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M|O Perspectives

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Collaborative Design-Build in Multifamily Construction

Oct 31, 2022

Design-build (DB) was initially adopted by healthcare organizations to streamline design and construction, and its subsequent success led to its adoption by governmental/public agencies, higher education, and the K-12 education sector.

In the multifamily industry, DB is relatively unknown, but elements of it are utilized for the engineering and installation of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems, whereby MEP engineers provide a "basis of design" or "design-assist" but do not fully engineer these systems. Instead, the project is bid out and the subcontractor design-builds them.

The adoption of design-build within the multifamily sector has been slow, but the advantages are hard to ignore:

  • A single point of contact and contractual relationship
  • Better communication
  • Better control of costs at the start of the project
  • Minimizes owner's risk
  • More transparent communication
  • Eliminates adversarial relationships with close collaboration
  • More qualified design and construction professionals on the team
  • Potential for a faster project delivery
  • Potential for cost savings

The qualifications-based procurement for design-build allows the owner to fully vet the qualifications of both the design and construction teams, with a preference for Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA)-accredited individuals.

Design-build drawbacks worth considering

While design-build adoption is growing in many sectors, it's relatively new to multifamily, which may make it difficult to find experienced design-build entities (DBEs) to choose from. If the competitive process is utilized, it can mean that the GMP was set on preliminary drawings which could be two to three years ahead of when construction starts.

While the DBE entity holds the risk, it does not mean there is no risk to the owner. In circumstances like this, the project delivery could be hampered by a GMP that may not have considered issues like pandemics, global material shortages, and logistics or labor shortages.

Another issue is the lack of owner control over the design process. Most owners fail to understand that their contract with a DBE entity is essentially a contract with the builder only. Architects are rarely involved in the contract negotiations and are usually contracted directly with the contractor and not the owner. The lack of architect involvement in the final contract negotiations can result in internal strife if the builder agrees to provide design services without consulting the architect, resulting in performance issues.

Advantages of collaborative design-build (CDB)

Collaborative design-build or progressive design-build (as it was initially called), was developed in an effort to build on the advantages of DB and overcome its shortcomings, while providing a more balanced approach to risk and reward allocation to the owner, architect, and builder.

One of the early pioneers and champions of the progressive design-build process was San Francisco International Airport (SFO), followed by the California State University (CSU) system with several projects including student housing and academic buildings, some local government agencies, community college districts, and K-12.

While one of the original intentions of DB was to have better cost control, many owners never wanted to relinquish innovation through design by this process. The conflicting interests could result in programmatic or performance failures. Owners could believe that both the architect and builder as part of the DBE were at fault, resulting in the architects feeling that they had no control but were seen as complicit, when such failures occur.

Collaborative design-build changes the overall relationships by "phasing" the contractual relationships of the DBE, allowing them to showcase innovative approaches to design, construction, cost control, and schedule. The advantages are significant:

  • DBE evaluation through trust-based relationships
  • Equitable distribution of risks
  • Creative and innovative approaches from DBEs
  • Fully participatory process during design
  • Early buy-in of stakeholders
  • Realistic builder estimates
  • Time and money saver for the owner
  • Collaborative work for a mutually successful project

The architect of the DBE is involved with the owner and users from project inception through the design development phase. The builder is essentially providing pre-construction services, cost estimation through the various design phases, and subcontractors onboarding to provide design assist and help with constructability of the major building systems as needed.

In collaborative design-build, the guaranteed maximum price (GMP) is generated only after the design is fully developed and/or after permit review, allowing for a realistic GMP, and giving the builder the ability to tighten up their cost estimates. It better integrates the owner, architect, and builder throughout the life of the project.

An additional benefit of the collaborative design-build process is more DBEs are incorporating Lean construction techniques, leading to a more integrated project delivery, and a more transparent process. Pull planning has been one of the best project scheduling tools derived from the Lean construction process and greatly benefits any construction project.

Collaborative design-build considerations for owners

When procuring the services of a DBE through the progressive/collaborative design-build process, the owner should consider the following:

  • Review the experience and qualifications of the builder and architect of the DBE.
  • While experience working together is important, overall DB or CDB experience is important.
  • Avoid limiting the field by removing the requirement to exhibit a minimum of three prior DBs completed as a team.
  • Hold confidential meetings with the DBE team to determine synergy between owner, builder, and architect.
  • Avoid design competitions or bridging documents because they take more time, money, and can constraint the DBE and any innovations in design or construction.
  • Develop contract language that takes the design build process into consideration or utilize industry standard agreements specific to design-build and modify as needed for a CDB process.
  • Avoid tying additional services for the design team, especially during the construction phase, to construction change orders.

Collaborative design-build has the potential to provide a better overall project delivery for multifamily or other project types but the owner/developer should educate themselves before attempting their first CDB project. The DBIA conducts seminars and workshops on design-build and provides an avenue for both construction and design professionals to obtain accreditation (look for individuals that sport the DBIA accreditation behind their names).

If you have questions about design-build, please feel free to reach out to Gerard_Lee@marxokubo. We have professionals who are well versed in the intricacies of design-build, and we can assist in ensuring a successful project delivery.

Design-build series, part 2

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Marx|Okubo is a national architecture/engineering/construction consulting firm that works with real estate owners, investors and lenders—at every point of the property lifecycle—to evaluate their building projects, solve complex challenges and implement tailored solutions. We help clients understand their projects’ complexities, so they can make more informed decisions and, ultimately, mitigate their risk.