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5 Ways Design-Assist Brings Order to Infrastructure Projects

Improve Infrastructure Projects with Design-Assist

By Jim Cicero, PE, LEED AP, President, and Rocco Gallo, Principal

In earlier posts, we defined design-assist, and we talked about how design-assist helps owners mitigate risks on construction projects. Now, we want to go a little deeper and explain why we believe infrastructure projects specifically are great candidates for design-assist.

Infrastructure projects are essential for ongoing building operations. Yet, especially in legacy buildings, they can be full messy and full of unknowns. Existing conditions, change orders, schedule delays…the issues can add up quickly.

These challenges are exactly what make infrastructure projects great candidates for design-assist. Five opportunities stand out:

  1. Understand the full scope of work
  2. Uncover existing conditions in advance
  3. Get real-time estimating and avoid the value-engineering process
  4. Understand the final cost up front
  5. Smooth out (and even shorten) construction

Note: When we refer to infrastructure projects, we generally mean the replacement of some MEPT system(s) without modifying the building structure. Facility owners undertake infrastructure projects for a variety of reasons: capital projects or deferred maintenance for end-of-life systems, code compliance, energy savings, and so on. Infrastructure projects can also be part of a larger renovation, where you need to make system upgrades to support new building functions.

1. Understand the full scope of work

As a general rule, teams go into infrastructure projects not knowing the full scope of work. The full scope includes factors beyond design, such as constructability and phasing. On infrastructure projects, these can have a significant impact on cost, schedule, building occupants, and more. For example:

  • Where is the equipment located? How will the construction team get old equipment out of the building and new equipment in?
  • What temporary equipment might be needed while the component being replaced is removed and the new one installed?
  • Will this project affect building systems that are outside the project scope? Can they support the project (i.e., capacity, condition, code compliance), or will the owner need to plan additional upgrades?

With design-assist, owners gain important information that lets them look at the project holistically and plan more effectively.

2. Uncover existing conditions before they become change orders

In legacy buildings, you often don’t know whether the historical documents are reliable. Neither the owner nor the design team necessarily knows what’s really behind walls or above ceilings. These unknowns can hit a project hard during construction, leading to costly change orders or delays.

With design-assist, the team tackles unknowns early in the project. They work together to uncover and plan for existing conditions. The owner, in turn, has an early opportunity to re-prioritize the project scope if needed.

During design, the team nails down existing conditions through two key activities:

  • The design and construction teams conduct field surveys together. The construction team (also called the design-assist partner) can open walls, look above ceilings, and open equipment to find out what they’re really working with (e.g., test valves, shutoffs, etc.). The design team can account for existing conditions in their design.
  • The design-assist partner helps the design team determine existing system capacities. With access to real-time information, such as meter readings, engineers can base their design on actual loads rather than calculated loads. This allows them to provide more precise system sizing which, in turn, can directly impact the project budget. It also helps the owner maximize the use of existing resources.

3. Get real-time estimating and get rid of value engineering

Design-assist partners provide the team with real-time estimating as design progresses. Rather than having to cut back at the end of design or after bids come in, the team can adjust and the owner can make decisions as they go.

Learn more about real-time estimating here.

4. Understand the final cost up front

No one likes spending money they’re not expecting to. If all I want to do is replace a light fixture in my home, I’m not going to be happy to learn halfway through the project that the house wiring is faulty and needs to be replaced too. The same applies to infrastructure projects.

But this is what often happens: The design team completes their drawings. The owner gets bids, selects a construction team, and then spends the rest of the project going through change orders as the team uncovers unknowns and existing conditions. The bid number wasn’t the final number. Throughout construction, the owner keeps inching toward the actual cost.

With design-assist, the project team has a more accurate picture of the total cost. They’ve reduced unknowns, evaluated the full scope of work, and used real-time estimating in advance of construction. This greatly improves an owner’s ability to plan.

5. Smooth out (and even shorten) construction

The design-assist partner contributes their construction expertise during design, smoothing the transition from design to construction.

  • The design-assist partner provides input on constructability. That way, instead of designing to the worst case, the design team can design to the most efficient case, without fear of an error or omission.
  • The  design-assist partner has more time to find opportunities for prefabrication. Often, the construction team receives a set of drawings and a schedule, and they simply have to get moving. But when they’re on board early with design-assist, they have more time to study the design and identify components that can be prefabricated. When given the opportunity to bring their expertise to the table, construction teams come up with creative solutions, provide even better quality, and can help reduce costs.
  • With design-assist, long-lead equipment is ordered prior to design completion. Then, when the design is complete, the equipment will already be showing up on site. You’ve cut down the time between design and construction.
  • The design-assist partner starts construction with a deep understanding of design and intent. As a result of the design-assist process, they know why the design team made certain decisions. They’ve had time to make a construction plan, and they have the knowledge to jump right in. In our experience, the number of RFIs goes way down or is eliminated entirely.

In legacy buildings, infrastructure projects can be messy and full of unknowns. With design-assist, owners can pin down the unknowns, get a big-picture view of the project, and understand the real cost.

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