Design/Build: New Opportunities & New Alliances

The great strength of design/build (DB) and design/build-assist (DB-A) contract arrangements is the holistic view they encourage of the building process. These formats unite all those involved in building design and construction—architects, engineers and contractors—into a single team, giving electrical contractors (ECs) greater involvement in how buildings are designed, not just in how those designs are actually constructed.

Now, just as other DB-team building professionals have reached out to include contractors in their design conversations, those contractors are reaching out to manufacturers and distributors, bringing these important industry players into the design and construction process. Where some might see conflict of interest in this outreach, those involved see strong relationships, forged through earned trust—and product performance. And, as contractors work to keep pace with rapidly evolving building systems, these bonds are likely to grow stronger.

Here to stay

DB and DB-A approaches have become increasingly important to the nonresidential building industry over the last decade. And hard numbers back up the impact to ECs’ bottom lines—80 percent of firms surveyed in Electrical Contractor’s 2006 Profile Study worked on a DB or DB-A basis in 2005, and that work generated more than 40 percent of those firms’ 2005 revenue.

“Design/build is a very big deal,” said Matt Logan, business development manager for Worcester, Mass.-based Coghlin Electrical Contractors. “The traditional way becomes more costly. With design/build, you can really shorten the design process, and it allows [owners] to begin building sooner.”

However, while DB/DB-A arrangements may benefit the owner’s budget and schedule, they also require more of electrical contractors than traditional design/bid/build (DBB) contracts. Electrical pros in today’s DB/DB-A teams are actively involved in evaluating and selecting all the electrical components that make today’s buildings perform to their advanced design potential.

“If we’re doing design/build work, we’re specifying,” Logan said. “We’re specifying lighting, alarm systems, teledata systems and distribution systems.”

Contractors now specifying products and systems say their involvement in the selection process can mean a better deal in the end for the building owner over traditional DBB arrangements. In DB efforts, the contractor becomes another pair of eyes looking at the designers’ plans. And, because contractors deal with many manufacturers’ offerings on a daily basis, they are often more knowledgeable about comparative pricing and performance information than architects and engineers.

“Architects and engineers want their projects to be first class, and they don’t spare any cost in specifying products,” said Tom Morgan, president of Cleveland-based Harrington Electric Co. “Perhaps because we have a more practical view, we may specify a more modestly priced product.”

In some cases, though, designers may provide little leeway for contractors to suggest alternative products, a practice contractors say limits the value-engineering benefits DB projects offer. Whether it is an architect stipulating a particular lighting package or an engineer identifying a single manufacturer’s switchgear, these designers may be preventing the contractor from ordering an acceptable alternative at a better price.

“From our perspective, especially if we’re in a competitive situation, we just find it very counterproductive when an engineer has a locked spec on something,” Morgan said. “There’s always a chance that that rep can give us a bum price. The ideal situation is where you have three manufacturers and catalog numbers that have been prequalified, so the manufacturers are quoting apples to apples.”

However, this added attention to comparative—and competitive—specifying doesn’t seem to have damaged relations between contractors and their supplying distributors and manufacturers. If anything, electrical contractors active in DB/DB-A projects say they are depending more on suppliers for information on rapidly evolving electrical-system products. In a way, manufacturers and distributors are becoming additional members of the building team.

“We go to our vendors for help,” said Carmen Manno, senior vice president at Chicago-based Gibson Electric. “They know what product is designed for which application. We build through a team—the builders and the manufacturers.”

Gibson Electric’s vendors—a list that includes a number of leading distributors—are the firm’s conduit to this valuable manufacturer information. To ensure they’re getting an objective picture of the marketplace, the company’s specifiers will call on several of their providers.

“We go to multiple vendors,” Manno said. “You get the most value for your dollar when you open it up to multiple vendors. We evaluate everything they suggest—we have access to everything they have over the Internet.”

And, though some might see a conflict of interest in turning to suppliers for objective product information, electrical contractors say experience has taught them who they can trust. Harrington Electric has developed strong relationships with the manufacturers’ representatives who regularly call on the company, and its president said this trust has been built on years of interactions.

“You get to know the players, and whom to trust, so you don’t get burned,” Morgan said. “It comes from dealing for years with reps, and having their products match the sales pitch, and how they handle the order. You start to get a feeling over time.”

Educating themselves

Contractors also are finding that their own experience is a valuable instructor in their efforts to keep up with developments in product features and performance. For example, Gibson Electric holds lunch-hour sessions every Monday in which its employees come together to discuss vendor and project experiences. About once a month, the company offers structured presentations, often developed by outside vendors, to discuss products and design approaches new to the market.

Additionally, while encouraging its employees to attend area conferences, Gibson Electric also holds its own annual mini trade show. Manno said the company will rent out a conference facility and its suppliers will each set up a booth to present products and services.

Similarly, Logan said Coghlin Electrical Contractors regularly brings in manufacturer representatives to meet with the company’s estimating teams and project managers. And senior estimators take an interest in mentoring younger team members. The company also performs post-installation inspections of some products to ensure these devices are meeting expectations.

Gibson Electric has taken this process a step further by providing its field personnel with “report cards” they can use to grade a new product’s performance and ease of installation. Manno said this kind of feedback from its field installers is crucial to the company’s ability to respond to rapidly evolving innovations.

“It’s such a busy industry, and information is experienced so quickly, that without a relationship between the guys in the field and the people supplying the product, [our business] won’t work.”

LEED’ing developments

One topic electrical contractors predict will be increasingly important in their future product-specifying efforts is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Mechanical-system designers and specifiers face the heaviest burden under these guidelines for lessening a building’s impact on its surrounding environment. However, lighting and control systems also are key components in boosting a building’s ratings and bringing its overall performance closer to higher-level silver, gold and platinum levels. And all building-team members need to meet and document targets on the percentage of recycled content in specified products, and in minimizing the distance the product must travel from its manufacturing plant to the job site.

“We’ve got a couple lighting manufacturers that just moved to Monterrey, Mexico,” Manno said. “Now these are fixtures that we can’t specify.”

Communication is key

Design/build and design/build-assist based design-and-construction agreements are likely to become even more prevalent, going forward, as more nonresidential clients opt for the security of a single building team and a single budget for their increasingly sophisticated projects. This means electrical contractors will be assuming a significantly more prominent role in the overall building-design process.

The companies who succeed in this changing field will be those who are best able to keep up with product advances and the difference those advances can make in how a building looks and performs. Those contractors experienced with working in the DB/DB-A environment say that reaching out to those responsible for pushing product-design envelopes is the best way to grow this essential knowledge.

“Have good relationships with the manufacturers—look at them as a partner and not just as a salesperson trying to sell you a product,” Logan advised. “And don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s a risky game—you’ve got to have competent people who know what you’re doing, because you’re really flying without a net.          EC

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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