The Essentials of Design/Build

Dec. 1, 2010
The key essentials to Design/Build are people.

There's an old and familiar saying that the essential elements of buying real estate are location, location, and location. When I think about the essential elements of Design/Build contracting, I come up with a similar list: people, people, and people.

Successful Design/Build starts with the team. That's what makes it the "omega" to plan-and-spec's "alpha." Design/Build brings all the resources necessary to the project: the idea, the budget, the design, the presentation, the energy analysis, the production schedule, the equipment procurement, the installation, the commissioning, and the performance guarantee.

There's no one, or three, or five people in any company who possess that much diverse knowledge. Yet, a strong Design/Build team can collectively understand and provide all aspects of the process.

You create a Design/Build team in a company by having an established culture based on a documented set of values and principles. Understand who you are, and strive to attract people who mirror that culture.

A Design/Build team must have an extraordinary commitment to continuing education. Everyone on the team — project managers, engineers, craftspeople, and office support staff — must be committed to learning the newest and best and greatest aspects of commercial contracting, and must constantly expand and refine that knowledge.

Along with culture and continuing education, a company-wide commitment to safety represents the third leg of the stool. Those three things build the team, and without the team you can't do the work.

It might seem cliché to say that the first essential element of Design/Build is people, but it's true. You don't just wake up one day and become a Design/Build contractor, you do it by building a team first.

The next essential element of Design/Build is also people: finding the special kinds of clients who are open to Design/Build. It's difficult if not impossible to engage in successful Design/Build work if you don't have a trust relationship with a client.

The best way to establish this trust is simply by being who you said you'd be. It goes back to values and principles. Plan-and-spec is built upon a system of checks and balances. In Design/Build, you're responsible for your own checks and balances and you’re held to your own standard. Therefore, it's imperative to set your standards high and hold yourself to them, and you'll build the trust relationships with customers that make Design/Build possible.

Once you've got a great team of people and a great client, it's time to move onto the design phase.

Evaluate Client Needs, Explore Possibilities
At Kahn Mechanical, we anticipate at least two or three phases of design. The first phase starts with assessing clients' needs. It's important to really listen during this phase, rather than going in with preconceived notions. Understand the clients' pain, their desires, and the obstacles in the way of solving their problems and meeting their needs.

Explore the possibilities. What are the conventional, tried and true methods? What are some "way out there" ideas? What's within the realm of the possible? This is next essential element of Design/Build: keeping an open mind.

Bring the pallet of your ideas to your customers, and share the story of your vision for their project. Review projects with your customers and let them know this is what you believe will move them toward their goals. Identify where you’re on target, what you might be missing, and find out what they might like see done differently.

When you paint customers this picture of their project, don't do it with two-dimensional engineering drawings. Those drawings might make sense to you, but they don't usually make sense to or inspire customers. Instead, use 3-D presentations, photographs, site visits to show similar design and equipment in use at a similar facility, and customer testimonials.

Keep in mind that all of this is taking place after you've already won the job. Even so, it’s important to continue analyzing your customers' needs, refining your understanding of their expectations, and educating them about what your team will do for them.

Handling Challenges, Being Flexible
Don't anticipate having a final design at this point. There may actually be no such thing in a Design/Build project, as flexibility and trust in your field crews' expertise is another essential. It's okay to head into construction with an "85% design" that provides the leeway necessary to continue refining the design once you’ve hit the ground with it. You won't really know all there is to know about a job until your field experts are there to really feel it and touch it. This isn't to say you don't need to do a thorough design job on the front end, but it's important to remain dynamic and be able to solve challenges as the project progresses.

Ironically, actually engaging in the project ends up being a relatively small Design/Build essential.

Selling, convincing, building trust, educating, designing, coming up with all the options, and putting your knowledge to creative use: that's the hard part, compared to actually installing the system. The fun part of the job is actually getting into the driver’s seat and executing the plan.

From the client's perspective, however, this part of the job is Design/Build. They're seeing what they're paying for. During this phase, your skilled field craftspeople are vital to the process. Most craftspeople are magical at communicating what they do. They're able to share in a limited number of words and with visual cues, "This is how this works." So, they really take over the client relationship. The clients are really taken over by the excitement of the construction process. Those guys carry the ball in that middle phase, and then it's back to the management team to be the lead communicator at the commissioning and closeout phases.

Finishing Strong
Commissioning the close-out is the final Design/Build essential. The project gets less exciting, and it's really more trim and finish. Customers don't see the big pieces moving as much. Many days go by with very subtle visual changes in the project.

At this "back phase" of the job, it's important for the management team and the design team to understand the necessity of being actively engaged with clients, because the finishing is really important. How you finish is how you'll be remembered.

In the final six weeks of the project, focus on putting together the operations and maintenance plan, engaging in client training, introducing the clients to your service and maintenance people, and getting those people to take over the project from the construction project manager. It's important to make that introduction and get those people actively engaged with the client.

The close out and finish is extremely important, because if you don't have the right people handling the transition to the maintenance phase of the lifecycle, then you just may have done a fantastic job building a Rolls Royce that's going to immediately start rusting. If you don't get involved in the closeout and the maintenance of it, the client isn't going to get the benefit of the Design/Build process.

What are the essentials of Design/Build? In a word: people. The process begins and ends with people.

Josh Kahn is vice president of Kahn Mechanical Contractors, Dallas, TX. Kahn Mechanical Contractors was named the 2008 Commercial HVAC Contractor oof the Year. He can be reached at 214/631-1010, or by e-mail at [email protected]