No More The Days of Yore

By Chuck Ross | Aug 15, 2015




Once upon a time, owners hired an architect to draw up plans for a building and put the design out to bid, but that method is rapidly changing. Such design/bid/build (DBB) arrangements still may make up the majority of today’s project contracts, but just barely. Aided by rapidly developing design technologies, other project structures are moving to the fore, led by a shift toward ever-greater cooperation between the entire building team.

Design/build still growing quickly

As of 2013, according to the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), DBB contracts maintained just over 50 percent of the market, a drop from almost 70 percent in 2005. During the same period, the design/build (DB) approach grew from 29 to 39 percent, and this was during the construction slowdown that accompanied the Great Recession. This data parallels information gathered in Electrical Contractor’s 2014 “Profile of the Electrical Contractor.” In that survey, researchers found that 70 percent of respondents had participated in either DB or design/assist projects within the previous year. When looking at company size, 84 percent of firms with 10 or more employees and 63 percent of smaller firms have done DB or design/assist work.

For electrical contractors (ECs), this move to new project structures can require some homework to understand possible liability implications. With DB, owners contract with a DB entity, which could be a team led by the general contractor and architect. In electrical-intensive projects, such as data centers, the EC could be the project team leader. Regardless of the leadership structure, though, DB contracts might require more scrutiny to fully understand the way risk can differ from more traditional DBB arrangements.

Advanced Electrical Systems (AES) in Louisville, Ky., has become quite familiar with DB, and the process has become an important element in the company’s project portfolio, according to the company’s vice president, James Strange. With a client base that skews toward automotive and other heavy industrial customers, along with large commercial businesses, AES often has to coordinate with many other disciplines and trades.

[SB]“AES has been working on design/build for 20 years, but, recently, over the last five years, we have really seen it expand and become a more prominent part of our operations,” Strange said, noting the contract structure typically accounts for about 20 percent of the company’s total annual work. “Typical design/build projects take place more with our industrial clients or new warehousing construction.

“I believe design/build helps reduce the cost to the owner. It minimizes change orders and allows the owner, construction manager and other subs to work collaboratively and bring a finished product to market faster,” he said.

BIM: The great enabler

The collaborative element makes DB a natural fit with another fast-developing project-delivery tool: building information modeling (BIM). This data-driven design process adds the dimensions of time and cost to standard 3-D computer-aided design drawings. It is becoming a critical element among design teams because it provides greater insight into possible interferences, while also enabling faster design schedules and fewer mistakes. BIM’s increasing influence also came up in last year’s Profile survey. Of all respondents, 23.7 percent saw at least some use of BIM in their projects, and 70 percent of respondents from the largest firms worked on projects that required the technology.

“BIM is critical in advanced manufacturing and industrial [projects],” Strange said, noting the particular usefulness of BIM design software in complex projects, in which clearance for conveyors, presses and other equipment is vital to success. “The facilities we construct are massive. It’s very critical to coordinate with other trades to ensure the owner’s equipment has proper operating space.”

Bringing it all together

The collaborative opportunities inherent in BIM are, in turn, fostering the development of a new project model that, in its most formal incarnations, is shifting contractual relationships once again. Integrated project delivery (IPD) can imply a new kind of contract that equalizes responsibility and liability across multiple parties. But the phrase also can refer to a process in which teams work together, often in co-located office settings, rather than as independent silos.

The IPD method focuses on forming team structures, defining roles, using technological tools and implementing processes that support better collaboration and integration. 

The DBIA sees IPD as an umbrella term that can refer to various forms of project integration, with a common connection to DB-oriented projects, according to Lisa Washington, the DBIA’s executive director and CEO.

“Both support the principles of integration,” she said.

In addition, DB and IPD benefit from early involvement of trade partners, such as ECs.

Building a virtual world

Collaborative building has moved even further, into a concept called “virtual design and construction” (VDC). In this process, design teams often co-locate, sharing their respective design models with each other in real time. In this way, interferences and scheduling conflicts can be worked out as they are identified, rather than in the field. 

Such arrangements also could help address a primary problem that last year’s ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR survey identified. Respondents reported that, on average, 43 percent of all plans and specs they had received were incomplete.

Virtual design and construction has a number of advantages, from more efficient communication to reduced project costs. 

In all of these newer delivery methods—DB, BIM, IPD and VDC—involved contractors see the involvement of trade partners during the design process as a preferred approach, and familiarity with BIM will be an important qualifier for ECs interested in being a part of DB and IPD teams.

While building owners might not yet have the expertise to apply building models to ongoing facility management, they definitely see the value accurate models could add to operational bottom lines. 

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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