Forging an Alliance

Sustainable design depends on a comprehensive understanding of a building’s siting and systems, so it seems reasonable to assume a more integrated design and construction process could play a role in project success. But with certification to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards becoming an increasingly common building owner goal, such assumptions require factual backing. New research is providing insight into using integrated design with LEED projects, and one contractor agrees with the findings wholeheartedly.

Integrated project delivery can encompass a range of related contract approaches, from design/build to design/assist and construction manager at risk (CMR). Hybrid contracts that draw on elements from each of these more boilerplate methodologies also exist. The major commonality between these varied arrangements, though, is the involvement of general and specialty contractors—including electrical contractors—early in the design process, and a shifting of risk away from the owner to a situation in which contractors and designers bear a greater responsibility for project success.

These approaches all differ from traditional design/bid/build project delivery, in which the owner first contracts with an architect and/or engineer to design the facility and then puts those design documents out to bid for construction. In those projects, owners assume the risk because contractors don’t need to take responsibility for the accuracy of design documents developed without their input.

A studied approach
Researchers, sponsored by the Charles Pankow Foundation, a Claremont, Calif.-based investor of construction-industry research, and the Washington, D.C.-based Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), have been looking into the connection between project-delivery methods and LEED project success. The researchers, including construction-management professors from Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University and the universities of Colorado and Oklahoma, are finding that integrated delivery methods can give projects a leg up.

“All methods are being used to deliver all LEED ratings,” said Keith Molenaar, an associate professor in the Construction Engineering Management Program for the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. “But integrated delivery methods, including design/build and construction manager at risk, had the highest rate of success.”

The three-phase research project began last year, with investigators gathering information on the project-delivery methods most frequently used to develop LEED projects, using surveys of LEED accredited professionals. This effort also used solicitation documents to probe how design and contracting services were being procured—whether owners were using low-bid or qualifications-based means of hiring these professionals. Project success was based on the ability to meet or exceed stated LEED certification goals, while coming in, at or below budget.

Researchers were somewhat surprised to discover just how prevalent integrated delivery methods have become in situations where LEED certification, at any level, was a stated project requirement, Molenaar said. More than 75 percent of the projects the team sampled were developed using design/build or CMR contracts, with the latter totaling approximately half of all projects.

“Owners are definitely seeing that need [for integrated involvement],” he said. “And they’re choosing delivery systems that are more integrated. But it does take a leap of faith for an owner to proceed with qualifications-based procurement.”

Building Your Design/Build Network
Electrical contractors interested in pursuing the growing LEED and design/build sectors should direct their efforts toward education and networking. Both LEED and integrated design present complicated requirements, and getting involved in the growing number of projects that bring the two together requires a thorough understanding of the technologies and responsibilities team members will face.

Training opportunities on broad energy-efficiency issues are readily available through the National Electrical Contractors Association—for example, the upcoming annual convention in October will offer a number of educational sessions on energy technology—and LEED Associate and Accredited Professional training is available through locally held workshops and online at Having LEED-accredited staff is becoming a prerequisite for consideration in LEED-related projects.

Design/build projects present their own challenges. The Design-Build Institute of America offers its own training and certification programs, including an associate-level certification for building professionals that don’t have hands-on design/build experience.

Beyond formal education, though, interested electrical contractors also need to brush up on their research and networking skills. Finding and keeping the right project partners is an ongoing task requiring patience and attention. —C.R.

And qualifications-based hiring is a critical component of integrated-design contracting. General contractors that take on a degree of project risk want to ensure designers and specialty contractors have requisite experience to work well in a team. A background in LEED and with team-based design can be important in ensuring project success.

In the second phase of the research, investigators whittled a list of 200 projects down to 12, representing a range of procurement and delivery methods and desired LEED ratings, and performed in-depth case studies on these selected efforts. The major findings in this phase included a better appreciation for the importance of owner commitment to project sustainability goals and the need for including green strategies in early conceptual and schematic design, rather than waiting for design development to begin.

“When you look at the complexity of the projects—the overlap of lighting and HVAC with daylighting and building envelopes—it helps to have the teams together earlier,” Molenaar said. “The largest impact on system sustainability happens early in the design process.”

When the construction manager is at risk, the firm assuming responsibility has a strong incentive to ensure plans are reviewed by related professionals as they are being developed. This arrangement enables greater design flexibility, as well, as all parties are able to weigh benefits and tradeoffs of the various options that might be available to meet both LEED and budget criteria. In design/bid/build, by contrast, design is pretty much locked by the time contractors are shown any plans.

The findings of the research project’s first two phases come as no surprise to DBIA president Lisa Washington. Her organization, which focuses on integrated design in general, not just specifically design/build, sees greater building-team interaction as especially important in sustainable design.

“When I read the initial report, I saw it as very commonsensical,” she said. “Everyone seems to agree that the early collaboration and integration is key.”

And, Washington said, that collaboration should include the specialty trades, not just the general contractor, from the project’s inception.

“[The specialty trades] are responsible for a large portion of the cost and responsible for a large portion of the sustainable elements,” she said, adding that the knowledge these experts bring to the table could help identify problems or opportunities the general contractor, architect or owner might miss. “They can identify elements that could become quite costly later on.”

However, procuring those professional services using qualifications rather than cost can be a challenge for managers of state and municipal facilities. Legislation may require such projects to be awarded on a lowest-bid basis. Washington allows that cost can be a part of a larger formula but argues that the larger emphasis needs to be on experience and “fit” with the overall team.

“We believe that design/build, done right, requires a -qualifications-based process,” Washington said. “If that point isn’t embraced, then you’ve already started off on the wrong foot because you’ve got to get the right team.”

Along with an owner commitment to qualifications-based procurement, the DBIA also supports the research findings on the importance of owner commitment to sustainable design from the project’s start. And this vision should be paired with a clear idea of the budget available to meet sustainability goals.

“The key is that the owner clearly states their sustainability goals in the initial solicitation process,” she said. “It can be as simple as ‘I want LEED Gold,’ but it really helps if you’re clear in your solicitation how much you have to spend.”

Keith Bush, vice president and director of integrated construction for Northern Va.-based Truland Systems Corp., sees LEED certification as a given in the large-scale capital projects with which his company is most often involved. In fact, LEED Silver is the baseline for federal new-construction projects. In addition, design/build is simply standard operating procedure in these projects.

“Nearly 100 percent of our design/build projects are for the federal government, and every one of them has incorporated LEED as a goal,” he said. “The various government agencies have learned they can get their projects more quickly with design/build.”

Bush has read the studies outlining the advantages of construction manager at risk contracts, but still values design/build as a contract format. And, with the federal government as a major client, Truland doesn’t have the option to revisit decisions once the ink has dried on a signed contract.

“The only difference with CMR is that it’s easier to adjust the budget” to go after different LEED credits, he said, noting that CMR offers contractors the ability to approach the owner with new ideas after the contract is signed. “Design/build for the government is always done on a lump-sum basis, so we don’t have the flexibility to ask the owner for more money.”

For smaller projects, Truland has an in-house electrical-engineering staff to do the design. For the more-common larger efforts, the company may come on board in a design/assist role, or it also may partner with an mechanical/electrical/-plumbing design firm to provide a single-contract point of contact. Regardless of the specific teaming arrangements, though, Bush sees the early contractor involvement in design/build project as a key ingredient to meeting LEED’s aggressive energy-efficiency targets.

“You’ve absolutely got to have representation from every level of your team as part of the process,” he said.

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

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer
Chuck Ross is a freelance writer and editor who has covered building and energy technologies for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. He specializes in building and energy technologies, along with electric-utility bus...

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