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February 21, 2019

Q&A: What makes or breaks design-build projects?

  • K-12 school districts are the newest entries into design-build.
    Johnston Training Group


    It's no secret that the design-build delivery method is continuing to grow in popularity. Of the roughly 60 attendees at the DBIA Certification Workshop in Portland last October (including myself), over half were owners or owner reps. Two of the three workshop days were led by Bill Kent, DBIA Fellow and market executive at Mortenson Construction.

    After the workshop, I connected with Kent about what has changed when it comes to design-build, challenges for owners, contractors and architects, and where he sees design-build headed next.

    Here's what he had to say:

    Q: How long have you taught the DBIA certification workshop?

    A: I started teaching the certification workshops in 2007. Back then there was very limited use of design-build in our marketplace so we would have between 10 and 15 participants in each workshop. Given the tremendous increase of public owners utilizing design-build delivery in the Northwest, our typical workshops now have 40-60 attendees. Many are owners, which is always great to see.

    Q: How has the DBIA certification training changed recently?

    A: The DBIA went through an extensive effort in 2013 to create and communicate universally applicable design-build best practices that, when applied, increase the probability of a successful project that meets or exceeds the expectations of all stakeholders. These best practices are organized into three sections: procuring design-build services; contracting for design-build services; and executing the delivery of design-build projects.

    Our revised certification course curriculum follows this same format. While much of the content is the same as the original courses, we have added new subjects such as Progressive Design-Build Delivery and the DBIA Code of Conduct, and we have re-organized and streamlined the rest. In doing so we have condensed what used to be four classes into three.

    The new courses were rolled out in September. Those who took the workshop prior to September but have yet to take the certification exam only have through April to take the old certification exam.

    Q: What are the fastest growing sectors and regions for DB?

    A: Transportation (WSDOT and Sound Transit), higher education (UW, WSU and the community college system whose projects are managed through the state Department of Enterprise Services), and the Port of Seattle have led the change to design-build delivery in our state.

    The newest entries into design-build use are K-12 school districts. Both the Issaquah School District and Tacoma Public Schools have progressive design-build projects underway. Given the number of districts, the huge demand for new or renovated school facilities, and the availability of bond funding, this market provides the potential to increase the use of design-build delivery tremendously.

    We are also seeing increased use of design-build delivery for infrastructure, as well as water and wastewater projects in the Oregon marketplace.

    DBIA certification workshop in Seattle

    April 16-18 at the UW Center for Education and Research in Construction, Seattle. More information is at https://dbia.org/courses/in-person-course-details.

    Q: What is the biggest issue owners struggle with when using DB?

    A: Trust — It is no secret that trust provides a solid foundation for high-functioning teams. Owners who are successfully implementing design-build projects have come to trust the process and trust the participants. However, many owners, especially if they are used to design-bid-build delivery, do not inherently trust builders, nor do they view them as true business partners. Understanding the importance of trust, overcoming the tendency not to trust, and ensuring that everyone on their team has bought into a trusting relationship is paramount to successfully implementing a truly integrated design-build project.

    On a local note, the three-biennium funding process the state of Washington currently uses for publicly funded projects does not support integrated delivery. The two-year span between design funding and construction funding and the uncertainty of construction funding poses a serious challenge for owners who desire to engage a full design-build team for the delivery of a project.

    Q: What is the biggest issue contractors struggle with when using DB?

    A: One of the biggest challenges for contractors while leading a design-build team is appreciating and managing the design process. While cost control should always be a priority for the entire team, as a design-builder, contractors need to understand that design needs to be a priority also. Good design-builders are always looking for ways to deliver great design AND stay within budget.

    Q: What is the biggest issue architects struggle with when using DB?

    A: Aside from the cost of competing in a design and price design-build competition, which is a whole other topic, one of the biggest adjustments for architects in design-build delivery is the elimination of the direct contractual relationship with the owner that occurs while participating on a contractor led design-build team.

    The direct owner-architect relationship has historically been based on trust and advocacy, and it has long-standing roots which, if undermined, can be detrimental to the project delivery process. Good design-builders understand this, and they support constructive owner-architect engagement. At the same time, good architectural partners must appreciate, understand, and support the fact that the design-build team has made firm contractual commitments regarding scope, performance, price and schedule, and gear to stay within these parameters while the design develops.

    Q: What do you see as the next big step for project delivery using DB?

    A: As the use of design-build continues to increase and more and more owners get comfortable with the process, I believe we will start seeing changes in owner agreements to support integration and team success. The University of Washington has already started this movement with the highly incentivized contracts they are using on their major projects.

    Q: What are the most critical components DB teams need to master to win interviews?

    A: It's all about the team! While the qualifications of the team are important, nothing beats true team chemistry. Getting to know and appreciate each other as people as well as professionals, having a genuine concern for the success of each other, and showing a commitment to the success of the project, will put you in the best position to win every time.

    Scott Johnston is a principal of Johnston Training Group, which offers interview coaching, presentation skills and business development for AEC firms.

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