Design-Build: The Engineer’s Point of View

Design-build project delivery has opened many opportunities—and created many new pitfalls—for engineering firms. For better or worse, design-build has established itself as an approach to which engineers have had to adapt. The good news is that they've adapted well.More than 95% of firms that responded to Consulting-Specifying Engineer's 2001 "Giants" survey (CSE 8/01 p.

By Scott Siddens, Senior Editor October 1, 2001

Design-build project delivery has opened many opportunities—and created many new pitfalls—for engineering firms. For better or worse, design-build has established itself as an approach to which engineers have had to adapt. The good news is that they’ve adapted well.

More than 95% of firms that responded to Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s 2001 "Giants" survey (CSE 8/01 p. 24) indicated that they are involved in alternative project-delivery methods. Respondents were asked to indicate the specific kinds of design-build activities they engaged in, with the following results:

  • Subcontractor to design-build contractor: 84%

  • Pre-bid consultant to owner: 82%

  • Ongoing consultant to owner during project: 80%

  • Partnership with a design-build contractor: 64%

  • Prime contractor on design-build projects: 43%

The figures are similar to those for last year’s survey, where the same question was asked. One significant change, however, was the number of M/E/P engineering firms acting as prime contractor on design-build projects. This percentage has grown by 7%, a sign that engineering firms may be increasingly awakening to the benefits of engineer-led design-build.

Primes, partners or subs

Engineers’ responses to the increasing use of design-build run the gamut, as does the nature of their design-build activities. "Design-build is our culture and process," says Kathleen Bast, corporate communications manager of Cleveland-based The Austin Company. "Design-build is the driving force in the industry," suggests a spokesperson from STV Group, Inc., Douglassville, Pa.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who describe design-build as a "threat" and claim that "… it greatly diminishes the traditional role of engineers [so that] engineers are now pawns of builders."

Most respondents, however, fall in the middle, describing how the approach presents them with challenges—and greater opportunities.

Whether describing partnering relationships, prime contract efforts or subcontracting arrangements with contracting firms, consulting engineers emphasize a consistent theme: They have gained a greater appreciation and understanding of traditional contractor activities—defining scope, estimating costs and scheduling construction activities—and they are aware of the need to redefine traditional roles. Contractors are no longer adversaries. They are fellow team members and partners, which is why respondents point to communication as an essential skill for the design-build approach (see "Riding the Design-Build Express," p. 52).

Sharing responsibilities

In fact, involvement in design-build has led many consulting engineers to expand their responsibilities and work together with contractors in untraditional ways.

"Engineers are working more closely with the contractor to find ways to reduce cost and schedule," reports John Walter, corporate communications manager at Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo. "Engineers now think about the impact of their decisions on the project and are gaining a greater appreciation of scheduling and budgeting."

"The success of a design-build project depends largely upon how closely the designer and contractor work together," says Irwin Rosenstein, P.E., president of San Francisco-based URS Corp. "The first step in creating an effective design-build team is for the designer to meet with the contractor to valuate the contractor’s capabilities and areas of expertise. Then the team should define the project scope and schedule, and establish each member’s responsibilities. The designer will then develop preliminary designs, working in close collaboration with the contractor. When the preliminary designs are finished, the designer should assist the contractor in developing a proposal and cost estimate for the client."

Rosenstein brings up two significant issues. First, it is more important than ever that the project team carefully define project scope, schedule and individual responsibilities. Second, many of the traditional team responsibilities will overlap between contractor and engineer.

Design professionals are discovering that in design-build project delivery, not only must they pay attention to that which was traditionally the contractor’s responsibilities, but the nature of design services has changed as well.

"Design-build affects the role of the design engineer in their level of design involvement," explains Thomas O’Neill, CEO of New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff. "Generally, they are heavily involved in the front-end concept and strategy while leaving responsibility for detailed design coordination with the design-build contractor. Engineers must be extremely disciplined in their design approach in respect of limiting their input to performance criteria only."

Others confirm the changing nature of engineering design services under design-build. Diane Strickler of The RMH Group, Lakewood, Colo., states, "Designers learn that minimal, yet comprehensive design is a necessity. The details are worked out in the field with contractors on a peer/team basis rather than an adversarial basis."

According to Timothy O’Connor, P.E., of Robson & Woese, Inc., Syracuse, N.Y., "The traditional thinking of ‘plan and spec’ must go away. One designer doing design-build told me, ‘I have never completed a set of plans and specs in doing design-build. I just sketch.’ That’s quite a change in thinking."

Consulting engineers generally look to the positive consequences of design-build. When designers and contractors work together from project inception, they avoid risks such as the engineer over-designing the system, or the contractor changing designs through value engineering.

The legal challenges

In addition to the benefits, design-build has presented engineers with new legal and insurance issues. The most common type of design-build relationship for engineers has been as a subcontractor to the contractor. With this arrangement, the A/E’s insurance needs would be much the same as in design-bid-build projects. But when design professionals become the leaders of design-build projects, insurance needs change. A/Es have design liability coverage, but they may also need additional protection for activities on the construction side.

The Spearin Doctrine has always defined the acceptance of risk in the traditional design-bid-build contract, where the owner generally warrants to the general contractor that drawings and specifications are free of errors and omissions.

"With the greater influence of design-build, the line between professional liability of the designer and general liability of the contractor becomes blurred," explains Strickler. "No longer will the contractor be able to rely on the Spearin Doctrine. However, the teaming of the designer and the contractor should result in less litigation between the two."

The legal issues of design-build are further complicated by varying state laws and regulations. For example, some 30 states have enacted legislation encouraging design-build in public projects, while in New York it is technically illegal. Engineering firms engaged in design-build must keep abreast of these developments.

Several respondents mentioned that design-build projects required substantially more time for legal preparation and contract review. At the same time, design-build project delivery has increased owner expectations with respect to both project speed and design quality, requiring other types of front-end time and effort. "The increasing number of owners who expect error-free design work, as opposed to an industry standard of care, requires more time for both owner education and claims avoidance," says Karen Truxal of Power Engineers, Hailey, Idaho.

In fact, consulting engineers involved in design-build are discovering that time is always the key factor. STV Group’s spokesperson describes it this way: "The design-build delivery method calls for the price and schedule of the project to be agreed upon up front, when design is in the beginning stages. As a result, time is of the essence. The engineer’s No. 1 challenge is to develop the design to sufficient level so that construction activities can begin. The tight time frame that the design-build method requires necessitates that the design progress ahead of the construction, and that this lead be maintained until the construction is complete."

Design-build and alternative delivery is here to stay. While it presents a whole new culture and set of associated problems, those engineers that do figure the equation are finding it to be an increasingly lucrative source of revenue.

Riding the Design-Build Express

As design-build continues to establish a foothold in the construction industry, the engineering community has been diligently at work familiarizing itself with this alternate form of project delivery and strategizing how to best execute these projects.

One of the overriding skills necessary for successful design-build project delivery, according to Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s 2001 Giants Survey, is communication.

"Communication is essential between all team members. Regular meetings are only a beginning," says Alan E. Traugott, a senior vice president and director of business development with Flack & Kurtz, New York. "Everyone needs to have an overall understanding of the project and understand his or her role. A weak link in the team can slow the entire team."

"For several projects," Traugott continues, "we have participated in retreats, meeting with other team members to discuss general project issues and to listen to the varying needs and goals of each team member."

Another information need, a byproduct of this fast-track project delivery, is conveying the appropriate amount of information for a bid when the related documents have yet to be finished, explains Mickey Kupperman, president and CEO of A. Epstein and Sons International, Chicago.

"Engineers must also anticipate and communicate requirements from their design colleagues in other disciplines who also haven’t had time to prepare complete documents," he says.

In order to address these communication and coordination challenges, Kupperman suggests:

Communications training and intense orientation for the project team.

Frequent job site visits and establishing project team centers for all the design disciplines and the construction team.

Celebrating team effort and including the design team in project financial incentives.

At Henderson Engineers, Inc., Lenexa, Kan., engineers are encouraged to take advantage of specialized communication and project management training offered by professional organizations as well as literature circulated by the Design Build Institute of America, notes President and CEO Duane Henderson.

Changing roles

Because design-build involves engineers in construction, it has become important for engineers to become better versed with issues of scheduling, contracts, budgeting and construction costs. At the same time, the responsibility of preserving the design quality of a project still remains with the engineer.

"As part of the design-build team, the engineer must be willing and able to defend proper constructibility issues and materials, and not just accede to lower costs or a shorter timeline for construction," claims R. Nicholas Loope, FAIA, president and CEO of Durrant Engineers, Phoenix.

For example, in a case where an engineer is asking for 2 watts per square foot and the contractor is pushing to do the job at 1.5 watts per square foot, it is important for the engineer to stand his or her ground.

Moreover, if the engineer is able to forge a mutually respectful and positive working relationship with the contractor, this will have a big impact on the project’s success.

"A key ingredient to a successful design-build partnership is for the engineer and the contractor to view each other as assets," says Richard A. Madzar, P.E., vice president, H.F. Lenz Company, Johnstown, Pa.

For example, the contractor can offer valuable input in the area of cost estimating, in addition to utilizing industry contacts, such as purchasing agents, who can locate the best quality materials at reasonable costs.