Design-build: Achieving results through collaboration

  • Jun 17, 2019

This column is featured in University Business magazine

By Rick del Monte, Managing Director, and National Design Director 

As online education grows increasingly popular, brick-and-mortar institutions are turning to new state-of-the-art facilities to help recruit and retain students.

While student recruitment remains a primary objective, rising costs associated with providing these new buildings increasingly dominate the priority lists of educational leaders.

Even at major institutions, tuition does not cover the costs of running a university and funding new capital projects.

Schools are becoming more dependent on income from their endowments for a substantial percentage of their operating costs and capital project funding, resulting in increased scrutiny on how the projects are being delivered.

One way to reduce costs on construction projects is through the design-build delivery method, which provides university leaders a fixed price early in the capital appropriation process that they can incorporate into their comprehensive institutional budgets.

Challenging the traditional procurement process

The established procurement process at many academic institutions may be at odds with the collaborative relationships required to successfully implement a design-build approach. Very often, the procurement process is focused on lowest cost and not best value.

Both Contractors and subcontractors may be reluctant to share their expertise in their proposed solutions if they are forced to bid on the project. In following their established processes to get the best price, procurement personnel may, unfortunately, overlook an opportunity to get the best value in the form of expertise.

It takes a senior educational leader with real vision to broadly implement such a change. Whatever the reason for choosing design-build, many institutions find that the benefits of fixed costs and faster completion outweigh the challenges of institutional discomfort and internal realignment with this delivery method.

Early collaboration provides accuracy

In a traditional design-build project, teams of architects and contractors work together to develop a winning solution based on the owner’s criteria, estimate a price, and the owner chooses the best package from the competing teams.

Because this traditional approach allows very little input for the owner, many institutions are opting for a progressive design-build approach, which starts with a qualifications-based team selection.

Once the team is selected, the contractor and architect collaborate with the owner to ‘progress’ the design and price, enhancing transparency. It is critical for the owner to have a strong voice in a progressive design-build project to achieve a higher-quality design.

Target value design = Options within your budget

Many design-build teams utilize a Target Value Design approach, which provides options regarding building size, program, and budget for consideration with the goal of developing a Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP).

The process starts at a conceptual level with an overall budget, and the team then works with the owner to meet project criteria while staying within that budget. The key to this approach is starting with a final cost and designing based on that parameter to develop multiple schemes that are priced through the course of the process, selecting the best option to move forward with.

As online education grows increasingly popular, brick-and-mortar institutions are turning to new state-of-the-art facilities to help recruit and retain students.

Once the conceptual budget is set, the design-build team invites subcontractors to review the design and offer suggestions for reducing cost and maximizing value. The design-build team works with each subcontractor individually sharing project goals and asking them how they can provide maximum value.

Because of their active participation, each subcontractor knows the budget. The overall budget is allocated to various parts of the building. This enhanced precision helps teams meet their budget target.

The design-build team can either share the budget first and ask subcontractor candidates how they would add value within that budget, or they give no numbers and ask for a quote. In either case, the subcontractor firm that provides the perceived maximum value will be awarded the project.

This early collaboration with subcontractors is the best opportunity for value, speed of execution, and quality design. At the end of this process, the team presents the GMP to the owner, who has the option to move forward or stop the process.

Design-build in action

Two examples at The Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey campus in Monterrey, Mexico, often referred to as Monterrey Tec, exemplify how utilizing a design-build approach can help resolve cost challenges associated with higher education projects.

Using a traditional negotiated process with separate design and construction teams, Monterrey Tec had engaged an architect to design a new football stadium with little pricing input resulting in a project that was so significantly over budget it could not proceed into construction.

Monterrey Tec then engaged The Beck Group, and by utilizing a target value design-build approach that emphasized collaboration among all team members including subcontractors, the team was able to develop a project that met multiple program needs within the university’s budget.

The over-budget design had focused primarily on providing a stadium for the university’s American football team, the Borregos. Based on collaborative input, the design-build team recommended that instead of designing a facility that would only be used for sports, the new design accommodated multiple activities, giving it an integral place in the student life every day, not just once a week during sporting events.

The main concourse is part of student circulation: students walk through it to get to classes and, during a student event, organizations set up booths in the concourse, which is a broad, open area with concessions and restrooms.

Because the team was able to accommodate the program and what they wanted within their existing budget, another key part of the master plan—a wellness center with a natatorium, gymnasium, and lifestyle programs—is now in the middle of a progressive design-build process.

Utilizing design-build to quickly recover from a natural disaster

After an earthquake devastated another of the institution’s campuses in Mexico City, university leaders chose to utilize the same design-build process that had been so successful at their Monterrey campus to recover and rebuild their Mexico City campus.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances that led up to it, the rebuilding project provided an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of the university’s Strategic Plan, the Tec 21 Educational Model.

Tec 21 addresses new ways of teaching and learning, the use of digital tools, a commitment to society rooted in humanitarianism, and the importance of interdisciplinary and collaborative learning. Tec 21’s primary goal is to align the university’s offerings with emerging industry and workforce requirements and encourage students to take advantage of different learning environments on each of their campuses throughout their education.

Speed + concurrent priorities

The speed with which university leaders needed to replace damaged facilities at their Mexico City campus also made design-build an ideal approach. The original buildings could not support these new Tec 21 teaching methodologies.

Since some buildings had to be replaced following the earthquake, university leaders had a unique opportunity to reconceive their physical space in light of Tec 21. With so many concurrent priorities, it made sense for university leaders to entrust the management of the project to a design-build partner. Yet, collaboration within an institution that had established conventional design and construction processes understandably presented some challenges for delivering design-build.

The critical role of estimators

The design-build team encouraged Monterrey Tec facility and procurement personnel to participate with the local construction team on budget issues, integrating pricing considerations with performance criteria, including energy modeling.

The presence of estimators in design meetings was also important to ascertain which items were the highest priorities. Allowing estimators to see firsthand the effect of presenting a design metamorphosis to stakeholders also developed a new level of tangible understanding and appreciation for the design-build process.

Implementing pedagogy through design

The design for the facilities paralleled the pedagogical philosophy of Tec 21. The concrete structure of the new building facilitates the use of natural ventilation. A large central atrium is surrounded by shallow-dimensioned classrooms with sheetrock partitions that don’t have to compete with ductwork and other infrastructure to be reused and repositioned.

The moveable partitions can create impromptu spaces for small groups. In the center of the atrium space, a teaching stair cascades downward. The exterior walls are detailed with vertical windows. Elevations are proportionally detailed with a third glass and two-thirds metal panels.

Inside, the solid panels are finished with marker boards. At the core, a library/student center is a popular place for interactive work on collaborative projects—central to the group-work methodology of Tec 21.

Climate change friendly

With a mild year-round climate, the design-build team developed an open concept design that utilized proper shade and ventilation, prevailing winds, temperature, and humidity to regulate the interior conditions, with no additional heating or air conditioning systems. Sophisticated modeling was used to study the air movement under different conditions, necessitating specialized engineering expertise to design a workable solution.

After modeling several designs, the team decided on vents near the ceiling and the floor surfaces, creating a looped airflow through the facility. Optional overhead fans could be added later to increase air movement within the space. The project team worked closely with a curtain wall manufacturer and supplier in designing the exterior wall to ensure effective ventilation within the rooms.

Because of the moderate climate, the glass did not need to be insulated but did require higher performance coating, which was only available on insulated glass, so the team ultimately used insulated windows.

Designing for future growth

Key design considerations factored flexibility for future growth, guided by the paradigm of Tec 21. Buildings needed to adapt to changing pedagogies and evolving technology. For example, the design offers multiple open rooms for students to meet, as well as open teaching areas for professors to conduct classes.

Although these met the transparency goals of Tec 21, they created additional pedestrian traffic and noise in the corridor that faculty anticipated might be disruptive. Faculty struggled to adapt to some elements of Tec 21’s future vision, but the building was designed to help bridge current teaching methods with future goals.

Walls were added to create more closed spaces than anticipated, but because they are not load bearing walls and don’t contain any ductwork, there is the option to open the spaces in the future as the faculty adapts to new teaching methods.

Creating a safe campus

Prior to the earthquake, large portions of this urban campus were protected by a 10-foot perimeter wall. With the introduction of Tec 21 and the campus renovations, the wall is gone, and the buildings are set back approximately 30 feet from the sidewalk.

Terraced landscaping protects the campus from floods, while security fencing is hidden by the landscaping, so the school no longer feels walled off from its community. While maintaining appropriate security, the new landscape design invites the local community to be part of the university.

Creating connections through architecture

The campus currently accommodates approximately 8500 students in three buildings. There is a sense of permeability: at the ground level, there is plenty of glass that creates flow, giving a sense that the buildings are open to the outside, not sealed units. In the central areas—the atrium and library—open circulation and visual connection unite the various spaces. Students can see one another working, reinforcing the concept of collaboration, bringing people together to learn.

The design-build process fosters collaboration as well. Separating the design process from the construction process is not the most expedient way to design and build.

Instead, the process should be integrative, with a constant goal of optimizing the building for use. As the design-build approach becomes more common, it can ultimately become a differentiating factor in an increasingly competitive academic market.