March 25, 2004

Construction industry struggles to accept ISD

  • Contractors, fabricators and designers have unfounded fears of the Integrated Steel Design process.
    Special to the Journal


    Integrated Steel Design, or ISD, is a type of design-build system that provides completed steel detail drawings prior to open market bid for the structural steel portion of a building. Developed and trademarked by Lanny Flynn, vice president of Design-Build Services at Putnam Collins Scott in Tacoma, the very concept strikes discord with many in the construction industry.

    ISD vs. conventional contracting

    Proven to eliminate scheduling problems and change orders by drastically minimizing or eliminating the need for requests for information, the very nature of this ISD method of contracting is feared by those it is intended to support.

    Some design teams, general contractors and even steel fabricators have problems with the ISD method over conventional contracting, mostly with regard to risk and responsibility. The only trade fully in favor of ISD is the steel detailer, who carries nearly all the risk and responsibility in creating a usable, quality product from what are normally unbuildable contract drawings.

    The downside of ISD

    General contractors fear there is a lack of quality steel fabricators and erectors. With the detail drawings already completed, those drawings may not receive proper review by the subcontractors to ensure quality fabrication and field fit up.

    Steel fabricators fear for faulty detail drawings and the loss of a portion of their competitive edge by not providing the steel detail drawings themselves. Many steel fabricators believe missing or obscure information in contract drawings provides them an avenue to save money. Steel fabricators also believe the simplification of that aspect of the work would level the playing field, and may eventually force them out of business.

    Architecture and engineering teams fear a loss of control over their projects, and mostly fear what they believe would be an unacceptable risk level involved with having the steel detail drawings as part of their supply.

    The only real fear is change

    The truth is these fears have proven unfounded. The opportunity for steel detailers to work closely with the A/E team on a given project prevents the use of inexperienced tradesmen. The A/E team maintains control of the project while the detailer's responsibility to produce accurate and quality detail drawings remains the same.

    The amount of risk the A/E team would experience with ISD contracting is far less than with conventional contracting, as the steel detailer acts as a protective buffer. The potential for RFIs, change orders and resulting scheduling impacts and cost overruns is virtually nonexistent!

    The availability of the steel detail drawings to their prospective fabricator and erector immediately after bid provides adequate review time by all concerned trades, including the general contractor. The responsibility and risk for quality and performance remains with the trades, as required for conventional contracting.

    The steel fabricator, who believes not providing the steel detail drawings would cut his ability to be competitive, probably has not factored in ALL the actual cost history. Fabricators also may have not taken a serious look at the benefits of having steel shop drawings provided for them. They may find that the opportunity for error is far less and delivery schedules more reliable, thereby creating a greater potential for profit!

    Designers' perspectives

    In today's execution of conventional contracting, some designers may feel vulnerable to a multitude of risks, some of which could be directly or indirectly related to their successful low bid contractors and subcontractors.

    High quantities of RFIs are sometimes considered a symptom of inexperienced personnel. An excessive amount of change orders may be perceived as the result of a subcontractor trying to make up for a low bid.

    The methods by which RFIs are executed are not conducive to scheduling maintenance. Financial and scheduling impacts created by RFIs are far reaching, and are often a burden to trades other than their original producer. Change orders resulting from the RFI impacts seldom provide a satisfactory or timely method of restitution for all involved.

    Take a closer look

    Design drawings today provide more information than ever before. Building codes and requirements are complex and detailed. There is a huge pool of designers, contractors and subcontractors, of all different types and levels of expertise, bidding and executing every project. There is so much information to dissect and interpret, so many variables to consider, it is apparent the only constant is that diversity.

    In this litigious society, it would be favorable for the designers to minimize their exposure to these complications. Exercising the use of the ISD method over conventional contracting drastically reduces the impact of an unstable environment that is allowed by open market bidding.

    Executing steel detail drawings prior to bid release eliminates the unknown factors that create RFIs and change orders. This, in turn, prevents the scheduling and financial impacts that usually follow. Work flow would not be continually interrupted with the activity of contract execution after design completion. Adopting the ISD method in contracting will provide an assimilation of this forced diversity, and will create a convergence not otherwise achieved.

    Change is good

    In this day and age where we are world market vulnerable, how can we continue with the conventional method of contracting and remain service oriented and profitable? Much of the steel detailing is going offshore in favor of cheaper prices and shorter schedules. In doing this, the potential risk for misinterpretation and error, together with the resulting financial and scheduling impacts, has become greater.

    Projects with fast track schedules are the only ones that invite the use of unconventional methods and procedures. To continue thinking that conventional contracting is the only proper method, and that ISD is favorable only for special circumstances, is to shut the door on our potential for a prosperous future.

    Using the ISD method is one sure way to preserve and protect our standard of quality, our commitment to service, and maintain and expand our standard of living.

    Kerri Olsen, a steel consultant with 25 years of experience, provides project management, cost estimating, detailing and litigation assistance to steel fabricators and general contractors.

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