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Design-build projects remain uncommon in Rochester

By SHEILA LIVADAS - 5/20/2011

Though gaining ground elsewhere, design-build projects are still somewhat uncommon in the Rochester area. Legislative barriers at the state level and economic perceptions are among the reasons why project owners choose the design-bid-build model instead.
 
Yet design-build, which links designers and builders under one contract, makes sense in certain cases, construction and engineering professionals say. Projects that require quick delivery times, less owner involvement or few complex or custom features tend to be suited to the concept.
 
Still, project owners who pursue design-build should not expect to save huge sums by using the method, says Todd Liebert, president of Clark Patterson Lee, an architectural and engineering firm in Rochester.
 
"There's not a lot of advantage to it from a cost perspective, so I don't think it's taken off to the degree that the contractors had expected it to here," says Liebert, whose firm gets involved in design-build projects from time to time.
 
As a project delivery method with a secure foothold in many states, design-build differs significantly from design-bid-build, in which the project owner hires an architect or engineer to prepare documents on which construction contractors bid in order to build the project under a separate contract. Design-build brings contractors and designers together under one contract and often permits some construction to begin before a project's final design has been completed.
 
Design-build supporters maintain the concept has many advantages for project owners. Given its parameters, design-build lets a client make one party fully responsible for delivering a project on time, on budget and to the desired specifications. Beyond that aspect-known in the construction industry as single-point or single-source responsibility-the arrangement promotes teamwork and removes communication barriers between builders and designers, proponents say.
 
Design-build also frees up contractors to move ahead with basic construction while design details are being finalized, supporters say. That can speed up project delivery and reduce owners' interim financing costs.
 
Critics of design-build maintain that the concept is not suited to projects that require flexibility. Change orders can be costly when using the method, and resulting designs sometimes lack imagination.
 
Ken Ogden, preconstruction manager for Lecesse Construction Services LLC, does not see evidence that design-build has taken hold in Upstate New York. Legislative barriers have curtailed the concept's acceptance here, he says.
 
One piece of legislation that stands in the way of design-build is the Wicks Law, which requires multiple bids on public works construction projects in Upstate New York that exceed $500,000. The thresholds for public projects subject to Wicks regulations are $1.5 million in downstate suburbs and $3 million in New York City. Prior to changes made to the 99-year-old law in 2008, Wicks mandated multiple contractors for public projects of at least $50,000 statewide.
 
"So without a lot of (project owners) clamoring for it, and the Wicks Law on the books, I just think there are a few inhibitors to a design-build relationship," Ogden says.
 
Some clients seek out design-build relationships for convenience and peace of mind, Ogden says. If there is a boiler problem, for instance, "there's one person to call-the builder," he says, adding that clients, builders and designers all stand to benefit from design-build relationships.
 
The arrangement fosters a sense of teamwork that is lacking in design-bid-build, "and they know what it's going to cost up front," Ogden says.
 
To illustrate the time savings design-build can produce, he points to Lecesse Construction's involvement in the Mills at High Falls, a three-story 75,000-square-foot mixed-use development on State Street in Rochester that was finished in 2009.
 
As construction manager and design-builder for the project, owned by the Urban League of Rochester Inc., Lecesse went from a concept design without drawings on paper to having final construction documents at the New York State Housing Finance Agency in 90 days, Ogden says.
 
Lecesse also was the design-builder for a 15,000-square-foot student-housing complex at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, Ontario County, in 2008.
 
Despite its pluses, design-build does not necessarily provide an economic benefit for clients, Ogden says.
 
"I don't think you save a lot of money on the design," he says. "I just think it goes smoother."
 
Recent design-build work at Fisher Associates, an engineering and surveying firm in Rochester, has been for the federal government, says Robert Goossen, vice president and chief operating officer. In 2009, the firm provided survey, mapping, design and construction-phase service for tank bridges and railroad crossings at Fort Drum, the Army base in Jefferson County.
 
Goossen says his firm, which has offices in Buffalo, Syracuse and Erie, Pa., does not do many design-build projects because the state Department of Transportation, the Thruway Authority and other New York agencies are prohibited by law from using the method. Bills introduced since 1992 to change the law have not yet gained sufficient traction.
 
Yet other states have taken a different view on the issue, Goossen says. Pennsylvania, for example, allows the method for bridge construction and other purposes.
 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has advocated design-build and other project delivery methods in certain cases and included in the 2011 state budget bill a proposal authorizing its use by the State University Construction Fund, the City University Construction Fund and the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. The proposal, however, did not remain in the final budget.
 
Groups such as the New York State Society of Professional Engineers Inc. strongly opposed Cuomo's plan, fearing that it would set the stage for selecting design services based on low bids, not qualifications.
 
Yet the issue of opening access to design-build does not appear entirely dead. Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, now is sponsoring a bill to let the Department of Transportation and the Thruway Authority award design-build contracts. The bill has been referred to the Assembly's Transportation Committee.
 
At Clark Patterson Lee, one design-build project is under way, Liebert says. That project involves working with a local nursing-home owner that wanted single-point responsibility. Liebert declined to name the owner.
 
In 2009, Clark Patterson Lee worked on a design-build team for an 18,000-square-foot cancer center at St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital in Orange County. That project was finished a few months earlier than anticipated and achieved the owner's goal of streamlining communications, but it did rely on a full set of documents, Liebert says.
 
In the future, certain project owners may show more interest in design-build, he says.
 
"Some private developers might be looking to doing more of that," Liebert says, "because of time."

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.5/20/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail service@rbj.net.