Construction productivity has been on the decline for years, hindering progress and improvements. But that’s changing with the implementation of an integrated team approach, one that’s shaking up conventional methods.
Daily, we watch our water systems battle erosion, dams and bridges fight deterioration, roads and ports encounter congestion, and blackouts continue to strain the power industry — and that’s before the hefty population spike expected by 2030. To make the world more livable for all, we need to give our aging infrastructure and growing development needs the attention they deserve. But given current delivery methods, it’s hard to even keep up.
Despite a backlog looming, the complexity and demand for infrastructure and development updates aren't slowing down. To meet demands, the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry faces the challenge of how to efficiently take a project from the planning phase through construction. To start making a dent in development, look to an alternative approach, one that is shaking up the traditional project delivery process.
“An integrated method of delivery is disruptive to tradition,” says Mike Fenske, senior vice president of the Global Facilities Group at Burns & McDonnell. “It’s gathering a group of people to solve the problem by going directly to the market, bringing those subcomponent solutions to the process in a different way, earlier, with more details and more alternatives that are exposed to the owner.”
While traditional design-build or engineer-procure-construct (EPC) gains momentum industrywide, it continues to be a study in efficiency.
Generally, project teams are composed of engineers, designers and constructors from different firms, under separate contracts, each with their own agendas, schedules and expectations. As drawings transition from one set of hands to the next, it forces relearning of the same project, Fenske says. Relearning introduces mistakes, redundancy creates waste, and not everything gets translated correctly. But adopting an integrated team approach changes the conversation entirely.
Regardless of chosen delivery method or hired firms, bringing the collective crew together on day one allows every specialty involved to look at the project from a holistic perspective, providing a deeper understanding of every detail, from start to finish. Within this integrated environment, roles shift and lines blur: engineers think like constructors, constructors think like designers, and a subcontractor has a say in the solution upfront.
“Whether we’re in a properly aligned joint venture or working as a single-company design-build team, building people with broader, stronger capabilities improves the success of our projects and our client’s success,” Fenske says.
This unified approach takes a progressive way of thinking and doing, and it’s getting the job done.
Scoping Out the Specifics
Understanding what’s driving the project — regulations or revenue — informs project scope, and when it’s well-defined, it brings optimization to construction hours.
“A well-thought-out plan, allocation of resources and the right supervision give a customer a much more predictable outcome,” says Randy Griffin, president of the Construction/Design-Build Group at Burns & McDonnell. “By utilizing an integrated construction team, every party to the project — subcontractors and suppliers included — is involved in the execution.” When there’s one team with one plan, it leaves little to “figure out” in the field.
But within that well-defined scope are a handful of considerations that can drastically affect behavior, schedule, productivity and efficiency. Consider, for instance, incentive structures, construction knowledge (or lack of) and factor immobility — skilled labor, land and material costs — which heavily depend on what’s happening within a specific region. Natural disasters, as an example, continue to plague our world. When a certain area is affected by extreme weather, the local labor force flocks to where it’s needed most, leaving a void in the craft labor market within that area. But even typical seasonal conditions can halt construction.
“Through detailed constructability reviews, the use of 3-D capabilities and the ability to create engineered components off-site in a controlled environment, we can refine a project scope to streamline processes,” says Tom Graves, an economist and market strategist in the Energy Group at Burns & McDonnell.
Because the field is naturally an unpredictable environment, especially regarding weather, prefabrication is on the rise. Modularizing components of a project, whether it’s a power plant or process, not only reduces safety risks but also creates a value-engineered approach.
In Saskatchewan, Canada, prefabrication is the reason the Chinook Power Station has stayed months ahead of its anticipated completion date. Because of rugged winter conditions, large portions of the 350-megawatt (MW) natural gas-fired power facility owned by SaskPower were built under a roof.
“Our approach was to create giant modules to get as many of those hours out of the field and construct as many of these components earlier in the process, allowing us to disperse and overlap construction activities,” Graves says. “And we were able use modularization because the regulations on shipping large pieces of equipment over the road are more lenient in Canada.”
While prefabrication worked wonders in keeping on schedule, having an integrated team approach from the beginning set the tone for an all-around efficient process.
While power is mostly about financial investment — with the prospect of improving market conditions and, therefore, financial performance — water and transportation are about creating solutions, which are oftentimes cost-sensitive and driven by communities with competing needs for capital resources.
About 25 years ago, the City of Andover, Kansas, took a chance on an integrated approach for its wastewater treatment plant. With the success it experienced using an alternative method — one team for seamless project execution — the City of Andover has continued to embrace integration, inspiring other cities to follow suit.
As more municipalities choose an integrated team method, regulatory agencies will start to adjust protocols to allow for easier implementation. States already have started modifying requirements to encourage this specific approach.
“More and more owners are realizing that by combining design and construction, they gain efficiency in their capital programs,” says Ron Coker, senior vice president of the Water Group at Burns & McDonnell. “There are fewer surprises, fewer change orders and fewer conflicts, all of which, I think, an owner appreciates and equates with value.”
The Dodd Water Treatment Plant in Niwot, Colorado, required major upgrades within an aggressive time frame. Choosing an integrated design-build method, the lofty to-do list included the implementation of a new pretreatment system, microfiltration/ultrafiltration membranes and high-service pumping to increase capacity from 8 million gallons per day (MGD) to 10 MGD, with the capability of expanding even more. Because the membrane filtration system was procured before the final design phase, the integrated joint venture team optimized the design of the existing facility spaces and minimized overall project cost. With the future in mind, the facility was designed and built to accommodate 16 MGD.
Within the water and wastewater industry, a progressive design-build approach — an incremental contracting option that also brings the owner in early to the design solution — allows municipalities to play an active role in the project, Coker says, yet still affords them the advantages with respect to overall project schedule, cost and ease of delivery. “It also allows them more direct contact with the client, which builds a trusting relationship between all parties,” he adds.
The same rang true during a medical building overhaul in Independence, Missouri.
A neglected building sat vacant on a dilapidated site in Independence for six years until the city brought it back to life as the Independence Utilities Center. Using the construction management at risk delivery method, the concrete shell transformed into a 47,500-square-foot, three-story building housing administrative and customer service offices for three city utilities: Independence Power & Light, Water and Water Pollution Control. The efficient building envelope features upgraded insulation, thermal windows and aluminum sun shades, a high-efficiency VRF mechanical system, vertical wind turbine and a 40-kW rooftop photovoltaic system, among many others. Upon completion, the project received LEED Platinum certification.
Justin Rogers, a senior architect at Burns & McDonnell, was the architect on the job, responsible for the preliminary design all the way through construction documentation and discipline coordination. But his involvement didn’t stop there.
“This project, which originally began under a traditional design-bid-build delivery method, evolved into a complex structure with such unique systems that the client wanted a team that was in tune with the design to actually build it,” he says.
So with that, his role evolved from being solely involved with the design to wearing multiple hats on the construction side as well.
Working closely with project manager Nate Purdy, a 17-year veteran in the construction industry, Rogers hit the ground running, soliciting hard bids from multiple subcontractors on major scopes of the project. Following the procurement process, his primary role was to act as the on-site architect and assistant project manager, which involved interfacing with the client daily, answering RFIs (sometimes on the spot), managing cost-change issues, filling in for the superintendent when necessary, and addressing complex design questions that popped up along the way.
He now sits beside estimators and construction personnel whom he can bounce ideas off of and direct cost questions to. Using what he has learned on the job site, he designs with a fresh perspective.
“Before I even consider design, I first think about the other important factors of a project,” he says. “The client’s budget obviously is a major factor, but there also are design considerations that can have major impacts on the overall project schedule, process and procurement side of construction. Gaining valuable insight of how our in-house design-build teams execute construction projects shed new light on the way we should think about design from the infancy of a project.”
Causing Further Disruptions
Rogers’ progression, in a nutshell, harkens back to the master builder approach, where a person is not only proficient in the art of building but also thinks like a designer and knows the trades. In Fenske’s opinion, it’s a concept that’s moving forward in commercial building — and offers up the opportunity to re-engage in how a project should progress.
“What are all the things you conventionally say I can’t do, and let’s figure out how to do them,” Griffin adds. “It’s figuring out the ‘how’ on a project that lets the creativity come out.”
Embracing this concept extinguishes classic roles — “field guy or gal” doesn’t exist anymore. Designers can swing a hammer, subcontractors are capable of drawing plans, and construction personnel are exposed to not only solutions but becoming — and feeling — responsible for delivering those solutions. When the design and construction teams are one, it provides a combined solution of how you can buy and what you can design while offering that same transparency to the owner in a professional way.
For the City of Independence, Rogers was the familiar, knowledgeable face on-site. Though the project team exceeded efficiency and sustainability measures, working closely with his clients allowed them to be heard and understood throughout the entire process, one that took less time and money than expected.
“What we’re finding is we’re producing projects for less effort,” Fenske says. “We’re able to start earlier and shorten schedules — and it’s all driven by the fact that we’re using a different process than what everyone else is using because we don’t have a contract between the two. With that type of chemistry, there’s a lot of magic that can happen there.”
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“The AEC industry has become extremely fragmented,” says Kristine Sutherlin, a lead architect and project manager at Burns & McDonnell. “It has created a demand to come full circle back to the old master builder model that was in place 100 years ago. Under this model, architects, artisans, craftsmen and builders in all sorts of specialties worked together on the same projects from start to finish. The master builder was the single entity who controlled the entire project with no competing agendas.”
In Kansas City, Missouri, an integrated project team for new HCA Midwest Health offices is, in this case, embracing tradition, in its earlier form, streamlining processes and creating efficiencies with a master builder mentality.
Rather than using a phased approach and dividing up the project between multiple firms, a partnership was created.
Working with Creative Planning, a wealth advisory firm, and local developer VanTrust, Burns & McDonnell took on the role as designer, engineer and general contractor for the project.
“After the initial kickoff meeting, our architects and engineering disciplines met and talked about cost-effective ways to design a quality project,” Sutherlin says. “During this same time, we reached out to our subcontractors for cost estimates, too.”
As the project continues, the design and construction side will continue working together to keep the project on time and budget with an integrated design-build delivery method that hones in on speed to market and cost certainty. The offices will be completed in summer 2018.
“On any construction project, one of our main responsibilities is to manage risk for the client,” says Jeffrey Valentino, a senior commercial project manager at Burns & McDonnell. “An integrated team approach encourages great communication that allows us to get ahead of many project variables that create stress on schedule or budget.
“When Kristine and I meet with clients on a new project, we are always in tandem. You can’t overestimate the importance of making sure all members of the project leadership team are hearing the same things and able to develop ideas in the same room.”