Archived Issues

Features - May/June 2005

AIA Teaching Architects To Lead Design-Build Teams

By Tom Nicholson

As design-build project delivery continues to become more popular, contractors are plunging in to take the lead on the vast majority of the work because they are used to taking on and managing risk. Architects, who generally shun construction risk and are ethically opposed to changing traditional roles, increasingly are being relegated to subcontractor roles. Now some architects are saying it is time for a change.

"At least 75% of design-build projects are contractor-led," said architect and design-build consultant Dorwin A.J. Thomas, chairman of the American Institute of Architects Design-Build Knowledge Community Advisory Group. He is leading a series of design-build seminars across the country this year to educate and embolden architects to take the helm on more design-build jobs. "The market is headed to design-build and architects are being left out. If design-build was a ship, contractors are steering it and soon they will be in the engine room if architects don‘t get on board."

"There are many reasons why contractors are taking the lead on design-build projects and architects aren’t," said Thomas at one of the all-day sessions, held March 18 at the Center for Architecture in New York City. "One reason is that the subject of design-build is something we try to avoid, we aren’t comfortable with it. Architects think design-build is for dumb, repetitive designs like parking garages, but that’s not the case. Design-build is here to stay and architects are now realizing that," he told the 150 attendees.

Thomas said owners are choosing design-build delivery because it streamlines the bidding process, shortens job time, dissolves the adversarial relationship between builders and designers inherent with design-bid-build and gives owners a single point of accountability.

Mark Strauss, president-elect of AIA’s New York chapter, pointed out that owners "are tired of designers and contractors duking it out and they are tired of change orders. They want one contract, so they only have to make one telephone call if the roof leaks."

THOMAS (Photo by Tom Nicholson for Design-Build)

Over the past five years, the number of design-build projects has increased five-fold, putting it on pace to cover 50% of all public and private construction in the nation within the next five years, said Harold Adams, chairman of the Design-Build Institute of America and chairman emeritus of RTKL Associates Inc., Baltimore. He estimates design-build could stabilize at 60 to 70% of the U.S. construction market.

Spurring the surge in integrated delivery is design-build-friendly legislation that all but a handful of states have adopted in recent years, a change that is reversing a perception held among U.S. architects throughout much of the 20th century that design-build is unethical. Martin Sell, COO of Verona, Wis.-based architectural firm Horizon Group, traces the origins of that perception to laws such as the 1935 Miller Act, which established an "absolute separation of design professionals from construction trades."

AIA historically has supported that separation, stating in its Canon of Ethics at the turn of the last century that "package dealers" were unethical. That perception subsequently contributed to many bidding and contracting laws that made design-build cumbersome or impossible in the U.S. "Europe, Canada and Mexico have always used design-build," Adams said. "They are way ahead of us on this."

States have been easing their opposition over the past two decades. William Quatman, an architect and attorney with Kansas City, Mo.-based Shugart, Thomson and Kilroy, calls the states without updated design-build laws as those "that haven’t seen the light." He pointed out that all federal agencies have some design-build contracts and encourage firms to seek them by offering stipends to offset proposal costs.

Schools and highway projects benefit from quick delivery, as do hospitals. Hospital projects "are very tied to design-build because they need to get facilities running immediately," said Quatman.

At the seminar, speakers hammered home the message that architects need to buy into design-build. But that is proving to be a hard sell to architects who typically do not have experience managing construction jobs or taking those kinds of project risks.

(Photo by Tom Nicholson for Design-Build)

"There is some risk with design-build and architects generally are not risk takers," says Quatman. He points to results of personality tests done on contractors and designers that suggest the two tend to have opposite personalities. While architects tend to be introverted, deep thinking and theoretical and prefer to work alone, contractors are inclined to prefer fact to theory and favor hands-on work in groups. When it comes to leading a team of builders on a job site "architects are not wired for it," Quatman says.

Sell believes there are more concrete reasons why architects shun the lead on design-build jobs. "Architects are trained to focus on the design," he says. "They aren’t used to dealing with schedules, costs and the things that a contractor typically deals with." Sell has led several design-build projects, including schools, retirement housing and resort hotels in the Midwest. He says the risks are manageable. "In 17 years of doing design-build, I have seen no lawsuits," he says. "But I have seen many in design-bid-build."

Quatman believes there is more risk in putting out a set of plans for competitive bids and having a low bidder exploit every opportunity for a change order or claim. He points to data from Chicago-based insurer CNA showing that claims last year on traditional-delivery jobs were 23.3 per 100 insured firms, while claims on design-build jobs were 15.6 per 100 insured firms. "On design-build jobs, problems were worked out in the field, which kept jobs moving," Quatman said.

In their favor, designers more often than contractors have the initial contact with, and confidence of, owners. This is an advantage when venturing into team leadership. Conversely, designers need to be aware that their traditional role as the owner’s representative on a design-bid-build job will shift as they assume the lead on an integrated project. That is a role change architects will have to grapple with, said Charles Linn, an architect and deputy editor of Architectural Record magazine. "Design-build really challenges us and makes us ask ourselves some very tough questions," he said. "For example, can we still be relied upon to protect the [owner’s interest] once we start doing construction?"

According to Linn, "architects have long abided by the tradition of AIA that someone has to take charge in protecting the client. Can we change roles now? Will we now compromise quality in order to maximize profits?" Linn says architects have groomed a cultural perception that "builders can’t be trusted, so can we now do design-build without becoming untrustworthy?" Linn says the answer is "yes, because it doesn’t matter whether you are acting as an architect or contractor, you have the same ethical obligation to protect the health and welfare of the public."

Starting Small

Thomas has led design-build projects for 40 years, including a luxury resort in Stowe, Vt., a boat house in Ontario, and a jail in Suffolk County, Mass. He used those jobs to illustrate how designers can step into team leading. "Start with a small project and the word will spread," Thomas said. "Your clients will be your best advertising. Stick to a project type you know. If you’ve done hospitals, then stick to it. Don’t venture into something you haven’t done before."

Thomas advises gradually easing into the lead role by offering bridging or consulting services to an owner looking to use a design-build contract. Designers also can move into design-build by partnering with a contractor, buying a construction firm or selling their design firm to a contractor. Architects need to be prepared to exercise skills in cost estimating, project scheduling, construction sequencing, site safety regulation and hiring construction workers, Thomas said.

(Photos by Tom Nicholson for Design-Build)

Common pitfalls that newcomers to design-build encounter include poor contracts, incomplete pricing documents, failure to check state licensing laws, errors in estimating or design, or unrealistic schedules. Quatman emphasized that designers need to select team members carefully. "Choose someone you’ve worked well with before" and then match staff who work well together and discuss each other’s strengths, he said. There is a "foxhole partner" dynamic that unfolds on good teams in which each is "watching the other’s back," he explained. "Experienced teams, especially those that have worked together before, where there is a high degree of trust, have the best results," Quatman said.

Adams added, "It is important to hire the contractor early on, right from the get- go, and begin communicating."

Adding Value

Design-build often is touted for cutting time and costs, such as 5-to-7% lower construction costs, 10-to-12% faster construction time and 33% faster overall project delivery. But Adams emphasized that teaming should not only be valued for what it can reduce, but for what it can add to a job. "Design-build is not just about doing work faster and cheaper, it is about adding quality," he said. "Design-build does not compromise the design. Design must be promoted as an integral element of the project, not an added-on commodity."

Architects at the seminar studied several high-profile, designer-led design-build projects, including the Pentagon reconstruction, a federal courthouse in New York City, Tampa International Airport, Mile High Stadium in Denver and the main public library building in Chicago.

The seminar ended with a segment called "Making Money," in which Sell explained that architects can substantially increase their profits when leading a job. "Designer-led design-build enables the architect to participate in construction profits, which dwarf the profits from the design phase," Sell said. Results of informal research among design-build firms show construction profits are four times higher than design profits on most jobs, he said.

Some attendees said the seminar was enlightening. "I have done design-build jobs before. The whole name of the game is control," said architect J. Sergent May of East Setauket, N.Y. "For me it reinforced the fact that you can do design-build on any scale," said Bruce Hultgren, of Domenech Hicks & Krockmalnick, New York City. "A lot of projects I’m involved with are small scale and from what I’ve seen here, you can make this work."

AIA had planned to hold as many as 14 seminars this year, but a lack of funding has caused that schedule to be pared down to four. Thomas will be the sole speaker at the remaining seminars. "There will be a few more," Thomas says. "After that it’s going to fade out." Thomas says he would like to see the seminars continue. "There is hope that this can keep going somehow next year, which would be good because it’s a very informative presentation."

The next seminars are scheduled to be held this fall and winter in Wisconsin, Florida and Nevada. Locations and additional information can be found at AIA’s Website, www.aia.org/db.

Design-Build Delivery Still Faces Problems in
New York State

New York-based architects attending the March 18 AIA Design-Build seminar in New York City heard design-build proponents zero-in on the state’s restrictive stance toward integrated delivery. Some public design-build projects are permitted in New York, but only with authorization and within certain limitations. It is a process that makes integrated delivery difficult, if not impossible.

Among the barriers to design-build are laws preventing public agencies from using price as the primary criteria in awarding a design contract or awarding a single prime contract and laws that mandate separate contracts on some jobs for plumbing, heating and electrical work.

Recent legislation has revised some of these restrictions and there are bills pending in the state Senate and Assembly that would open more doors for public design-build usage. One bill would modify a state licensing law that says an architectural firm cannot contract for a design job if any of its employees are not licensed. Design-build proponents say the law prevents designers from taking the lead on a design-build job where its design work would be integrated with the construction team. Another bill would make it illegal for architects to work for a design-builder because “their dependent status may not [allow them] to freely exercise their professional judgement in the interest and protection of the owner or the public.” That bill, which AIA New York State Executive Vice President Barbara J. Rodriguez spoke out in favor of during the seminar, sparked discussion among AIA members. Some said the bill seems to contradict AIA’s push to enable designer-led design-build jobs.

The bill would amend the state’s professional licensing law for architects and would require an additional design firm to be hired on any project where an architect engages in work with a contractor. The bill also would require that the architect have no financial interest with the client. “If there is going to be a contractor-led design-build contract, we don’t want it to diminish” architects’ traditional role as the owner’s watchdog,” Rodriguez said.

But attorney William Quatman noted that an architect leading a design-build team must assume some financial interest in the job. Some say the amendment would preserve limitations on designer-led design-build jobs. Quatman says the amendment has been introduced in past legislative sessions and predicts that it will not be adopted this year. “I think the AIA will rethink their stance on that amendment,” he says.

There seems to be a groundswell of support to reform the state’s design-build laws and some say changes are long overdue. The New York City Bar Association in a 2003 report said that the state is “outside the mainstream. It’s time to lift constraints on New York public works and bring the state into the 21st century.”

Despite lobbying efforts by the state’s Dept. of Transportation, which has been trying to get design-build authorization for its projects since 1992, NYDOT continues to operate almost solely within the design-bid-build realm. In 2002, NYDOT delivered to state legislators a survey of 14 public entities from around the nation, which attributed faster delivery, cost savings, smaller staffing requirements and innovative design and construction techniques to design-build project delivery.

The state subsequently created a five-year pilot program to study integrated delivery in which it approved the use of design-build for two highway jobs. The state also has opened the doors to limited design-build usage on state university projects, municipal jobs and on a few special projects, such as the expansion of the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.

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