Design Assist is built on communication and trust

The design and construction industry encourages engineers and architects to be adversarial. It promotes seclusion based on time and energy. But, it takes time and energy to build relationships. Relationships are what ultimately determine the success of a project. My latest experience proves this.

Aurora-Burlington Ambulatory Health Center is a 165,000-square-foot ambulatory care center and professional office building in Burlington, Wis. The team on this project consists of Aurora Health Care (Client), Boldt Construction (Construction Manager), HGA Architects and Engineers (Engineer of Record), and Martin Petersen Company (HVAC and Plumbing Contractor). The project delivery method is Design Assist.

Design Assist was ideal for this project because of the fast-track schedule. It offers an innovative way to improve constructability, increase value, and improve the ability to manage the construction budget and schedule. Design Assist can be applied in many different ways on a project. On this particular project, the fundamentals behind the Design Assist delivery are to bring on the MEP contractors after the DD phase to finalize the drawings and prepare a guaranteed maximum price before proceeding with construction.

The contractor interview process set the tone for the project team. It was unlike any contractor interview that I had been to. HGA and Aurora Health Care were invited to the interviews and were not allowed to see the numbers in the bids. We were able to review their materials and equipment lists, but numbers were blanked out to avoid being influenced by the low number.

The plumbing contractors were interviewed by Boldt, Aurora and HGA through a qualitative and quantitative scoring process that evaluated the contractors on things like experience in health care, location to the project, team depth, past Aurora work, and BIM capabilities. Through the interviews, the team determined which contractor was most prepared for the project-related questions. Martin Petersen Company (MPC) was selected based on their answers and the quantities that were represented on their proposals.

By inviting the owner and engineering team to join the interviews, it showed the plumbing contractors that this was a team and they would need to get on board if they wanted to win this work. The key takeaway from the interviews was that Aurora and Boldt allowed HGA to have a voice in determining the team that we would be working with. They also were able to see early on how our teams would interact together.

Dennis Buxrude, a senior director at Boldt Construction, was a major leader in this process, and explained it very well to me.

“After many years of practice, it was a pleasure to experience this team’s participation in this project delivery method. Doing so with energy, enthusiasm, and humor to motivate each other to achieve their potential and meeting the project objectives,” Dennis said. “Many have learned the meaning, understanding, and use of the tools used in this project delivery approach. The legacy comes from seeing their individual behavior or practice change in the future based on a positive experience seen here.”

Once the plumbing contractor was selected, it was all about speed because the shovels were going in the ground in a couple of months. MPC ran with HGA’s DD set of documents to develop them into installation drawings. There was an open line of communication between MPC and HGA from the beginning. The lead from MPC, Joe Wilfert, had given me his cell phone number at the first meeting, and explained that anytime I wanted to talk about the project I could call him. This was absolutely true for the next six months. There was a period where we were talking two to three times per day.

“The open communication and trust between HGA and MPC created a design that was complete, functional, installable, and met the owner's requirements. This open communication also allowed for the budget to be monitored and maintained throughout the design process,” Joe said, when I inquired about what he thought the biggest success of the project has been.

The best part about working with Joe is a mutual respect and an interest in learning from one another. It didn’t take long for me to have a sense of anticipation before each meeting that there was going to be a lot accomplished. That mindset is important, and I think was a result of those early interviews and the expectations, set by Aurora and Boldt, that we would deliver.

After reviewing about 200 emails between Joe and me on this project, I saw a theme in the context. Most of them were about one to three sentences with a proposition, reasoning, and then closing statement, “let me know what you think.”

The email conversations usually resulted in a 10-minute phone call for a conclusion on how we were going to proceed. Joe trusted that I would manage the design requirements and performance, and I trusted that he would manage the plumbing installation coordination and budget.

I recently asked Kelly Noel, director of Construction Management with Aurora Health Care, about her thoughts on the Design Assist approach.

“The Design Assist process adds tremendous value to our projects,” Kelly said. “The ability to have the field knowledge and technical experts collaborate, provides for expedited results, and minimizes the changes during construction. The basis of this success is a strong partnership long before the first shovel is in the ground.”

This statement speaks to the importance of your team. I asked several engineers and contractors why a Design Assist relationship fails, and they all explained it had to do with an absence of communication. I think what everyone was saying is that what you learned in the traditional design-bid-build world might not work in every instance. We can’t design and construct in silos anymore. The design and construction schedules are condensing, and we have to adapt.

The team also communicated through the drawings by using the project’s 3D model produced by MPC to look at intense coordination areas in the above ceiling space. When the contractor was complete with producing a 3D coordinated model we then used these files to create the state plumbing drawings. The modifications to the plumbing drawings that HGA made were simply graphical to appease the state plan reviewer’s requirements. At the time, the design team was ready to send the plumbing construction documents into the State of Wisconsin for plumbing plan review. MPC already had an approved construction contract and a coordinated model for installation. MPC also had a complete understanding of the plumbing design because of the time spent together working out the problems on the white board over the previous 12 months.

We’ve all been in that situation when a Request for Information (RFI) hits your inbox and you look at the drawings to see if you missed something. Your mind immediately starts the third degree self-examination.

Did I really miss this?

Why didn’t I catch this?

Who moved that water closet?

How much is this going to cost?

Did the contractor install it already?

Could the Design Assist delivery method along with early and often communication have circumvented this RFI from happening?

I know the engineering field has concerns that the Design Assist delivery method could be infringing on their scope of work. There are concerns that the efficiencies created in this process are depleting their fees and taking away their value from the project team. My guess is that this is the same response that drafters had when CAD was invented.

Buxrude explained it like this, “The process, while rarely used by many, has proven to motivate project delivery teams to deliver a superior project, meeting the important goals of program function, operational integrity, energy efficiency, quality, and fiscal acceptance.”

Our project is currently ahead of schedule and is set to open in May of 2016. Not every project will be right for this method of delivery, but when your project does go the Design Assist route, you should embrace it and take the time to get to know the plumbing contractor. Chances are you might learn something. I know I did.

Cory Powers is an engineer at HGA Architects and Engineers office in Milwaukee, Wis. HGA is a top 10 national health care design firm with additional practices in energy and infrastructure, corporate, arts and higher education. He is a licensed master plumber and certified in plumbing design (CPD). He has been a member of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) since 2008, previously serving as president of the ASPE Wisconsin Chapter. He currently serves on the ASPE National Board of Directors as the AYP Chair.

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