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A Dfferent Path

Using the design-build process, colleges and universities can address their space needs more quickly.

Over the last 10 years more colleges and universities have been using the design-build project delivery process for building new residence halls. At public and private campuses, in all regions of the country, the pressures to provide space quickly and cost-effectively are leading facility managers to recommend the method for their institutions.

School facility managers should become familiar with the process, its advantages and drawbacks, and how it might be best engaged.


Design-build project delivery is distinguished from the traditional design-bid-build process in several fundamental ways. It begins with the identification of facility needs, often after completing a broad-based master-planning phase. Sites are chosen for the new facility, a timeline is projected, and budgets are established. With approvals from capital committees, trustees and public agencies, administrators can move ahead with design.

At that point in the traditional process, architects are selected to help develop a detailed building program. The full design process proceeds until a set of construction bid documents is prepared and bids are solicited. After a winning bid is accepted, the final construction contract is completed.

Hence the traditional delivery process has three distinct phases — design, bid and build — all of which have separate agreements with architects and contractors for the separate steps.

In the design-build process, the three steps are folded together into a telescoped and continuous process. Architect and contractor are together on a team and have a single agreement with the owner. The early steps — master planning and site selection — are the same, but after that the design-build team follows a different track.

With design/build, a school develops a detailed program statement. A building committee working with a programming consultant often does this. Many times the programming consultant is an architect with particular experience with residence halls and design-build. The program statement is important to the success of the project, and should be clear and thorough.

Once a detailed program is completed, the school prepares an RFQ (request for qualifications). In a public process, the school invites companies to submit qualifications; with private institutions, a school may send letters of invitation to design-build developers. Often, they are general contractors or construction managers who assemble teams of architects, engineers and subcontractors. From the RFQ responses, the school chooses three to five teams that demonstrate the best combination of design talent, managerial skill and construction expertise.

At this point, one of two directions can be pursued. After interviews with the finalists, the school may select a preferred design-build team and begin negotiating an agreement. More typically, a school will ask the finalists to submit a formal RFP (request for proposal). The negotiation approach may save some costs and lead to a greater sense of partnering between the developer and the institution. With the competitive approach, the institution can get the benefit of examining alternative approaches and finding the best value in designing the project.

Put it on paper

The preparation of the RFQ/RFP is, like drafting the program statement, a critical step. The RFP frames the parameters, which guide the developer teams. The intense work of design study, cost analysis, decisionmaking and presentation is key to the ultimate quality of the project. Therefore, as in program development, it is wise to have an experienced consultant help prepare the RFP.

A competitive proposal typically includes schematic design drawings, building material and system descriptions, cost breakdowns, construction schedules, project staffing projections and a proposed contract form (if not already in the RFP). Often the school will ask for clarifications, and in some instances even request a round of design amendments from the preferred team. The bidders may be invited to interview so that the selection committee has a chance to ask questions and to test its compatibility with the team. After a school chooses a preferred developer, a final negotiation round allows design, system or scheduling adjustments to be made before a contract is signed.

The design-build process allows relatively little time for exchange between the designer and the school, requires a firm price proposal, and must proceed quickly into construction. Therefore, the importance of the program and the RFP cannot be overstated. They are the key tools for meeting functional, aesthetic and construction quality standards. They should be as specific as possible in defining expectations for space design and appointments, building materials and finishes, and system selections. To the extent these are loosely defined, the school can be exposed to the pressures of competitive pricing and possible disappointments in the final product.

Once a contract is in place, the team can prepare full construction documents. These meet three principal needs: they confirm for the school that the detailed plans are consistent with the program/RFP; they expedite the permitting process and agency reviews; and they define subcontract packages early to allow a faster construction schedule.

The fast tracking of the project is an option that saves time in overall project delivery. School officials can choose to wait until documents are complete to assure that they have reviewed all decisions fully.

Once it begins, the construction process is virtually identical to traditional contracting methods. The roles of the school, the design-build contractor and architect-engineer are similar. However, because the architects and engineers are part of the design-build team, they may be viewed as not sufficiently independent and objective to provide professional oversight during construction. Schools can address this concern by choosing teams that include A/E professionals with outstanding and well-recognized experience, or by retaining additional construction observation services as an extra set of eyes.

Advantages and limitations

A well-run design-build process can expedite project delivery, contain costs, and uncover and evaluate alternative design directions.

The process can bring facilities on line more quickly, save time and money, and limit or eliminate “scope creep” and cost overruns from changes in the plan. Design-build lessens a school's exposure to change orders associated with disputes between an architect and contractor about document interpretation. Design competition can provide a college or university with a wider range of design alternatives. The competitive incentive to win the job compels the design team, architect and contractor to come up with the best value.

Design-build, however, does not lend itself to more complex building types or difficult sites. These require full design documentation and input from school officials throughout all design stages. Design-build affords little ability to amend a program during the design process, even if design “discovery” suggests it would be advantageous. In a public bid environment, the cost proposal of a competitive submission may become the overriding parameter in selection. This can undermine the best-value advantage if a scheme that may have significant design or planning advantages cannot be quantified. If the exact quality of building materials and systems is not specified, the school may be disappointed in the final project.

The following steps may help carry out a design-build program successfully.

  • Select relatively simple building types that lend themselves to the more abbreviated processes of design-build.

  • Do not skimp on time or scope of definition in the programming stage.

  • Include visits to other campuses during programming.

  • Establish a project budget that is complete and reasonable in allowing for contingencies and building amenities.

  • Pre-select teams with demonstrated records of professionalism. Visit their projects and talk to other customers to determine the level of satisfaction with the work. Provide the time to fully understand each proposal and allow for negotiating modifications to the final agreement.

  • Staff the project with a representative of the school who can expedite responses from the school and provide added oversight during construction.

Sidebar: A university housing director's view

In need of new residential options for its burgeoning student population, Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, Conn., found help for its growing pains in the design-build model. As enrollment in the university grew, residence hall space seemed to decrease.

Eastern began planning in 1995 for an additional 450 beds in two buildings. Time was of the essence, so Eastern embarked on a design-build process. From the university's perspective, the key advantage in design-build is speed.

“We began two buildings in North Residential Village at the same time, in fall 1997,” says Grace Enggas, director of housing and residential life at Eastern. “Some work, such as masonry and pre-cast planking, was done for both at the same time, then the contractor focused attention on completing the first building, which was accomplished in less than a year.

“Students moved in to their new residence hall in September 1998. The second building was completed the following July in time for the fall semester. This never could have happened with the traditional method, where there is push and pull between the architect and contractor.”

Flexibility is another big advantage of design-build: the architect joins forces with the construction company, resulting in greater cooperation between the designer, the builder and the university. The price per square foot, which includes all fees, is agreed upon before the project starts.

“We know the costs up front,” Enggas adds. “And with the close relationship between the university, architect and contractor, any problems that come up can be dealt with in an expedient way, because there's already a working relationship in place.”

Would Eastern take this approach again?

“We already have,” says Enggas. “The current construction of the new Administration Building is design-build.”

Schiffer is vice president of Herbert S. Newman and Partners, PC, New Haven, Conn. The firm worked on the Yale University, Western Connecticut State University and University of Connecticut residence hall projects.

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