Bridging Spans the Gaps in Project Delivery

Georgia State University has just occupied a new residence hall for more than 400 graduate, married and international students at its downtown Atlanta campus. Georgia Tech is about to break ground for a satellite campus in Savannah. Morehouse College is building a student housing complex to accommodate 375 enrollees in Atlanta.

What unites these three ambitious projects, aside from their geographic affinity, is the relatively new method of project delivery called bridging.

Bridging is a hybrid project delivery approach that incorporates the best features -- and discards the most troublesome ones -- of the two time-honored project delivery methods: design-bid-build and design-build.

In the former method, the owner employs an architect to draw up plans and construction documents and then seeks the low bid from a contractor. Delays, cost overruns and lawsuits often result. The design-build approach can expedite things by having the owner describe what’s wanted, relying on the contractor’s architect to draw up the plans. But that cedes much control of the result to the builder.

Bridging is a middle way -- using an owner’s design architect and program manager to prepare preliminary design and specification documents (referred to as the contract documents for a design-build form of contract between the owner and the contractor) and having this team closely supervise the contractor’s architect and engineers in finalizing the construction documents. The effect is to telescope the time required to get a firm and enforceable price for the owner, make sure the owner gets what he wants and reduce the likelihood of litigation. The payoff in significant time and money savings and decreased litigation can’t be ignored.

As the creator of the bridging method in the late 1970s, I chose the name some 10 years later (at the suggestion of my eldest son) because the bridging method, when correctly executed, serves as a bypass over most of the thorny problems that bedevil owners and other project participants.

Bridging, properly understood and used, reduces costs, risks and frustrations for the owner without the owner or the owner’s design architect having to give up any control of design or construction quality.

My belief in bridging, however, was not widely shared at first. The new method found only scattered acceptance in the 1980s and early ’90s. But eventually, the rising costs of construction and the litigation arising from construction-related disputes impelled owners and their advisors to take a more serious look at the advantages and efficiencies inherent in bridging.

Today, my biggest concern is that many have embraced the name, but many are not following good bridging procedures, thus getting less-than-best results.

Why use bridging?

1. The amount of time and money required of the owner to get to the point of having a highly enforceable fixed price is about half in bridging as compared with the traditional method.

2. The traditional method assumes that architects and engineers are the best source of latest construction technology and the most practical construction methods. Neither is true. This is not to say that most architects and engineers are not well trained and experienced or that they don’t work hard in the best interests of their clients. However, the most advanced knowledge of construction technology and practical construction methods lie primarily with specialty subcontractors and building product manufacturers. Bridging offers the potential of bringing this knowledge into the design process without the owner having to relinquish a direct relationship with the design architect and without a conflict of interest with the design architect.

3. The traditional method assumes that the architect and engineers can and will prepare contract documents that are virtually free of errors and omissions. That is, in fact, not humanly possible. As a result, in virtually all projects employing the traditional method of design-bid-build, there are seeds for claims -- often significant claims -- against the owner within the contract documents.

4. In virtually all construction projects, there are post-construction “bugs” and sometimes larger problems. The traditional method leaves the owner vulnerable to buck passing, delays, and unwarranted and unexpected costs in getting these solved.

Design-build carries its own inherent disadvantages, including:

- conflict of interest between the owner and the design architects and engineers;

- difficulty the owner has in getting apples-for-apples price proposals;

- early loss of leverage; and

- early loss of flexibility.

Under bridging, the owner is served, from predesign through construction and occupancy, by a professional service provider with both project management and architectural design capabilities and who is referred to as the owner’s consultant. The contractor enters into a design-build form of contract with the owner in which the owner’s consultant is identified as the owner’s representative. The contractor employs, or engages as subcontractor(s), architects and engineers as the contractor’s AE, which is the entity that is the architect and engineer of record.

The basis of the contract between owner and contractor, in addition to the design-build form of contract, are drawings developed through the schematic and design development phases, general conditions and performance specifications, all prepared by the owner’s consultant. These drawings and specs are referred to as the Design Guide Illustrations and the Owner’s Minimum Requirements. The owner gets a lump sum fixed price based on the foregoing Contract Documents, which is far more enforceable than a GMP, and the owner has the right to terminate the contract without cause at the end of the contractor’s preparation of the final Construction Documents, for an amount stipulated in the original proposal form.

Bridging also has some advantages to architects and project managers providing the service. It helps them provide a more valuable service to the client. One way that the client is better served is by reducing the client’s exposure to claims, including unexpected (and oftentimes unwarranted) change orders. It is in the area of claims that many disputes come about, almost always to the detriment of the owner. Much of the architects’ and engineers’ exposure to professional liability claims and losses comes about as a side effect of these and other types of disputes between owners and contractors.

In turn, when the owner’s exposure to these problems is reduced, so are the architect’s and engineer’s exposure to professional liability claims. In fact, from a practical standpoint, this whole contentious area is very much diffused under the bridging approach.

The Owner’s Consultant might accurately be referred to as the Owner’s Program Manager and Design Architect. Some owners today are referring to the Owner’s Consultant as the Bridging Architect. This entity could be a single firm having both capabilities, or a joint venture.

Like other institutional owners, colleges and universities are gradually awakening to the time and money-saving potential of bridging. The University of California, for example, having testing the method at its Irvine campus, is now applying it at other locations. In time, I believe, bridging will be the method of choice for new campus developments across the United States as well as for other owners in both the public and private sectors.

George T. Heery, a noted Atlanta architect and development manager, is chairman of Brookwood Group, an architectural and construction program management firm, and co-founder and former CEO of Heery International.