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As design-build becomes a more common method for delivering construction projects, it is critical to understand the best way to ensure project success and reduce risk.

In choosing the design-build project delivery method, an Owner benefits by having a single point of contact and responsibility for a project. Design-build is also attractive to an Owner because it allows early input and collaboration between the construction team and design team, which leads to improvements on costs and schedule.   Design-build further reflects an Owner’s limited resources to oversee and coordinate a construction project as is needed for a design-bid-build project.  With millions at stake, as well as the design-build team’s reputation, the consequences of a poorly run design-build project are immense. 

Effective collaboration amongst the design-build team and the Owner is required to achieve design-build success.  The team must operate as a single well-oiled machine and be highly adept at communicating productively ― both on a day-to-day basis as well as when issues arise.  

So what are the best practices for a design-build project team to create the required collaboration and communication practices to ensure a successful project?

1) Establishing trust among the team players.
Successful team collaboration often hinges on the most important component of this working relationship – trust. Knowing and trusting the players on the team is the first step to ensuring successful communications and collaboration.  Selecting partners who you know you can trust and rely upon to make good decisions along the way is critical― especially when challenges occur.  

It is essential that all of the individuals on the team work to become one. This will enable the team to acknowledge when mistakes do occur and come together to produce smart, effective solutions.

To build a well-functioning team, learning how team members process information and identifying their communication styles can be invaluable on a fast-moving project like design-build.  An off-site “get-to-know-you” meeting that includes a team-building exercise and some type(s) of behavioral and emotional intelligence and/or other assessment tools can be a helpful way to deepen team members’ understanding of each other’s styles, strengths, and weaknesses.   This is especially critical if team members have not worked together before or do not know each other well.

Every aspect of project success requires effective communications, and not everyone may be a skilled communicator. For example, it is important that everyone on the team understands when to raise issues as urgent and when not to do so― since not every decision requires urgency.

2) Clear Staffing Roles and Responsibilities.
Establishing clear staffing roles and responsibilities at the beginning of a project is essential to ensuring that everyone knows who is responsible for which tasks, decisions, and deliverables. A comprehensive list of roles and responsibilities must include the design and construction team and the Owner. The Owner’s staffing roles and responsibilities should be stated in the written agreement.

An effective tool for establishing the agreed upon roles and responsibilities is a RACI matrix. This matrix lists key tasks and deliverables and who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed (“RACI”) for those tasks and deliverables. Mistakes and disputes arise from a lack of clarity, specificity, and available resources. This tool provides clarity to the process and identifies issues that need to be addressed to avoid such disputes.

The design-build team should appoint two team leaders for communications with the Owner: (1) Design Team Leader and (2) Construction Team Leader. These two employees should regularly interface with the owner’s designated representative concerning the project. This will foster direct and efficient communication to their respective teams.

The two team leaders should meet initially to establish their own internal process and then collaborate with the Owner to define the communications protocols. Ascertaining the Owner’s preferences and priorities and structuring the process appropriately with the Owner at the outset will enable the team leaders to set up a corresponding process with the entire team. It is up to the team-leaders in their day-to-day management roles to ensure continuous communication and alignment. Because this day-to-day function is critical, the team leaders must have adequate time devoted to the project and, in most cases, should not be principals of their respective firms.

a. Initial Goal Alignment and Interactive Planning Session
A productive project management strategy on design-build projects is to conduct a daylong face-to-face interactive planning session. During this meeting, discipline and team managers should convey their knowledge of the design and construction development process and collaborate to develop goals for the project.

White board sessions and sticky notes are used to identify the sequence and timing of key completion milestones. A preliminary schedule outlining design packages dates and other deliverables will be developed as part of this meeting. This schedule will assist the Owner in arriving at a reliable completion date and permit the Owner to advance lending requirements. These design packages may include foundation, structural, and long-lead equipment packages.

b. The Playbook - Clear Understanding of Design Requirements and Deliverables
Because each project is unique, every project requires a custom design playbook and set of resources (budget and staffing) to be successful.

Key to ensuring that everyone is on the same page is establishing a detailed set of design requirements. This document should outline all of the elements of the project including the scope, design deliverable(s), tasks, and meetings. Having such details spelled out is the best way to level set expectations and eliminate, or at least reduce opportunities for misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and miscommunication.

The type, quantity, and general arrangement of equipment will drive the design including the mechanical, electrical and plumbing needs. Meetings and planning sessions must occur amongst the design-build team and owner representatives around floor plans for equipment and personnel flows. This is one of the last major design elements to occur prior to traditional design review.

Establishing the design deliverables in writing with as much detail as possible is the best way to reduce the risk of inaccurate assumptions and avoid issues during construction that will impede success.

Those design deliverables need to inform the construction team so that they can buy the work out according to the schedule.

The design-build process requires continuous communications and design updates in real time so that nothing interferes with or slows down the construction schedule. When mistakes occur, the team needs to come together in a timely manner and be open and transparent in order to produce solutions and mitigate schedule impacts. The team leaders’ creation of an environment of trust is integral to the success of the project.

Regular project meetings should also be agreed upon between the design-build team leaders. How often will they be held? Weekly? Two times per week? Who will attend?Who will be there from the Owner’s organization? What other stakeholders need to be present at meetings?

3) Owner Involvement
An Owner’s regular involvement in the design-build process leads to cost-savings for the Owner. Coming to an early agreement as to the owner’s involvement and the Owner’s resources is key to ensuring a successful project.

Owners need to understand all of the decisions that must be made during planning, design, and construction. It is important to challenge an Owner if it attempts to hold onto certain decisions and/or activities that were delegated to the design-build contractor. Emphasize and remind the Owner that it chose the design-build delivery method to ensure greater collaboration amongst the design and construction teams. The efficiencies and reduced costs of the design-build delivery method will be lost if the Owner oversteps its role.

A successful design-build process should create a roadmap for the project in real time. When such a process is implemented successfully, including a project culture of candor and trust, substantial cost and schedule savings will be realized with the design-build project delivery method.

About the Author
Jason Theberge, VP Life Sciences Group., Commodore Builders

Jason has spent most of his career working closely with – or as – the client for major Life Sciences construction projects. He graduated from Clarkson University with a dual degree in Civil Engineering and Engineering Management.

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