Why Design-Build Merits Serious Consideration for Academic Design & Construction

Despite being the fastest growing and most popular method used to deliver construction projects in America, many outside of the architectural design and construction industries are still unfamiliar with the design-build model. But project owners familiar with design-build recognize its financial and risk mitigation benefits. Academic institutions, which are increasingly under pressure to decrease costs and shorten project schedules, stand to benefit from adopting the design-build model on their campuses.

academic design and construction

What is design-build?

In every design and construction project, unforeseen circumstances almost always arise – like weather, cost overruns, product shortages or change orders – often resulting in a delayed project completion. The design-build method helps keep projects on schedule, as the client manages one contract with a single point of contact. Because the designer and contractor are hired together as a team, decisions are made collectively to deliver a project that fits the client’s requirements and wishes. They work together to solve any challenges that may arise, rather than blaming each other for any setbacks encountered along the way.

In traditional architecture and construction project delivery, there is a triangular relationship between the client, architect and contractor, with the client at the topmost point. Subcontractors are often hired under both the architect and contractor points of this triangle – further complicating the relationships by allowing for ambiguity over who owns the exposure when problems arise. The client must manage two separate teams and their subcontractors, which can create an adversarial relationship rather than a symbiotic one.

Long-considered an alternative method of project delivery, research from FMI shows that design-build construction spending is anticipated to grow 18% from 2018 to 2021, and is projected to represent up to 44% of construction spending by 2021. Manufacturing, highway/road and education are expected to represent the greatest percentage of design-build construction.

Before we dive into why these sectors, particularly education, are prime for design-build project delivery, let’s briefly explore some of the common misconceptions that have hindered wider implementation of the design-build approach.

Common misconceptions around design-build delivery

Because design-build was most commonly adopted in public works projects such as highways, bridges and other municipal works, when it was initially introduced, many people thought that it was only for projects where function outweighs design – i.e. if you choose design-build, control over design will be compromised. A contributing factor to this misguided thought is that teams are typically contractor-led, so the architect or designer is not in the driver’s seat of the project.

Another misconception about design-build is that it is typically chosen only for projects with aggressive timelines for completion. While it’s true that speed is a benefit of design-build delivery, the design portion of the project timeline is usually the one shortened, as construction is a sequential process and there is no way to eliminate necessary sequences for sake of time. When design-build is chosen for speed rather than its overall benefits, design time is often accelerated as a result.

People who are drawn to design-build for speed and cost savings are more likely to utilize the project method when they don’t feel design needs to be particularly original. However, as we’ll explore below, the academic sector is the perfect use case for exploring how design-build is the best delivery system for mitigating risk, increasing the speed of delivery, lowering costs, and delivering great design – all through a simpler, more collaborative process.

Design-build benefits schools can capitalize on

Large-scale construction projects are part of the development plans at most academic institutions. But tightening budgets are forcing schools to look for better ways to contain costs and control their exposure, all while ensuring that building projects are aligned with campus standards and culture.

One of the biggest problems with the traditional triangular construction delivery method is that when challenges arise throughout project execution, it’s common for the triangle’s base points – the architect and the contractor – to point to each other as the cause of the issue or lack of solution. Because both are competing to execute on the client’s goals, be this through delivering the client’s desired design elements or saving on budget, both tend to operate relatively independently on finalizing the project.

The design-build approach offers a more synergetic delivery system because the architect and contractor hear the owner’s project goals at the same time and work together to deliver what is feasible, aspirational or ideal for a given project.

Among others, the primary areas in which schools can benefit by implementing design-build in their new construction or renovation projects are:

• Risk Mitigation
Project challenges such as change orders and budget overruns are less likely because of the way design-build contracts are typically written. With architects and contractors working together for the entirety of the design and construction process, they collaborate better on certain design, material and construction elements that often drive budget, and timelines, decreasing the likelihood of unforeseen changes.

• Speed
The coordinated effort of the architect and contractor in delivering on the client’s wishes expedites the speed of a design-build project. Synchronous teamwork proactively directs the work to the most efficient parts of the project team, such as subcontractors hired to complete the final detailing for review by the design team.

• Cost Reduction
With reduction in risk and increase in speed comes cost savings. Design-build’s cooperative nature between architects, construction managers and subcontractors means that all parties are involved in both the design and construction phases of the project making the most efficient use of labor, materials, and constructability input. This helps to eliminate many of the unknown factors that drive the size of project contingencies at all levels of the supply chain, thus minimizing the initially projected cost.

• Quality Control
Since design-build promotes collaboration, streamlines communication and brings about more efficient workflows, academic institutions gain greater quality control and assurance that their vision will to come to fruition. Designers and builders are working together with high quality standards at every stage. With the two entities working together as one, each brings out the best in the other, thus creating a better building.

Case Study - UNH

DiMella Shaffer has extensive design experience in the academic sector, spanning from primary/preparatory institutions, to secondary and higher education. We’ve been thrilled to see a greater adoption of the design-build method of project delivery in the academic space, as these schools and institutions have come to better understand the process’ benefits and its application in an academic setting. One school with whom we’ve delivered several design-build projects is the University of New Hampshire (UNH).

At UNH, the addition of two new residential buildings to the existing 600-bed Gables community was the first of a two-phase 1,000-bed expansion project. After nearly a year of preparatory work, the university had clear expectations on the program and quality of work desired for two additional buildings adjacent to this 15-year-old community. The school chose a design-build approach as they believed it would be the most efficient, and because it would allow simultaneous control over both budget and design.

The Gables project was one with a short timeframe – the design-build process kicked off on December 15th with a project completion and student move-in by August, 19 months later. As a client, Doug Bencks, University Architect and Director of Campus Planning at UNH, feels that design-build affords a higher level of comfort, largely because of the minimal cost variance from predesign to project completion and lowered costs associated with time and labor saved. But for Bencks, the commitment of the design-build team to having onsite representation throughout the process to make quick, collective decisions as needs arose was where the sense of support and ease stemmed on this project. Onsite design staff accelerated the decisionmaking necessary in the field, allowing for faster project completion.

Bencks states there has been significant growth in the awareness of design-build as a delivery option in the past five years, particularly in the academic sector. Since 2006, UNH has completed 17 design-build projects, with a total of 50 design-build projects to date. This approach has accounted for over 34% of projects over $3M at the university since the same year.

Design-build will only grow in years ahead

Back in my college years, several friends and I created and successfully ran a design-build company, completing a number of residential projects over the course of six years. In the years since, it’s been incredible to watch this process take off. In 2018, design-build construction in place spending totaled $274.2B. By 2021, this number is forecasted to reach $323.6B, $49B of which will be educational construction.

Like UNH, many schools are learning that utilizing the design-build delivery method for both renovation and new construction projects on campus yields a smoother process, adherence to budget and schedule (if not savings on both fronts), and better final product. Institutions such as Brown University, Tufts University, and Wheelock College are among many adopting this approach. This method is well on its way to becoming the go-to method for construction across a variety of sectors.

The most important elements of a successful academic design-build project are having the parameters carefully and thoughtfully established by the school and picking the right team. Doing so will undoubtedly provide an opportunity for design-build to prove why it’s the best method for academic construction – and as our UNH project manager said at project completion, “I never want to go back to the traditional process!”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.