Problem Prevention in One Simple Step
How an Evolving Market is Heightening the Design-Build Benefits
by Megan Headley
When things go wrong on the job—and we can all admit to ourselves that they do—it can be helpful to have a partner in the construction process that works closely with you to set things right. However, this article isn’t about what happens when you place the wrong order or the glass shows up onsite ¼-inch too short. It’s about the times you’ve wanted to bang your head against your desk, thinking, “How can the architect not have seen this coming?”
The answer to that question could be because your team wasn’t involved early in the design process. Many glazing contractors find that getting involved early, through a design-build partnership, can help the design and construction team prevent many of the most common budget, material and other challenges before they happen. The only challenge left is letting the design community know you’re a resource that can help bridge a path to success.
What is Design-Build?
Definitions of just what “design-build” means can vary, but according to the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), “design-build is a method of project delivery in which one entity—the design-build team—works under a single contract with the project owner to provide design and construction services.” This approach is opposed to “design-bid-build,” where design and construction are separate contracts and the work is distinctly separate, and that of the more traditional construction management approach.
At the very least, design-build means that a glazing contractor is able to get involved in a project on the ground floor, so to speak, offering input and sway into the types of products used (and how they’re used) as a partner in a collective team.
More simply, “The advantage of design-build, if done properly and thoroughly, is that the design phase gives an opportunity to avoid those unexpected challenges on the jobsite,” says Charles Bostick, senior project manager and sales engineer international for seele sedak, headquartered in the United States in New York.
It’s a construction approach that, according to DBIA, has grown considerably in the last 15 years—although some glazing contractors argue that growth has slowed dramatically as a result of the recent construction downturn.
“Back in the ’80s and ’90s we had a lot more design-build projects where you got on board with the general contractor, helped the architect design it and walked all the way through it,” says Ross Ullrich, commercial estimator for Pikes Peak Glass in Colorado Springs, Colo. “That market is starting to come back now, but not like it was.”
For designs that are being put to paper today, many contractors see that the bid remains the deciding factor for selecting a subcontractor rather than the sub’s skill as a project partner.
“In today’s market there are a lot of challenges because of the purported lack of opportunities, which is slowly changing. Everyone seems to be bidding work out,” agrees Jim Hatton, president of glazing contractor BCIndustries in Tampa, Fla.
Ironically, many contractors agree that one of the biggest benefits of a design-build partnership is the fact that it keeps budgets on track. And in a market where budget is the deciding vote, who wouldn’t want that?
Bottom Line Advantages
DBIA points to the advantages of a design-build partnership as being faster delivery, reduced litigation and a higher profit margin for contractors. Glazing contractors point overwhelmingly to the budget as the big winner for designers when it comes to design-build projects.
“Advantages [include] the tailoring of the execution in regard to budgets, such as with an initial guaranteed maximum price offer where the actual contract for execution is let after the design engineering phase. [This] allows the owner to look at alternates to come up with that perfect mix of maximum value for minimal cost, as opposed to the prevalent ‘value engineering,’ which often results in minimum value for lower cost,” Bostick says.
Getting that foot in early, and guiding the product selection process, in many ways can make the glazing contractor an effective mediator between the architect’s vision and the owner’s budget.
“For example, if the owner says—and this is usually the way it starts—‘we have $10 million allocated for our budget,’ you know very quickly that this is not a $10 million deal. Your challenges are not necessarily to help him understand conditions but to help him understand why it’s a $12 or $13 million deal,” Hatton says.
He elaborates, “We just were involved in a situation where it was a $25 million deal and the owner wanted to spend $18 million. At the end of the day he’s in the $23, $24 million range and he’s realized that he’s developed some bad data, and that’s so easy to do.” On this project, the owner was working to incorporate LEED and other energy requirements, but quickly found that those requirements are moving targets in today’s energy-focused glass industry. “His targets might have been years old. A lot of companies are dealing with yesterday’s news. They think that what I could have done for x dollars yesterday should be cheaper today. Not necessarily,” Hatton points out.
Hatton offers another recent example of how his early involvement helped repair a budget problem. “We were working on a project where the financials were upside down and the job was coming out of the ground and the contractor … needed timely answers and information.” He explains, “What we did was to ‘tear up’ the project into various segments. For example, there were panels, windows, window wall, curtainwall, and we broke it up into modules, and tried to slowly get everything to be compatible on the building, and everything within budget. In this particular case we were successful in not only changing some of the window systems so that they became more in line with the financial requirements, but also worked on the job structurally.
“It’s a hard process to go through, but if you’ve got the right tools available and you can present them and lay them on the table, sometimes the budgets are flexible. You might not be able to get below their budgets, but you can get very close,” Hatton says. “Once the owners get involved in it, they start to weigh the ‘do I want to save money or do I want a better product?’ And then there’s some compromise in between and it makes it easy for them to choose.”
Dave Ranker, president of glazing contractor RankerAMG Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., agrees that the budget benefits big-time from an effective design-build partnership. The challenge he sees is finding architects willing to fully embrace that partnership and accept the glazing team’s input on reaching a realistic budget.
“We’re the ones who are most sensitive to the budget because we’re the ones who are providing it. But when you start talking budget, that’s where [architects] disconnect,” Ranker says.
He adds, “There are certain things we can do to adjust here and there to align with the intent that [the architect] put out there, but they have to be willing to accept what we’re doing and not resist it. Architects have a really hard time designing to a budget to begin with. The budget becomes the disconnect. Then we have to turn to the contractor.” And at that point, the partnership can become a muddled chain of command and the birthplace of problems down the line.
Ranker does acknowledge that his team works on projects where glass is but one of many types of cladding. As a result, he finds that architects seem to be less willing to heed his team’s design advice—when in truth it seems the cladding diversity should make the architect more willing to listen to the reigning expert on the topic. “They always seem to resist. It’s crazy. I wish they could embrace the process here: we’re design-build, let us do it,” he says.
Ullrich offers his empathy on this topic of control. He’s found the design-build projects that haven’t gone as planned are the ones that are partnerships in name only. “The ones that didn’t work out well are when the architect really didn’t want to talk to us and drew up whatever he thought would work. Then you get pricing issues, when the architect moves along with his own thoughts on what it should be. I’m not saying that’s wrong,” Ullrich quickly amends, but, he adds, it does make pricing a challenge.
Drawing in the Details
Objectively, a design-build contract allows glazing contractors to get involved early to select the best possible products for a particular design and ensure quality in the connecting details.
According to Bostick, being in a design-build partnership means that the glazing contractor can refine details in connection with a specific project, ensuring that the end result is not only unique, but well suited to the project for which it was built.
“Further benefit can be obtained through the optimization of details during design engineering that results in better value for the same price, or even better value for a lower price. The goal is to work out details that are better. The design engineering phase allows testing and engineering analysis that hopefully result in façades that are less prone to condensation, heat loss, unwanted solar gain, leaks, etc.,” he says.
More specifically, “Being involved earlier in the project can lead to changes in the design, such as doing a glass beam in two pieces instead of one where it is logistically necessary. Normally this might be rejected by the owner and his architect. However, the design-build process leads to full exploration of all possibilities from aesthetic as well as economical viewpoints and allows consensus on the final execution,” Bostick says.
The first step for the design-build subcontractor often might be helping the designer understand the products available to help realize his vision while also meeting practical considerations.
“We try to help an owner understand what kind of products he might need on the building,” Hatton explains. “That might be anything from a multistory residential tower to a 30-, 40-story office building: totally different products. In helping them pick the right products out, you help them determine realistic budgets, which is the key in the market today,” Hatton says.
Those product differences can become complex, Hatton says, “Because you have energy codes that you have to deal with, there are aesthetics that you have to deal with, etc. We try to qualify all of [these factors] and talk to architects about where the value is versus what the image might be. So for value X, you might have to select this type of product, but if you want to increase the height of the building, or you want to increase the slab-to-slab, these are the other types of products. We get them thinking about where their budgets might be and help them really zone in on what they really need.”
These glazing contractors are quick to point out that trust is the key to a successful design-build partnership (see “Making the Design-Build Relationship Work” in the Only Online section of this issue). It’s surprising, then, that an area where these partnerships can face problems is when it comes to trusting the glazing team to select appropriate products for the project. More specifically, these subcontractors find it challenging when an architect goes straight to the product manufacturer, doing the spec work alone while only considering one aspect of the product and not how it relates to the building as a whole.
“I see a common error of architects going to the manufacturers … which a lot of times is great. There’s no problem with that,” Ullrich says. “The problem I see is they’ll call a ‘wrong’ manufacturer and they will put in, of course, whatever [that manufacturer is] selling.” That could mean that the specs show windows where a curtainwall should be, and the glazing contractor is left to explain why it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Or, as Hatton puts it, “Sometimes the architects say ‘I like this glass, it’s blue, and this company has the best color’—but there are other things that have to go with this.” Blue may look good on paper, but doesn’t begin to address energy ratings, acoustic levels and the all-important consideration of pricing. “So now all of a sudden the prices might be escalating and you have to backpedal and take them down a notch to say ‘here’s your budget, you’ve got started on the wrong foot, let’s readdress the glass,’” Hatton adds.
Ideally, Ullrich would reach out to architects and ask that they flip the process and start working through the design basics with a glazing contractor before adding in a manufacturer’s brand name.
“I suggest architects go to a glass company that they trust, that has been around a long time, before they go to the manufacturer,” he says. “[The manufacturers] are going to sell what they’ve got even if it’s not quite the right product.”
Although these glazing contractors bring their own manufacturer preferences and relationships to the table, they ask that the architect consider them a knowledgeable and objective third-party that can look at the big glass picture and select a product that works with the final intent.
“Our people are well trained on the glass make-ups and what the options are and we have everything computerized and we go through the models, then we will call on the manufacturers for their assistance if we need it,” Hatton says.
Still, picking up on material conflicts is all part and parcel of a design-build project, Ranker says. “In other words, we see this is how it’s going to have to be designed, yet their schematic drawings don’t consider what’s really going to happen here, or reconcile between materials or a corner,” he says. “With design-build we have to go forward in time and we can discover these things early and design to them, and that’s huge. We’re solving the problem before we get there; a good design-build subcontractor can see it and address it head on and avoid it. It’s like this whole building information modeling resolution; do I need a computer to tell me that when I turn this corner I change from curtainwall to metal panel or plaster or whatever? We’re experienced enough we should be able to do that but … being in design-build mode you can actually try to foresee all these routine problems and take care of them.”
Tolerating Other Trades
In terms of working around design problems before they happen, Ranker has found that architects can be infamous for glossing over engineering requirements, leaving the glazing team to later puzzle over measurements.
“It seems like they always expect the window or curtainwall to compensate for all the other [trades’] tolerances. Good architects will pick up on that and allow that into their design and others won’t,” he says. “They never leave enough room for the things that need to happen to allow for anchoring, etc.”
It’s a common complaint.
“The most common problem I see with glass and glazing is related to the size/span of both the curtainwall system and the glass units themselves. Architects often have little understanding regarding the maximum span a curtainwall system can support, which leads to additional structure being required,” says Jimmy Evans, senior estimator with glazing contractor Juba Aluminum Products in Concord, N.C. “We serve as a resource to architects to help eliminate these issues up front.”
Gregg Haeberle, virtual design and construction coordinator with Juba Aluminum, points to one project that involved “several cases of gaps in scope.” According to Haeberle, “We were able to identify and communicate these gaps back to our design-build partner along with proposed solutions for those gaps. In doing this, we were able to foster a better relationship by approaching them with solutions and not just problems.”
Bostick would agree that becoming involved early in the process can smooth out the most common problems with designing to tolerances. By way of example, he explains, “Tolerances are sometimes problematic, though critical, for the installation of an aluminum façade on another contractor’s steel frame where the façade contractor might have little control over the quality of installed steel. A quick 3D laser survey can determine where the steel is out of tolerance, locating where special out-of-tolerance connectors may be required as the connectors on that particular project are visible and their small size aesthetically important. However, such a survey can usually only be done at a time when all of the custom connectors likely are fabricated and delivered. The additional necessary ‘out of tolerance’ special connectors generate extra costs.”
Bostick continues, “In a design-build scenario the percent or number of special connectors can perhaps be estimated—let’s say 10 or 20 percent of all connectors. Then 80 or 90 percent of the normal custom connectors can be fabricated and delivered on time for start of work onsite. The special connectors are then fabricated and delivered a little later, but earlier than otherwise, with the installation crew having plans showing where the special over-/under-sized connectors are to be placed. All this is done in agreement with the owner and his project team. Of course, the special connectors cost extra but, if planned, there are then less normal connectors made and no construction site delays while everyone studies the problem and agrees what to do after the fact. This normally results in a fraction of the extra costs—those costs being made known earlier so they can flow into the project budget as expected costs.”
In the end, design-build is about opening communication at the architect-glazier interface in order to prevent the most common problems, be it off-track schedules, exploding budgets or too-tight tolerances.
According to Michele King, Juba Aluminum’s director of communications, “The biggest way a design-build relationship can be beneficial to architects is that, as a specialty contractor, the glazier can help the architect achieve his design intent practically with constructability in mind. To the glazier it is beneficial because it forces improvement by having to think of ways to achieve the construction and installation of more difficult designs. There is an understanding of the project and the challenges associated with it,” King says.
For those who believe two or more heads really are better than one, design-build presents a way to erect a better building.
“The benefit of design-build, in my opinion, is not solving problems better, but rather avoiding problems altogether,” Bostick says.
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