Partners in Design

Up-front collaboration is increasingly viewed as a better alternative to the traditional design-bid-build construction approach
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Posted December 14, 2017

If you ask almost anyone who deals with retail construction, they’ll probably tell you that greater collaboration is needed in the building process.

There’s certainly growing dialogue about the benefits of design and construction working hand in hand at the start of a project, rather than through the traditional method, in which designs and technical documents are finalized before contractors are even brought into the conversation.

“I can’t say enough about the idea of coming together sooner,” says Diane Rambo, vp of creative at Big Red Rooster, a Columbus, Ohio-based design firm. Working in tandem when designs are still fluid can help realize efficiencies, keep projects on schedule and squeeze more out of budgets, Rambo says. “There’s tremendous value.”

So why isn’t that seemingly common-sense method more widely practiced?

BARRIER TO CHANGE
Altering a business’s modus operandi isn’t always easy, or convenient. Greg Skalaski, vp of retail at Shawmut Design and Construction (Boston), says it can be tough to break the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

“The difficulty is overcoming long-held perceptions that the best method of keeping construction managers honest is through a lump-sum bid process,” he says.

Clients feel that they’re getting the best price by bidding out to multiple contractors, Skalaski says, but the hard-bid process is barely transparent because it’s not clear how those numbers are determined. “You end up with surprises at the end,” he explains.

At a time when pricing is crucial, it’s little wonder that collaboration is gaining ground.

“We’re starting to see it more and more, because the cost of materials is high, and labor is high,” says Tom Fenton, business development manager at Schimenti Construction (Ridgefield, Conn.). “So it’s a matter of getting a handful of parties together at the table. If we can get those [cost-savings] accomplished without compromising design, then everyone sees value in that.”

COLLABORATIVE APPROACHES
While there are different ways to structure such relationships, “design-build” is the most well-known approach, which brings designers and contractors in under a single contract to work on the entire project as a team.

In a design-build process, the client has a single point of contact and receives unified design and construction recommendations.

That’s in sharp contrast to traditional “design-bid-build,” where design and construction have two separate contracts – and two distinct self-interests – which frequently position the client as the middleman to settle disputes (like who’s to blame for cost overruns).

Design-build lends efficiency: Rather than waiting for the design and bid phases to conclude before starting to build, the design and construction phases are initiated concurrently.

REAP THE BENEFITS
Of course, not everyone can swap out decades of process, or a corporate culture that mandates tradition. But there are still ways to cash in on the benefits of integration.

The agency designer or architect might contract for pre-construction services, for instance, and receive a feasibility review of the draft design plans. Or they can go further and bring on a contractor to work through schedule and cost estimates, engaging subcontractors early on.

There are a range of services that can be provided up front to make the project more collaborative and ensure the design is based on real-time feedback, Skalaski says.

And it does take a concerted effort. As anyone who’s spent time in the business can tell you, critical matters can get lost in translation as design progresses down the traditional path.

“Construction solves for budget instead of the strategic experience,” says Rambo, “so unless you’re completely involved from the beginning, it can feel like a game of telephone.”