively,” Washington said.

While the DBIA urges owners and general contractors to get specialty trades involved at the project’s inception, this often doesn’t hap-pen. Electrical contractors brought into projects later in the process should take time to review all project documents before diving into actual installation. Getting up to speed on overall project goals and what other team members are doing can help minimize future changes and delays.

“As soon as they get the drawings, they should do a constructability review and a value analysis,” Glavinich said.

The constructability review considers the placement and installation schedule for electrical systems and products, while the value analy-sis involves a closer look at bottom-line matters.

“The value analysis really looks at whether there is a way to give the owners what they want for less money,” Glavinich said.

Changes in design/build projects generally fall into one of three major categories, although all three boil down to different ways of cutting costs.

“It may be the electrical contractor feels he or she can save the owner money” on a less-expensive alternative product, Glavinich said. “Or it may be delivery—‘here’s a more standard piece of equipment we can get quicker.’ Or, it may be a value-engineering issue from the standpoint of labor.”

Making Sense of Alphabet Soup

The acronyms associated with design/build—d/b/b, d/b, d/a, d/b/a—can seem more appropriate to a baseball scorecard than to building and construction contract arrangements, but you still need to understand their meaning if you are interested in pursuing design/build work. The following three terms are especially important to know when discussing this topic.

Design/bid/build (d/b/b): This is the traditional method for arranging building and construction contracts in the United States. Under these plans, the owner first secures an architect or engineer to draw up project plans. These plans are circulated to bidding contractors who then solicit individual bids from specialty contracting firms, which are then rolled into the general contractor’s final estimate.

Design/build (d/b): Under this approach, a single organization is responsible for a project’s design and construction. The team may be led by a contractor (“contractor-led design/build”) or an architectural or engineering design firm (“design-led design/build”).

In either case, specialty contractors are a part of the process from the beginning of the design, which can minimize the need for future changes and help streamline the overall schedule.

Design/assist (d/a)—also called “design/build/assist” (d/b/a): In this case, drawings are partially completed before specialty contractors are called in to finalize the plans. The degree of completion may vary, and electrical contractors may have significantly less influence on product specification under this approach.

Getting more familiar with design/build practices could be important to your business’ future growth prospects. As of 2004, according to the DBIA, design/build was responsible for approximately 40 percent of nonresidential design and construction in the United States and was trending upward. But, getting on prospect lists for design/build projects could require legwork for identifying and reaching out to general contractors in your area commonly working under such contract arrangements.

“At this point in the process, general contractors aren’t going out to the specialty contractors,” Washington said. “So we’re encouraging specialty contractors to make their own inroads.”

Large-project general contractors may offer multiple opportunities and could be especially good networking targets. Guarantee has done quite a bit of multibuilding campus work for hospitals and other similar clients. In these, Juan said, the general contractor may have a standing contract and assemble individual mechanical/¬electrical/plumbing teams for each building.

“So the estimate ends up being conceptual, and the selection is based on price,” he said, adding that there are other factors such as experi-ence and available resources.

But despite the challenges in establishing connections and working out individual proposal and contract complications, design/build offers electrical contractors a number of new opportunities for building new business and connections.

“First of all, electrical contractors get to showcase their expertise, and it gives them more control,” Glavinich said.

Then he added a third advantage that could help build future business, regardless of how those projects are structured: “It brings them closer to the owner.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

ROSS has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for more than 25 years. Contact him at [email protected].






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