Design/Build Teamwork Sharpens Winning Edge

As Today’s growing project-delivery method, much is said about design/build’s inherent advantages; however, its success rests on the shoulders of a winning team. While it is the coach’s responsibility to recruit and manage the team, members have to roll up their sleeves, play their position and perform to a certain set of expectations. Nobody builds a bridge alone.

“If teamwork is so important on Sunday afternoon, why isn’t it important on Monday morning? It’s every bit as important on the job site as it is on the football field,” said Lee Evey, president of the Design-Build Institute of America and self-professed football fan.

Electrical contractors are suiting up to join design/build teams in large numbers. According to the 2006

Electrical Contractor Design/Build Survey, about eight in 10 electrical contracting firms worked on a design/build or design/assist basis. On average, design/build work accounts for 82 percent of revenue for electrical contractors who work primarily on a design/build basis, and it comprises 43 percent of an electrical contractor’s revenue overall.

Full team ahead

Teaming is becoming a very important aspect of design/build work, and the list of benefits of developing a focused team approach is long and growing:

  • Improved quality
  • Upfront design input
  • Cost and time savings
  • Better risk management
  • Pooling of resources and expertise
  • Larger projects and expanded markets
  • Opportunities for better coordination and communication
  • Potential for reduced administrative burden during construction and claims reduction

While there are a variety of ways electrical contractors become involved with a design/build project, the most likely scenario is contracting power, communications or control services with a general contractor who acts as the design/builder or “coach” of the project.

According to Jim Whitaker, vice president and architect at New Jersey-based Skanska USA Building Inc., general contractors are increasingly interested in teamed arrangements for a number of reasons, especially with design/build projects.

“First, the parties absolutely must have a mutual understanding of business philosophies and practices, which on some level, could be considered more important to a successful relationship than the project-specific performance requirements. Two, a collaborative relationship helps the parties reasonably attribute risk to the party best apt to properly manage it, such as scope of work, insurance, bonding and design requirements,” Whitaker said. Third, teams have a commonality and combined strength of purpose when they all focus on the same goals.

“The team and project function better. Also, individuals and firms who have teamed before are immediately more effective than those that are new to one another,” he said.

Teaming’s new playbook

In most cases, the desire to participate in a team goes both ways, said Dr. Thomas E. Glavinich, Electrical Contractor contributing editor and electrical engineer who teaches power engineering and construction management at the University of Kansas.

“Contractors are becoming more aware of the need for a team on a design/build project, and the team and how it is structured is becoming an increasingly important consideration for specialty contractors,” Glavinich said.

Compared to the traditional design/bid/build processes, there are a few more people involved. Generally, the players taking a seat at the table include architects, consultants, engineers, information technology representatives, electrical contractors and mechanical contractors. Even if the roster doesn’t seem much different from other methods, what has changed are the expectations.

Like other design/build or design/assist subcontractors, electrical contractors are not only expected to add value to the overall project and contribute any expertise that will make the team structure flatter and faster, but there is more focus on delivering greater impact much earlier in the process.

“The electrical contractor should be engaged and consulting with the design/build team and design engineer-of-record, in particular, for every decision, starting with the primary service and connection to the public utility through what devices to use as switches and outlets,” Whitaker said. “The electrical contractor must provide constructability commentary in concert with other trades, design recommendations based upon experience, product availability, engineer’s criteria and immediate marketplace pricing for materials and labor.”

According to Dave Hearn, president of Baker Electric, Des Moines, Iowa, the convergence of a design/build culture with the advent of design software has expanded the opportunity for design input from electrical contractors. Typically, Hearn’s internal team interfaces most closely with architects and mechanical contractors, but he has identified a collaborative design trend that is gaining popularity and is having a dynamic impact on electrical contractors.

The collaborative design process begins with the owner, architect, consultant and engineering firm, creating a concept with a general narrative. The concept is then provided to the general contractor to finish the design and complete construction. Unlike earlier design/build processes, a collaborative design allows consultants and engineering firms to step back into the equation.

“The difference is you have both entities involved because of their ability to do a conceptual engineering thought. This gives the owner a greater comfort level on the front end to at least get the roots and trunk under their auspices before turning it over to contractors to facilitate the remaining designs and construction. It allows the job to progress faster as well,” Hearn said.

Although electrical contractors play a much more integral role in the design process, some experts point out the need for cautious participation with agreements depending upon capabilities.

William Ferguson Jr., a partner in the law firm of McCarter & English LLP and instructor of the “Design Build: Strategies, Risks, and Rewards” course for the NECA Management Education Institute, noted that under the traditional design/bid/build approach, there is an increasing trend of owners and design professionals to attempt to shift design responsibility to the electrical contractor.

Ferguson said risk-shifting provisions found in various contracts have resulted in an effort to transfer design responsibility to the general contractor or subcontractor.

Team dynamics

Teaming makes a measurable difference in a project’s level of success; however, it is important to remember a team is only as strong as its members. Understanding relationships, specifically how personality types differ between architects and contractors over the years, gives insight into the teaming now required on projects, said Benjamin Wilking, AIA, vice president and director of design/build for Lantz-Boggio Architects Corporate Services, Englewood, Colo.

Those relationships have not always been the best, said Wilking, but understanding personalities and processes involved can make a difference. Building a relationship takes time, but once established, a level of trust evolves that can create confidence.

“Teaming and subsequent interdependency is the one feature of design/build that sets it apart from any other delivery method. For example, teaming means the architect understands the contractor’s desire to be profitable, and the contractor understands the architect’s desire to maintain the highest level of design on each project,” Wilking said.

Team communication is further enhanced in the design/build process through e-mail, electronic design sharing and regular meetings that bring everyone, including key field personnel, together in one room to discuss design changes.

“Once the design is off and running, the project manager takes over. In a lot of cases, that’s the same person for us, so there’s a certain continuity on the team from beginning to the end,” Hearn said.

Teaming, however, is like any relationship. There always is a chance that personalities could conflict or something else could go wrong.

“When you’re selected to perform this service, it’s an honor, so everybody comes into the team with their shiniest shoes and their best personality. Everybody tries to get along and impress the customer, because we all want future work. In the end, if you burn too many bridges, you run out of ways to get across the river,” Hearn said.     EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at







About the Author

Debbie McClung

Freelance Writer
Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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