NOVEMBER 11, 2019 8:43 AM
JANUARY 13, 2020 11:46 AM

The Office of the New York Governor has embraced the design-build delivery method for construction, and now a number of large projects are proceeding under this approach for agencies such as the New York State Department of Transportation, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Empire State Development Corporation. The largest of these, and one of the few which is a building project, is the $1.6 billion expansion of the Javits Convention Center, which is currently progressing on schedule and within budget.

Although the design-build methodology is a fairly new concept in the New York building market, it has proven quite successful in other locations and looks to become even more popular going forward. With this in mind, it’s worth taking a closer look at this alternative delivery method.

The reason for design-build’s growing acceptance is simple: It offers the opportunity for a fast-track schedule with less risk to the owner, and it encourages the builder to plan ahead to reduce errors, since the design and construction processes are more tightly intertwined. This helps minimize the risk of profit loss. For example, on the Javits Convention Center project, the design-builder was able to demonstrate ingenuity by changing part of the structure of the large truck marshalling facility — which is capable of holding 250 tractor trailers — from steel to concrete while at the same time forgoing a basement level and a very complex foundation, saving both time and money. This type of flexibility would have been much more difficult or even impossible to achieve on a traditional design-bid-build project.

That said, there is no perfect delivery method, and every approach has its challenges.

“Design-build can be effective, but it is not a miracle solution,” said David Thurm, executive vice president at Lehrer Cumming, who worked on the Javits project. “It needs a lot of planning and a new mentality.”

A successful design-build project requires a lot of upfront work by the client and a team to identify and formalize the programmatic, aesthetic and functional expectations of the owner, as well as to establish and maintain equilibrium between being overly prescriptive and leaving too many decisions up to the builder. The creation of a thorough yet balanced basis for design document is critical to the success of any design-build project. For the Javits project, an extended team including Tishman and Lehrer Cumming, who are working together as owner’s representatives — along with an outside group of engineers and subconsultants — created a comprehensive document that codifies the expectations of the owner while still preserving room for creativity on project delivery.

“Design-build isn’t just a different form of contracting,” added Gus Maimis, also an Executive Vice President at Lehrer Cumming who took over for Thurm on the Javits project. “It requires a new perspective of collaboration, innovation, and risk management from the entire team.”

Few builders have directly managed design and engineering firms. A different temperament is needed to engage the design team and create the open dialogue necessary for a successful project. Even though the design and engineering team has no direct relationship with the owner, there needs to be direct, two-way communication, and access to the owner’s team, to ensure that the design meets the owner’s needs.

In markets where the design-build methodology is not fully ingrained in the construction community — like New York, where it is still relatively new — it’s crucial that project owners are properly educated and receive the protection and guidance of firms who can structure all of the contractual relationships correctly, as well as train and mentor those who need it to navigate the new roles specific to the design-build process.

Design-build can be an effective approach to construction for project owners looking to save time and money while reducing risk; but no delivery method is perfect.

“A strong owner’s rep firm with robust experience in design-build makes all the difference,” said Thurm. “To maximize the success of design-build, you must have a deep understanding of the special pressures and challenges that design-build projects present. Only then will your project realize its full potential.”