Is Design/Build For You?

Electrical contractors’ participation in design/build (D/B) projects continues to increase annually, with 36 percent of the respondents to Electrical ­Contractor’s 2012 Profile of the Electrical Contractor study stating that their influence on overall electrical design is significant. The impetus for this rising involvement probably comes from the growing incidence of incomplete plans and specs from building owners, general contractors and other design team members over the past decade or more.

Design responsibility in the construction process has shifted, noticeably expanding the EC’s role in the initial planning stages of a project, with 20 percent of the Profile’s respondents saying that their involvement in design work is now earlier in the procedure than it was four years ago.

It should be noted that projects in the D/B category can be valued anywhere from the hundreds to the millions of dollars.

So the obvious thing to figure out is exactly what’s going on in the D/B world today and in other types of collaborative building processes, such as integrated project delivery and building information modeling. Should ECs not yet participating in collaborative processes consider getting on board?

Not everybody is doing it—yet

The first point to keep in mind is that D/B isn’t for everybody. It is a matter of choice, attitude and a contractor’s individual personal comfort zone.

If an EC’s client base consists of general contractors and owners who typically present fairly complete plans and specs and that’s what the EC prefers, then D/B is probably not for that EC. And while D/B doesn’t fit all, one should keep in mind that there are different kinds and sizes of D/B project.

There are varying degrees of involvement in D/B, ranging from limited design/assist work to the most sophisticated full-scale project control, so it’s not a question of having to try to plunge suddenly whole-hog into this discipline.

That said, it would be inadvisable to ignore the trend toward the growing adoption of the D/B practice that continues to develop in the marketplace.

“Design/build has become more accepted by the general contractor and building owner community over the last decade,” said Mike Curran, CEO of Red Top Electric Co., Livermore, Calif. “A few years back, only a limited number of owners would consider a D/B arrangement because they didn’t understand the inherent cost savings. Now, 50 percent of our projects are D/B. It mitigates the owner’s risk and gives us a constructability preview. Using D/B, prior to starting the project, we can look for ways to save the owner money, thereby taking a proactive role in the process.”

While larger contracting firms—with the capital to build the requisite in-house engineering team—are more likely to be involved in D/B work, size is not a determining factor.

“This is not a question of company size,” said Paul Pica, vice president of special projects at CSI Electrical Contractors Inc., Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “If a customer has a set of needs but no plans and trusts the electrical contractor to take care of him, that’s design/build in its purest form. Small companies in the service arena might not be able to handle several-million-dollar D/B jobs, but their established reputation for customer service might mean that a larger percentage of their business is now in D/B work than that of larger firms, even though it consists of small and medium-range projects.”

The energy services niche

One particularly attractive and obvious target of opportunity for electrical contractors experienced with D/B is the area of retrofit energy services or solutions. Virtually everything connected with energy conservation in a building—lighting, shading, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, variable frequency drives and solar photovoltaics—can be the purview of the EC.

“The electrical contractor has the opportunity to take the lead in energy-solution projects, and these are often D/B situations,” said Rob Colgan, executive director of marketing at the National Electrical Contractors Association. “The EC basically makes the determination on what the energy usage is in the building currently and how to create a new system that can improve it through installation of renewable-energy solutions. He coordinates the design and works directly with the owner. This is a tremendous growth opportunity for contractors because there is so much existing office and retail space that is ripe for energy retrofit projects.”

A growing vocabulary

As with any niche market, collaborative building has its own jargon that can be intimidating to the uninitiated; and, as new technologies are added, new terms emerge. The two, new most often-used phrases are building information modeling (BIM) and integrated project delivery (IPD).

According to the research and development think-tank Digital Building Laboratory, BIM is a process involving the generation and management of digital representations of the physical and functional characteristics of a building, and the resultant model becomes a shared knowledge pool to facilitate basic decision-making about the planned building by all members of the construction team. BIM also goes beyond three-dimensional modeling of width, height and depth, adding time as the fourth dimension and cost as the fifth.

“Four years ago, perhaps 10 percent of the RFPs we saw had some kind of BIM requirement,” said Ron Wilson, director of engineering at Rosendin Electric Inc., San Jose, Calif. “But it has been on the rise steadily, and now probably 60 percent of the RFPs have a BIM component. And a majority of that percentage wants 3-D modeling of the design as well as the coordination data. Earlier, essentially what they wanted was basic operations modeling for clash detection to prevent collision issues and to make sure all the trades could get their systems through in the construction process.”

Talking through the project

Probably the easiest way to describe IPD is as the process of getting people on the construction team to talk to each other early as opposed to delegating blame later when problems arise on the job site.

Industry observers say that IPD is a response to the historical lag in productivity that has plagued building construction since the late 20th century due largely to scheduling lapses and budget overruns, which were attributable to poor communications among owner, architect, GC and trade subcontractors including the EC.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has argued in a number of position papers that, instead of each participant focusing exclusively on his own construction role without considering its impact on the whole process, using IPD brings them all together initially with collaborative incentives to maximize value for the owner. This promotes informed decision-making at the project’s outset when the most value can be created and eliminates a great deal of waste in the design due to direct data-sharing among the construction team.

“IPD is a smaller subset within BIM,” Rosendin’s Wilson said. “Of the major electrical contractors, 95 percent are using BIM, and 40 percent of that group are involved with some kind of IPD process. It’s all about continuous access and being able to bounce ideas off each other on the construction team—interaction in real time with all the interested parties.

“D/B is simply the contracting trades working together to provide a solution for the owner, but IPD in the strictest sense is an incentive to beat the budget and the project deadline because all the players will share in the reward. IPD sets up a contractual framework formalized on the monetary side.”

But there is one player who has to be watched carefully in the IPD process—the owner/customer.

“Unless the customer truly commits from the beginning to the ultimate design of the completed project, there will be problems,” said Pica at CSI. “Decisions have to be made right out of the gate, but if the customer starts changing his mind, then all the preplanning and collaboration of the players will be wasted on delays and cost overruns. When a BIM-IPD project goes bad, it really goes bad.”

But perhaps most important, whatever shape or form of D/B the electrical contractor chooses to become involved in, it relates quite directly to the bottom line. Involvement in the D/B process either validates an EC’s initial estimates or produces a new estimate. The more important the EC’s role is in the planning process and decision-making, the more control the EC has over project costs and the greater the profitability will be.

Indications are that the electrical contractor’s involvement in D/B will continue to increase as platforms like BIM and processes like IPD relentlessly proliferate. The question is, to what extent will the EC’s role be enhanced?

“This is just the beginning, and there will be more and more integration among the trades and the overall building industry,” Wilson said. “Lines will blur in terms of who’s in charge of what and who delivers what. The electrical contractor’s role in design can only expand as the process becomes a continuum from conception to construction.”

About the Author

John Paul Quinn

Freelance Writer

John Paul Quinn reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and

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