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Working with Design-Assist: 2 Benefits & 1 Caution

Working with design-assist banner

By Jim Cicero, PE, LEED AP, President, and Rocco Gallo, Principal
Featuring Sara Bidar, Natasa Cekic, James Dudt, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Matt Morgan, LEED AP BD+C, and Matt Nutter, PE

With design-assist (as with other collaborative delivery models), you have to have more than just leadership on board. What about team members who are "in the trenches" doing day-to-day design and construction administration work? For the next two posts, we're turning it over to other Karpinski Engineering team members who've worked with design-assist. They include:

Bidar, Cekic, Dudt, Morgan, & Nutter photos
  • Sara Bidar. Sara is an electrical engineer who works primarily with healthcare clients. She has been part of two significant projects that used design-assist or other collaborative methods.
  • Natasa Cekic. As an electrical engineer focusing on the healthcare sector, Natasa has also worked on multiple projects that applied design-assist or other collaborative methods.
  • James Dudt, PE, LEED AP BD+C. James is a mechanical engineer and Director of Pittsburgh Operations. He has worked on projects in both the private and public sectors that used design-assist, including two high-profile public projects.
  • Matt Morgan, PE, LEED AP BD+C. Matt is a mechanical engineer specializing in healthcare projects. He has worked on several projects that used design-assist or other collaborative methods.
  • Matt Nutter, PE. Matt is an electrical engineer who works on corporate, educational, and public sector projects. Like James, he worked on two high-profile public projects that used design-assist.

In this post, they share their thoughts on the value of working as one team, the importance of setting expectations, and the knowledge that design-assist partners bring to the design process.

Photos, clockwise from top left: Sara Bidar, Natasa Cekic, Matt Nutter, Matt Morgan, and James Dudt

With design-assist, you’re one team working toward the same goal

One of the key features of design-assist is that members of the construction team join the project during design. This is a significant contrast to the typical project where, as Natasa noted, “we’re done with design when the contractor comes in, and we might not see them until later on, if at all.”

In other words, the traditional project structure is not conducive to cooperation between the design and construction teams. More often, as construction progresses, each team is trying to manage their own risk.

Design-assist, when done well, creates an atmosphere where the project team is committed to helping one another achieve the project’s goals. For Matt Nutter, this is the biggest benefit of design-assist.

Matt worked on two substantial public projects that used design-build with design-assist. On those projects, he said, when there was an issue, they worked together to find a solution.

“It’s more of a team approach versus the traditional construction and design team environment” he said. “Everyone’s working together.”

One tangible result: faster decision-making, particularly during construction. Matt described how, on the projects he was involved in, they didn’t lose time waiting for paperwork to make the rounds. Instead, the design and construction staff made decisions as a team and moved the project forward. That kept the construction team moving in order to minimize delays.

Similarly, for Matt Morgan, design-assist means that the teams share ownership of design and construction. That’s a huge value to a project, he says, because it results in “fewer change orders and less probability of a change order based on unforeseen conditions or installation impracticality.”

Plus, as Natasa explained, “You eliminate a lot of wasted effort because you’re all on the same page.”

Without clear expectations, teams struggle

While Natasa, Sara, James, Matt Nutter, and Matt Morgan all prefer the team environment, they also pointed out that expectations need to be clear, or the team will struggle. Two major themes emerged: Know what you want from a design-assist partner, and know who’s responsible for what.

1) Know what you want from a design-assist partner.

This is essential. For James, it comes down to one question: “What’s the outcome you [the owner] want?”

Possibilities include reducing the construction duration, reducing the budget, allowing for off-site prefabrication, performing fieldwork, or helping with coordination.

Whatever the goals, James said, “The owner or the design team needs to write an RFP or scope document so the design-assist subs understand what their obligations are, what you’re asking them to do, and why you’re asking for design-assist subcontractors on your project.”

“I think in some cases, it’s us asking contractors some of these questions: ‘Can you help us with logistics? Can you help us with pricing? Can you help us with understanding lead times on these various projects?’ The contractors have this information and know this stuff inside and out.”

2) Know who’s responsible for what.

Team environments can flatten project hierarchies and put people in unfamiliar roles. But as Natasa pointed out, “You still need a leader and clearly defined responsibilities.”

Sara Bidar explained how, because collaborative methods are new in the industry, “sometimes when everyone's working together, people don't know who's responsible for what. So things that the architect would normally do, is that the CM's responsibility now? Then you call the architect, and they don't know. You call the CM, and they don't know."

“People need to know who's in charge of what, or then things slip,” she said.

We appreciate when the design-assist partner can help us improve the design and construction process

Construction partners think about different elements of a project than architects and engineers do. They have knowledge and expertise that can complement the design team’s, adding value to the end product.

For James, a great design-assist partner challenges the design to help make it better.

For example, he said, if your design-assist partner used to be a service contractor, “He’s always looking at the design and keeping an eye on, ‘How do I go back and replace that compressor later? How do I pull that pump apart to replace the seals? What’s the path of that equipment in and out of the building?’”

Matt Morgan made a similar comment, saying that a strong design-assist partner brings ideas and feedback for a more efficient design. For example, he has gotten “a good appreciation for how hard an installation might be and how to tailor design for an easier installation.”

James gave the example of design-assist team working on an air handler replacement for a hospital. The team had two options for construction: Bring in the air handler into the facility in pieces and build it in place, or use a crane to lift in the assembled unit.

If the design team had been working on their own, James said, they would have indicated a crane on their drawings and moved on. But because there was a design-assist partner on board, they learned that the air handler had to be built in place – there wasn’t a crane that could handle the job.

“That’s an important piece of scope to put on the drawings,” said James.

While it may not have reduced the project cost (in fact, the cost increased substantially), the owner ultimately had something just as important: an accurate project scope for their budget.

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