Despite economic challenges and the influence of ‘hybrid’ methods, leading commercial contractors are staying true to Design/Build as the best solution for the customer.
In 1991, Contracting Business.com established the Design/Build Comfort and Quality Contest (now known across the HVAC industry as The Design/Build Awards).
The Design/Build Comfort and Quality Contest set a standard for excellence, as it took a magnifying glass to every submitted project, to validate that each mechanical systems installation was meeting human comfort, air quality, and efficiency needs, while following an all-in-one, single-source, team fulfillment method.
Among our very first Design/Build Comfort and Quality Contest winners were MacDonald-Miller, Seattle, WA (also our 1991 Commercial Contractor of the Year), and Lee Co., Franklin, TN, (our 1984 Commercial Contractor of the Year). Both companies have been stalwarts of Design/Build. And, despite the increased popularity of what Lee calls Design/Build "hybrids," neither he, nor Doug Turley, MacDonald-Miller executive vice president have lost any of their fervor for Design/Build.
We recently asked them to describe the key features of Design/Build, how it has been improved upon, and how it will fare in the future.
"Value and performance are the hallmarks of the Design/Build method," Bill Lee says. "You get 'fast track' delivery, in that you’re able to begin building while you’re still designing, and you’re able to start the delivery system process much faster if the designer is the builder. You can also control the budget more efficiently. You set a guaranteed price from the very beginning, and you don’t bust budgets with redesigns."
Lee says Design/Build's compatibility to single-source responsibility is the method’s greatest attribute.
"It limits the responsibility to fewer parties, so there’s not so much finger-pointing when something goes wrong. And, because the responsibility goes only so far, you have guaranteed performance. If we provide the design, construction, and maintenance of that mechanical system, we guarantee its performance, that it’s going to be repaired if necessary, and that it’s not going to cost you more for all of that to come together," Lee adds. "The growth of commissioning points to the failure of tradtional delivery methods, something D/B resolves."
Attack of the Hybrids
But the Design/Build of the past 30 years has now taken a more frequent back seat to what Lee says is a "metamorphosis" of the original concept. He believes the Design/Build hybrids — such as Design/Assist, Design/Bid/Build and the grandaddy of them all, Plan-and-Spec —have become popular due to cost concerns, and a new generation of building owners' uncertainty in the "one contractor" method.
"True Design/Build is a negotiated, integrated solution based on trust. When people don’t trust the team or whoever is putting the proposal together, they start coming up with hybrids," Lee adds. "They say 'we’ll do Design/Build, but we’ll take three proposals,' and you start mixing in the competitive pricing structure of 'the bid,' with what’s supposed to be a negotiated, team approach based on trust."
Bill’s father, Wallace Lee, was a contributor to Contracting Business magazine during Design/Build’s heyday. In a February, 1989 article, he wrote: "You have to believe that what you are doing is in your customer’s advantage. If not, don’t do it."
Bill Lee says that belief is still the heartbeat of every true, quality Design/Build installation.
"My dad wrote about believing that Design/Build was in the best interest of the owner, and giving him what is the best thing for him, which isn’t based at all on cutting corners, or cost-cutting, as you might find in a Plan-and-Spec bid situation. That’s still true today," Lee says.
Doug Turley calls Design/Build "relationship contracting," because of its collaborative nature with the client.
Turley adds, "Relationship contracting is still going strong, however it has been undermined somewhat by the bad economy and a ‘desperate bid’ mentality. Design/Build itself is still strong in our region, however we’ve seen our company revenue reverse from 60/40 in favor of D/B, to 60/40 Plan-and-Spec. We’ve adapted to the ‘slug it out’ environment on those PS projects, however, we prefer the collaborative D/B approach, which we know will come back strong."
March of Technology
Wallace Lee says computer technology and computer-aided-design (CAD) helped to bring Design/Build into widespread use.
“The computer wasn’t an everyday item that everyone had on their desk. The computer and CAD enabled you to design different applications, in a way that would give the customer the most value for his money. There’s not a ‘perfect’ design for any mechanical system, but the computer allowed you to do different things, and determine which application was best for that situation,” he says.
Turley says Design/Build professionals still rely on much of the same equipment and systems that were popular 20 years ago — such as vertical self-contains, economizers, and variable-frequency drives (VFDs). Today, he sees increasing value in direct digital control (DDC) systems.
“DDC have features that are way beyond 1991. They’re more like ‘dashboards,’ for continuous monitoring and tuning. DDC dashboards allow for oversight management, enabling building performance specialists to manage energy consumption through better management of mechanical systems’ operating efficiencies,” Turley says. “It’s ‘real time,’ with validation. Due to foundational elements of the software architecture, you’re able to identify and broadcast operating issues such as calibration, operating condition, and efficiency that are associated with the building systems, their devices and their instrumentation.”
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Turley believes system designs based on real-life conditions has brought a degree of careful restraint to the art of Design/Build.
“For our winning project back in 1991, we talked about an office building designed for 360 sq.ft/ton. Some people felt that internal loads would continue to grow, but they didn’t. We now use 550 sq.ft./ton as a typical design average. The advent of more efficient computing equipment and a better understanding of how much internal heat is ‘truly generated’ are major factors, as are better building envelopes,” he says.
Both Bill Lee and Doug Turley have reservations on what the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) method has brought to the Design/Build experience. They suggest LEED methods represent everything the best contractors have always done on every project.
“Although LEED has its good points, it serves as a ‘cook book’ for engineers,” Turley observes. “I’ve seen teams that strive for points and lose the entire purpose, maybe even beat the system to get points. Does the point total really equal a better project? Maybe, if the team was focused primarily on first-cost. LEED seems to level the playing field. The best engineers were already considering the principles outlined in LEED, and the average engineers are now forced to consider them, and given a road map,” he says.
“LEED is more theoretical than practical,” Lee asserts. “There are buildings out there that, from our perspective, are more questionable in their improvements than they would have been if not driven by LEED. We’re not certain the LEED process is bringing to the marketplace all it’s supposed to, or claims to. It’s not as if no one was doing that kind of analysis before LEED. I’m not sold that it’s a positive, driving force in our industry.
“Despite that, we’ve invested in LEED for those clients that prefer a LEED project.”
According to Turley, government interference and reduced professionalism have also made the Design/Build process more difficult to implement.
“In our area, energy codes have become prescriptive, restrictive, and like a cook-book, dictating that most engineers simply design systems right from the code. Fortunately, the code does allow you to design what you feel is best, as long as you can prove it’s as good as what the code cook book would allow. This is a path we commonly take,” Turley says. “We’re still working with our customers to determine the best solutions for their projects; we just have some additional red-tape to cut to get there.”
More 'Energy Retrofits' Coming
Lee says time, and aging buildings will bring a reemergence in the value of Design/Build.
“The things we do as an industry impact energy usage in the U.S. more than any other factor. Retrofitting existing mechanical systems to more energy efficient systems will remain the obvious, ‘shovel ready’ and significantly impactful scenario that has yet to be tapped,” he says.
“We believe that if there were a movement to retrofitting mechanical systems all over the country, it would have a significant impact on energy usage and be great for our economy. We think that’s going to happen, and when it does, the Design/Build delivery system will be by far the best way to deliver those ‘energy retrofits.’”
Looking forward, Lee says the commercial HVAC industry will reemerge as a different industry, after the passing of the nation’s current and significant economic pressure, which he sees as having an impact for another three or four years.
“We’re not going to reemerge as a rapidly expanding construction nation again. We’re probably overbuilt. But we will reemerge,” Lee predicts. “And the construction industry will exist, but differently than it did five years ago. Design/Build will accommodate that reemergence and be a more viable solution.”
For Turley, one more thing about the Design/Build delivery system remains as strong today as it was 30 years ago: professionalism will still win the day. “The best Design/Build contractors are still winning in the long run, and being successful in this tough market,” he says.