Perspectives 07.24.2019

Everyone at the Table, All at Once: The State of Design-Build

By Anthony Gianopoulos, AIA, DBIA, Principal, Seattle

At the start of any design project there is a blank canvas full of opportunity to create a building or structure according to form, function, and imagination. Once that blank canvas is filled up with ideas, the difficult part comes next: determining how to coordinate all the elements of the construction process.

With an array of delivery methods to choose from, architects, designers, developers, and construction companies can go in many different directions. Traditional project delivery methods usually separate out the general contractors, architects, and designers from the actual construction companies and subcontractors, leading to many points where communication might diverge from the project goals.

As designers, we all have a responsibility to enhance people’s lives. In order to do that, we can start improving upon the basics – our processes and methods. Out here in the Pacific Northwest, that’s exactly what we’re doing. A more integrated delivery approach known as design-build is picking up speed in our region. Born out of inefficient construction and design processes, design-build is a construction delivery framework emerging as an innovative approach to building development and construction. It first got off the ground at Washington State University, and it remains unique for its ability to unite all stakeholders of a project together from the very beginning, allowing for more efficiency in implementation from the initial design process all the way through the completion of construction.

Western Washington University Troy Hall. Pullman, Washington.
A communicating stair capped by a skylight celebrates circulation and collaboration, as well as the past and present.
Washington State University, Troy Hall

Design-build’s prevalence in the PNW

As membership in the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) increases, the design-build movement is picking up momentum with its ability to help designers, developers and construction companies deliver smarter, more efficient building projects. Here in our Seattle studio, this approach is right in line with our nimble approach to design – we can’t help but be fully on board. We’ve incorporated design-build into many of our higher education projects to conduct a smoother, more streamlined approach to delivering major projects. In turn, we help our clients live, learn and work sustainably and efficiently.

Expanding outward into the Pacific Northwest, we’re witnessing other major players – many in higher education and civic and government projects – drive the industry toward design-build delivery, including Seattle’s University of Washington, the City of Richland, Washington, Port of Seattle, Grant County Public Utility District, Issaquah School District, Tacoma Public Schools, Washington State University, Western Washington University and Bellevue College. Design-build’s unifying nature and its ability to streamline project durations are especially helpful in these environments where many stakeholders, departments, and iterative processes are likely to be involved.

Washington State University
New South facade features highly transparent glazing capturing views of the campus and rolling landscape of the Palouse.
Washington State University, Global Animal Health Phase 2
Washington State University
Feature stair fosters openness and interdisciplinary collaboration of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab (WADDL).
Washington State University, Global Animal Health Phase 2

Benefits of design-build for clients

The benefits of design-build don’t just stop there, however. Design-build’s core principle is teamwork, uniting everyone involved to create an idea of common contribution. This means people behave more collaboratively as a team, and there is less finger-pointing if anything is delayed or errors occur. This team atmosphere yields more ideas and more options – an overall better process. There is a sense of synergy that emerges, which helps develop a better product on a shorter schedule and ultimately at lower costs. For clients, this is a win, and it also allows more customization to help clients meet their needs, as there is consistent implementation of feedback along the way.

In addition to this, the opportunity for clients to provide feedback and reevaluate as the project is being designed and built is useful for general contractors, who often set the prices for construction. As all of this process happens in real-time, it allows for teams to be nimble and make changes more efficiently, especially if costs exceed what is initially anticipated. This contrasts with more traditional frameworks, which have design processes, then submission processes, then review processes. When the architects, designers, general contractors and client are all working together from the beginning, this entire process as a whole is streamlined, reducing how much budget is used up and allowing for more flexibility.

Western Washington University Troy Hall. Pullman, Washington
The north facade features highly transparent glazing framed to illuminate the historic facade beyond.
Washington State University, Troy Hall

Lessons learned

Our studio here in Seattle eagerly embraces design-build principles and processes in order to continue efficiently delivering healthy, sustainable places where we can all live, lean work, play, and heal. We’ve learned a lot along the way about how design-build can best serve clients’ needs and accomplish all of that. Some lessons learned from our experience employing design-build include:

  • Take adequate time to plan your integrated process so you can implement it efficiently. In other words, go slow to go fast.
  • Projects benefit by going to lower levels for specific expertise. For example, it is common to engage a controls contractor in early discussions about energy performance rather than holistically attempt to address energy performance later in the process.
  • Team chemistry is the most important component of success. As teams are continually evolving, this can mean evaluating the effectiveness of a team as it is working to address any areas of improvement or needs for restructuring.
  • The owner of a project’s role in leading a collaborative effort is more of a conductor’s role than that of a drill sergeant. The idea is to guide with sound principles and processes instead of following a rigid
  • Design-build has the benefit of reducing redundant work processes, but it must be monitored and tracked as the project progresses. Reduction in rework is an excellent indicator of how well integration is working, but if it isn’t being evaluated, the true impact of design-build won’t be realized as much.
  • Less is better when it comes to drawing sets. Design-build unites a number of project stakeholders at once to provide input, which means teams are communicating better and in a more streamlined and straightforward way.

As we and many of the other players becoming more involved with design-build continue to learn from our experiences with this framework, we look forward to helping others in the industry learn how to deliver efficient, more cost-effective and sustainable projects through design-build’s more collaborative and integrated approach.