To magnify project success, focus on design-assist and collaboration

Overcome construction challenges by involving contractors from Day One using the design-assist model

By Tom Martin and Ross Mitchell April 17, 2024
Figure 2: Aerial view of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Yard Consolidation Project, showcasing the expansive facility optimized through design-assist methods. Courtesy: Google Earth

Design-assist insights

  • The design and construction industries face pressure for greater value, quality and speed, yet processes often result in productivity lags and discord among teams. Collaborative models like design-assist offer promise by engaging subcontractors early, optimizing efficiency, cost and project outcomes.
  • Design-assist involves early engagement of subcontractors, enhancing teamwork, communication and leveraging diverse skill sets to prevent costly delays and errors.
  • Despite initial investment, the approach pays off through improved constructability, reduced schedule, costs and ultimately delivers better projects through collaborative efficiency and excellence.

The design and construction industries continually face demands to deliver greater value, higher quality and faster completion. At the same time, the challenging business and the processes routinely followed result in unwanted lags in productivity, contentious interactions among disciplines and failure to achieve the outcomes of our best-laid plans.

Talented, highly skilled, teams have become disjointed rather than remain aligned toward a shared purpose. Imagine the potential if collaboration was the foundation for construction projects. Can engineers facilitate an environment where all trade contractors’ innovative ideas are heard during the design phase, rather than risking them going unheard in the chaos of construction? There is a model for that, and it’s called design-assist.

The design-assist model

The emerging collaborative work-flow approach becoming more prevalent in construction is known as the design-assist model. This terminology is the strategy of engaging key construction subcontractors early in the design and pre-construction phases, to assist in value engineering, constructability analysis and other initial-phase activities.

As examples, this may include a construction manager hiring separate architects and engineers or bringing in trade subcontractors even before bids to assist in planning, coordination and other pre-construction needs as the project is being shaped and conceptualized.

Prime candidates for employing the design-assist model are unique and complicated projects such as hospitals, manufacturing plants, laboratories and maintenance facilities, which are often large and complex. Design-assist value is optimized when projects necessitate early engagement of the construction team, most importantly including specialized trades that are integral to the buildings’ operation.

Figure 1: A glimpse of the Ashtabula County (Ohio) Medical Center, a testament to successful design-assist collaboration for health care infrastructure excellence. Courtesy: T.H. Martin Inc.

Figure 1: A glimpse of the Ashtabula County (Ohio) Medical Center, a testament to successful design-assist collaboration for health care infrastructure excellence. Courtesy: T.H. Martin Inc.

One such example is mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) contractor work. This discipline likely constitutes a large portion of the building’s overall cost and efficiency. Involving the MEP trades in the design phase can have a significant, positive impact on the cost, the schedule and operational efficiency of the project, as well as other facets of construction.

Benefits of design-assist

There are eight benefits to the design-assist model:

  • Early involvement with trade contractors allows for better teamwork among the owner, facilities staff, engineers and contractors, in essence, giving everyone a sense of ownership over the success of the project

  • Empowers open communication among all involved, such as trades reaching out to the owner and engineer for discussions.

  • Better uses the entire skill set of all partners.

  • Reduces and/or eliminates project change orders due to a contractor taking more responsibility, as they are involved from the beginning, creating a higher degree of accountability and partnership.

  • Cost savings resulting from transparency in pricing input, knowledge of needs beyond one discipline, smarter combined purchasing and reduced need for contingency funding.

  • Engaging design-assist subcontractors early in the project can help identify opportunities for schedule compression and accelerate the design, pre-construction, procurement and construction processes. Many activities can be completed earlier with key subcontractors engaged ahead of bidding. For example, subcontractors can learn critical product information earlier in the process and order long-lead items sooner. This more proactive approach allows for better outcomes both from a cost and schedule standpoint.

  • Bringing design-assist subcontractors into the pre-construction process can help enhance the constructability coordination and review of the design. Parties may be able to identify and address design issues that would not have been evident until the bidding phase. This can also help reduce design-related requests for information (RFI) and change orders during the construction phase.

  • More input during design can translate to reduced costs. Involving design-assist subcontractors with specialized construction expertise can help reduce or eliminate costs caused by correcting inefficient or designs that cannot be constructed before they become a problem. More certainty in the design, because of more knowledgeable and effective input from key trades during the pre-construction process, also can lead to reduced contingencies and lower costs with less design creep.

Avoiding potential risks

Owners, facility managers, design professionals, construction managers and design-assist subcontractors should consider two factors when involved in a project using this model.

Insurance: It is important to recognize that only professional liability insurance policies will respond to allegations of design deficiencies. Accordingly, parties not normally involved in design decisions may be exposed to uninsurable claims against them unless proper precautions are taken. If a party is a construction manager, general contractor or subcontractor who is involved in the design-assist process, professional liability insurance coverage should be maintained (both at the prime level and at the subcontractor level) to respond to design-related allegations arising from the design-assist activities. Many contractors feel they have no exposure as they are hiring design professionals, but they are liable for who they hire.

Figure 2: Aerial view of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Yard Consolidation Project, showcasing the expansive facility optimized through design-assist methods. Courtesy: Google Earth

Figure 2: Aerial view of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Yard Consolidation Project, showcasing the expansive facility optimized through design-assist methods. Courtesy: Google Earth

Licensing: Design-assist subcontractors must be knowledgeable of licensing regulations, which vary from state to state. Some states may require design-assist subcontractors to have a license. Licensure could be a more significant issue to consider if the relevant contracts do not appropriately describe and limit design-assist activities, blurring the line between pure design-assist activities and delegated design.

Top design-assist considerations

The best outcomes occur when every member of a project team is empowered to unleash their unique value. Too often, unfortunately that value is overlooked or ignored. Failure to collaborate has real consequences: missed deadlines, inflated budgets, unnecessary conflicts or even litigation. Through intentional teaming methods and collaboration, individuals can share their insights with confidence, knowing their voice will be heard. The entire project team can leverage the value that each member brings. In the end, a team can succeed in delivering a better project at a better price than individuals working alone on an island — and have more fun in the process.

Design-assist harnesses the power of collaboration in construction projects. By involving the more broadly defined construction team from the start, numerous benefits can be unlocked: improved cost-efficiency, timing, constructability and overall project value. Challenges can be addressed early, saving time and money down the line. Design issues can be tackled together proactively, preventing costly delays and errors during construction, fewer RFIs, code issues and disconnects in the plans and specifications. It also leads to more efficient closeout documents and drawings.

While it requires initial investment of time and effort, the returns are significant, with the potential to pay for themselves many times over. By improving constructability and reducing the construction schedule and ultimate cost, the savings generated by design-assist more than offset its initial costs. Learn to embrace this approach and strive for efficiency and excellence in everything we do.

Author Bio: Tom Martin is President at T.H. Martin Inc. He is President of SMACNA Cleveland, 2012-Present, and President-Elect SMACNA National, 2025. Ross Mitchell is Chief Estimator/Director of Preconstruction Mechanical at T.H. Martin Inc. He sits on the board of directors of the Cogence Alliance.