There's No 'Me' in a Design/Build Project

By Aug 15, 2007
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With the drive to formulate design/build teams, many electrical contractors now consider this building strategy to be a specialty that

results in strong connections with general contractors and superintendents. But for those just venturing into the growing pool of design/build projects, several challenges should be expected. First, contractors new to a teamwork-style project have to determine where to find the design/build projects, what are the most lucrative choices and how a contractor can gain access to them.

The good news is there is more help for contractors entering this teamwork project delivery area than ever before, more design/build projects and, of course, more competition. Design/build is a different approach, and just being awarded a project does not guarantee success, which Walker “Lee” Evey, president of the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) pointed out. “It’s a process, not a panacea,” he said. “You need to be familiar with design/build.”

Design/build development

By now, the more progressive electrical contractors have gone to the design/build process, which is in fact an older building practice, used in ancient Greece as well as modern construction and throughout much of human history.

For those still coming into it, the advantages are more resources and more acceptance by architects, developers, general contractors and engineers. The DBIA for example, now has local chapters in most large cities that offer numerous training opportunities.

Relationships with general contractors who specialize in design/build projects may be the best way to have a permanent foothold in this part of the industry. There are more general contractors now than even several years ago, and they not only undertake design/build projects, they specialize in them. Forrester Construction Co., Rockville, Md., is one example. Forrester has been providing design/build services for 18 years and in the past eight years has made it a focus of its diversified construction practice.

“Forrester seeks opportunities to be a proactive participant in the entire process of designing and constructing better buildings,” said Victor J. Bonardi, Forrester’s DBIA design/build director. This concept includes early involvement of the construction team, he said, for a more comprehensive, fully integrated project team.

“The larger government and institutional organizations have long recognized the distinct disadvantages associated with awarding multimillion dollar constructs on the basis of low bid,” Bonardi said. The answer has been the ever-increasing use of design/build contracts and selection of teams based on the best value. This allows the contract award to be based on past performance, relevant experience and proven record of accomplishment for quality projects, rather than a low bid. Price is no longer the only condition for award.

“The most qualified teams may be selected with the realization that their qualifications make the added cost a better value to the client. This approach helps to ensure better facilities,” Bonardi said.

As the design/build trend gained momentum in the mid-1990s, Forrester began a more proactive participation in this project delivery system, and it has become part of the company’s growth with projects for federal government agencies, state agencies, colleges, universities and private schools.

“We believe that design/build produces better buildings, at lower overall costs and within shorter schedules than any other project delivery system. It allows us as a company to form trusting, long-term relationships with key clients, which generates repeat work,” Bonardi said.

A good relationship with subcontractors is in fact as important to the general contractor as it is to the electrical contractor. For the design/build delivery system to work, there needs to be true teaming, Bonardi said, and for good reason.

“Crucial subcontractors, like electrical contractors, are almost always a part of project success,” he said.

Forrester always seeks subcontractors who can embrace this new concept for conducting business and can participate in an integrated project team. The challenge is overcoming decades of suspicion and misinformation that generally exists within the construction industry. All parties engaged in a design/build project must be able to think as part of a complete team with support and cooperation for all other parties, through all phases of work.

“Electrical work is clearly one of the critical elements to a successful project,” Bonardi said, pointing to the increase in power demands, telecommunications and data transmission criteria, fire alarm and emergency notification systems, energy-efficient lighting, and the essential need for reliability in all these systems. “[It] makes the electrical contractor an important part of every successful project,” he said. “The challenge for all contractors, especially electrical contractors, is to understand the nature of pursuing design/build work and how it differs from design/bid/build.”

Since most design/build contracts require a price prior to completing design documents, contractors need to read between the lines to develop a complete, accurate and competitive price package. They must price what they know to be required and not necessarily what is shown on early pricing documents, Bonardi said.

“Team only with design/builders that have a proven track record of success. Not all general contractors are qualified design/builders,” Bonardi said. Look for recently completed relevant projects, he said, as well as the GC’s capacity to bond design/build contracts and its certification by the DBIA.

Electrical contractor Rosendin Electric, Mesa, Ariz., has been involved in design/build projects for about 25 years, said Tom K. Sorley, Rosendin president and CEO.

“We made a strategic objective to pursue more design/build work, and as a result, design/build has grown to represent about 35 percent of our business,” he said.

Rosendin has been part of design/build’s adoption.

“Suffice it to say that design/build has grown very quickly and now commands over 40 percent of the market,” Sorley said.

The business development of design/build work in many ways is no different than finding other work.

“[However,] your reputation for performance and collaboration may play a more significant role in being chosen to join a design/build team,” Sorley said. He added that whether public or private work, the design/build team wants contractors that look for solutions, not problems, and have a reputation for performance.

Rosendin has had several decades to build strong relationships with contractors, architects and clients, but it’s not always enough.

“Having a past relationship is not paramount to being involved in design/build,” Sorley said. “To gain access to a design/build team, the specialty contractor must demonstrate a competency in the type of project being built.” This competency must span design and constructability. “In the relationship that follows, trust is built based on the degree in which the contractor works in partnership with other members of the design/build team finding solutions that help exceed the expectations of the owner.”

Military matters

The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), now is making design/build their strategy for the majority of their military projects and seeks contractors that are competent in the strategy. In some cases, there are mandates that a majority percentage of USACE projects be design/build, said Paul Parsoneault, acting team leader for construction management section of the USACE Military Programs Branch. For the Army, for example, if a facility plans to have a private-sector equivalent, it needs to be design/build. That includes Army barracks, which can be likened to hotels.

“The idea is to go more for design/build to specify requirements in performance terms, not prescriptive terms,” Parsoneault said. “We want the creativity of the marketplace with a team that can come up with cost-effective and creative solutions,” he said.

The military is in fact ahead of many civilian markets in design/build implementation. However, even markets that at one time rejected the design/build format, such as New Orleans in the previously design/build-free state of Louisiana, now are undergoing a transformation with large design/build construction projects.

“Does the industry have the interest and capability to make this transition?” Parsoneault asked. “That’s the question. So far, we are finding they can.” Even as the military’s interest in design/build grows, the construction industry is meeting their needs. Contractors seeking design/build projects need to prepare by teaming with general contractors.

“Often times, the general contractor will sub the electrical design responsibilities to the trade subs,” Parsoneault said. “It’s a culture change, and it’s been successful. Some states are proponents of design/build, and some are not. But we haven’t found that to be a problem at all.” Thus far, they have found the qualified contractors they needed throughout the country.

Learning to design/build

Some years back, it was difficult to become a design/build contractor. Today, the process is simpler, as it is far easier to gain the knowledge needed for success.

“I moved into design/build as an owner,” said the DBIA’s Evey. In 1997, he said, “we stepped off the cliff and learned to fly on the way down. There wasn’t nearly the information available that there is today.”

Since then, the DBIA has offered training educational opportunities.

“What some people fail to understand is they think they’ll step into design/build and something magical will happen,” Evey said.With an annual membership, contractors can keep themselves from making the mistakes that inexperience can cause.

In addition, the USACE offers classes to help those within its ranks to learn more about the process, how to make the right procurement decisions and what other unique features and roles they must learn.

Once you have the knowledge, you need to find jobs to apply it. The process for finding opportunities in design/build projects is similar to any other project—the listings are available through advertising, state agencies and

For those new to design/build, often the smaller projects are a great learning opportunity.

“It’s not scary; I would like to believe it’s the opposite of scary,” Evey said, adding that design/build is based on people, teamwork and cooperation that has been done for ages.

“We are a throwback to an earlier age, not exactly the new kids of the block,” he said, citing ancient projects such as the Great Wall of China.

Why join the team?

Once a contractor begins design/build projects, it will find quickly how many are out there. Evey likened it to buying a Volkswagen Beetle in 1969, which he believed at the time to be unique.

“I thought I was the only driving one, and then I noticed everyone had one,” he said. Design/build is the same, though it holds a bigger business consequence.

“As use of design/build increases,” Evey said, “those contractors who don’t do it will begin seeing their opportunities diminishing.”

In contrast, those in design/build find increased opportunity to contribute to the job planning, compared with the EC’s traditional building role. With design/build, electrical contractors benefit from an enhanced position—one in which the EC can weigh in on the project’s development early on. In fact, design/build electrical contractors need to communicate their goals, challenges, problems, constraints and budget with the other team members, Evey said.

To do that, the construction team must be brought together much earlier in the project.

“We say, if you want to do it right, you have to form the team very early. You’ll have a fundamentally different relationship with the prime contractor,” Evey said.

Some steps must be taken before launching into a design/build project. “Assess your personnel to ensure that they have the competency and the characteristics to pursue an integrated delivery model,” Rosendin’s Sorley said. “For some, this may mean forming an alliance with an engineering firm your team can work with.”

The give and take between trades on a design/build job is meant to enhance the quality and performance of the team and the project that is collectively delivered to the owner. “Once you are confident, starting small might be in order,” he said.

Ultimately, Evey said, “It’s tough. It’s hard work, no question. But of all the ways to do construction out there, this is the best way.”   EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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