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Design-Assist: An Overlooked Opportunity for Ohio’s Public Owners

Design-Assist for Public Projects in Ohio

By Jim Cicero, PE, LEED AP, President

In 2011, construction reform in Ohio gave public owners the ability to use three alternative project delivery methods, in addition to multiple prime: design-build, construction manager at risk (CM at Risk), and general contracting.  

Since then, these three delivery methods have exploded in popularity among Ohio’s public owners. In 2012, the first year construction reform was in effect, just 13% of Ohio Facilities Construction Commission (OFCC) used general contracting. Only 2% of projects used design-build, and none used CM at Risk.

Compare those numbers to 2017, when 37% of projects used general contracting, 21% used design-build and 41% used CM at Risk. CM at Risk alone accounted for 79% of the total dollar value of projects in 2017. (Source: OFCC, “Past Trends & New Directions.” See page 21.)

An overlooked opportunity

In addition to those three delivery methods, construction reform provided another opportunity: design-assist. It hasn’t gained traction the way general contracting, design-build, and CM at Risk have. Yet it’s remarkably easy to add design-assist services to public projects.

Rocco Gallo and I just presented on this topic at the 2018 OFCC Conference. We outlined many of the points that we’ve discussed in other posts. (If you’re not familiar with design-assist, I recommend you start here). We also discussed when public owners (and their project teams) can incorporate design-assist into projects. That’s what we’re going to focus on here, with a few more details and links to the relevant documents.

How does Ohio define “design-assist”?

According to the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), design-assist services means "monitoring and assisting in the completion of the plans and specifications." Similarly, a design-assist firm is "a person capable of monitoring and assisting in the completion of the plans and specifications."

These definitions are broad, giving owners a lot of flexibility when it comes to using design-assist on their projects.

When can I use design-assist on my project?

If you’re using design-build or CM at Risk, you can use design-assist.

According to the General Conditions for both design-build and CM at Risk, design-assist can be used "at any point in the Project that is appropriate or necessary to facilitate the Project’s design and construction" (Section 4.8.1.1). The Contracting Authority has to authorize the use of design-assist.

In other words, if you’re an owner and you think that design-assist would help your project, the option is open to you. If you’re a designer, design-builder, or CM, and you think that design-assist would help you do your job better, have the conversation with your team and talk with the Contracting Authority.

Does the design-assist firm take on design liability?

No.

According to ORC 153.501, a design-assist firm does not take on any design liability. The General Conditions for both design-build and CM at Risk reiterate the point (see Section 4.8.3.2).

The designers (architects, engineers) still stamp the drawings, and the liability remains with them.

Can the design-assist firm participate in construction?

Yes, and the process is straightforward.

The CM or design-builder must submit a detailed estimate of the construction phase work to be performed by the design-assist firm to the contracting authority and the A/E. After the contracting authority verifies that the estimate is complete, the design-assist firm may proceed with the work (see General Conditions Section 4.8.4.3).

Why would I use design-assist?

To reduce risks, increase confidence, and help your team deliver a better project.

We’ve talked previously about how teams can reduce 6 common project risks by using design-assist: budget and scope, schedule, errors & omissions, existing conditions, a combative environment, and profitability. We’ve also recommended design-assist specifically for infrastructure projects, because it helps teams mitigate many of the unknowns that throw these projects off course.

In upcoming posts, we’ll be talking more about the value of design-assist, from both the dollars and cents perspective and the human perspective.

Where do I start?

Start with something hard.

As Rocco said at the OFCC Conference, we like to dip our toes in the water before jumping in. With design-assist, though, you’re going to get more value by implementing it on a tough project.

If you’re looking at an upcoming project and you know it’s going to have some major challenges (such as schedule, existing conditions, budget, and constructability), start with that project. Decide what input you need from a design-assist firm. Set clear goals and expectations for both the design team and the design-assist firm. Leverage their expertise to get the insights you need.

We believe that public owners and public projects have a lot to gain.

References

This article is for reference, not legal advice. For more information about how to incorporate design-assist into your project, we recommend you start with the ORC, then review the General Conditions documents for CM at Risk and design-build contracts on the OFCC website. Here are the links:

If you found this article helpful, would you share it with your colleagues who work on public projects in Ohio? Together, we can raise awareness among public owners.

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