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4 Key Components of Design-Assist

4 Key Components of Design-Assist

By Rocco Gallo, Principal

In my previous post, I gave a basic definition of design-assist. It is a collaborative delivery model in which the design and construction teams both contribute their expertise to the design. Using design-assist, project teams can reduce risk and provide more value to the owner.

What does a design-assist team do to produce these results? The following are 4 core activities:

1. The project team identifies the complete scope of work.

The complete scope of work includes both what is being built and how it’s being built. Working together, the design and construction teams run through the major items that will go into the project: equipment, labor, phasing, temporary conditions, and so forth. Their goal is to nail down as many factors as possible to assist with proper budgeting and scheduling.

Design documents wouldn’t include all of this this information (nor are they expected to). Yet the answers can greatly impact price and schedule.

Too often, the design team begins with an assumed scope of work. Let’s say we start planning the renovation of 20,000 SF of office space. Only when I see the existing building drawings do I know what the impact will be on the floor below. That area isn’t part of the 20,000 SF renovation, but it may be affected. By the time I have enough information on the drawings for an estimate, it may already be too late and too expensive. We’ll come back to this point at #3, construction estimates.

If we’re thinking in terms of the traditional SD – DD – CD phases, the design-assist partner would come on board around the end of the SD phase. Depending on the type of project, it could be even sooner. As one of my colleagues, an executive for an electrical contracting company, likes to say: The right time to identify the complete scope is as soon as you want the real price.

2. The design and construction teams perform field investigations together.

As the design and construction teams do fieldwork, they are looking for complementary sets of information: The design team is looking for the information they need to properly design the systems. The construction team (that is, the design-assist partner) is looking for the information they need to properly build the systems.

Their investigations feed off one another. They discuss and coordinate design. They talk about installation and constructability. They walk through phasing and disruption of services.  

The construction team can also give the design team a look behind walls, above ceilings, or inside equipment – tasks the design team isn’t typically qualified to do. Together, they might uncover existing conditions that impact the scope of work (for example, disused equipment left inside the walls, undocumented systems behind walls and above ceilings, areas that are difficult to access due to occupants, or inoperable valves and tie-in locations).

As a result, the whole team gains a more accurate picture of how the project is going to come together. This activity is especially relevant for renovation projects.

3. The design-assist partner provides construction estimates throughout design.

Regular estimates help the project team stay on track and in budget.

Conceptual Estimating

Once the team has identified the full scope of work (see #1), the design-assist partner may be asked to provide a “conceptual estimate.” The goal of a conceptual estimate is to get an actual price range for the complete scope, early in the project.

With a conceptual estimate, the design-assist partner provides an estimate with a blank drawing. This doesn’t mean estimating without any information. Rather, it means estimating without being able to count and price every individual item. (This approach is a change in culture for many contractors, because they are accustomed to receiving the design team’s drawings in order to provide an estimate.)

The design-assist partner uses the complete scope of work identified by the project team as the basis for their estimate. The owner and project team can then evaluate the budget and scope of work in light of the estimated construction cost.

Pre-Construction Estimating

The design-assist partner continues to provide pre-construction estimating throughout design. These estimates help the project team in a few different ways:

  • Getting an early-as-possible accurate estimate helps the owner secure appropriate funding.  
  • The project team can make adjustments during design, avoiding value engineering sessions later.
  • The design-assist partner can provide input on the cost impact of different design options, helping the owner to get the best bang for their buck.

Here’s an example of where the third item comes into play. Let’s say you’re constructing a new three-story building, and the architect is working through options for floor plans. In one option, the electrical and mechanical rooms are in different locations on each floor. In another option, the rooms are vertically stacked. The design-assist partner can price the two options so the owner and architect can see the cost of each design option and select the one that provides them greater value.

Final Cost Validation

The design team submits completed drawings and specifications to the design-assist partner for a final cost validation. There should be no surprises at this point, because the design and construction teams have been working together throughout to keep the project in scope.

After the final cost validation, the owner gives approval to proceed into construction. Permit documents may be submitted at this time as well.

4. The design-assist partner prepares for construction.

As design progresses, the design-assist partner continues to support the project design and looks ahead to construction.

  • The design-assist partner feeds information to the design team to influence design efficiency. For example, I might show the installation of pipes and conduits in a certain location. A design-assist partner would verify my design and let me know if I should run them in a different direction. The design-assist partner might also identify opportunities for pre-fabrication.
  • The design-assist partner identifies long lead-time equipment for early purchase, which can reduce construction duration.
  • The design-assist partner gains a more in-depth understanding of design intent, project phasing, and sequence of installation. When construction begins, there’s no learning curve. They’re already primed and ready to go.
  • The project team can better prepare for temporary conditions and systems. They can plan and estimate equipment rentals and temporary services.

Conclusion

Too often, project teams make important discoveries late in the project, and everyone is left scrambling. With these 4 design-assist activities, the project team gains meaningful information at the right time to make a positive impact on the project.

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