What if the building starts before the design is finished?

I have noticed an increasing trend over the last few years of design documents being issued for construction before the design is complete. This is typical for D-B projects whose contract structures take this into consideration. However, it has been interesting and a bit alarming to see it occurring more and more often in traditional design-bid-build (D-B-B) projects.

The traditional project delivery method is based on a clear differentiation between the designers and the installation contractors. The designers are responsible for preparing complete and comprehensive construction documents, while the contractors are responsible for executing the requirements of the drawings and specifications. Whether the construction contracts are bid or negotiated, the expectation of the owner and contractor is that the documents include all required components, configurations, and operating requirements for the new systems.

Nobody's Perfect

Of course, no design team or design is perfect. To account for this, there are mechanisms built into the traditional project delivery process for addressing missing or unclear information. These include requests for information, supplemental instructions, and changeorders. However, “imperfect” and “incomplete” are two different issues. It is extremely time consuming, frustrating, and costly for the entire project team if requests for information and changeorders are used as design tools during construction to compensate for design elements known to be incomplete when the project was bid.

Why does this happen? I believe the following are the top three reasons:
  • The design team’s belief that some design can be left for later without affecting project progress or budget. This is most often the case with control system design, but can also include equipment installation details and coordinated pipe, duct, and electrical conduit routing. My experience has been that there are very few items that can change during construction without affecting cost or schedule (at least in the contractors’ opinion).

  • The owner’s indecision regarding operational requirements and/or technology choices. Sometimes this is due to poor planning and decisionmaking, but sometimes there are legitimate reasons for not being able to articulate all project requirements ahead of time. For example, in health care projects, medical planners know that technology selected during design for a hospital or clinic that will not open for two to three years will likely be obsolete before it is put into use. Similarly, for large public facilities such as sports arenas or shopping malls, food service equipment and utility support requirements are not determined until well into construction, when food service contracts are negotiated and their individual venue requirements determined.

  • The push for construction to start in order to meet the building turnover date. This, of course, is the crux of the problem. While most design teams and owners could plan and design indefinitely without ever building a thing, there is still the overriding project requirement that a building be constructed. There is typically a well-defined, pre-determined, drop-dead date when the owner needs to start using the new facility, and construction managers and installation contractors can only perform so many miracles with compressed construction schedules.
Commissioning can play an important role on behalf of the owner that should also benefit all project team members. As a third-party professional on the project team, the commissioning professional can be a pragmatic realist regarding expectations. Because it is not “traditional” to bid or negotiate based on an incomplete set of design documents, the design team is often uncomfortable bringing attention to design elements that they believe still need work following construction contract negotiation and award.

The commissioning professional can document which parts of the design are not complete so that it is transparent to everyone involved in the project. This can be done respectfully by simply stating the facts and not criticizing the designers’ capabilities or credibility. It is detrimental to the project and to the project team’s reputation if there is a false perception of completeness which later results in misunderstandings, fingerpointing, and change orders.

Commissioning cannot force the design into completeness prior to bidding, guaranteed maximum price negotiation, and/or construction, but commissioning professionals should be able to monitor design status and communicate the risk involved in moving forward before the design is complete. With that information in hand, the owner can make an informed decision about proceeding and avoid unpleasant surprises in the future.ES