Design-build also provided the necessary flexibility for the unique requirements of the digester project, in which Cambi of Norway would have a direct relationship with DC Water and a role on the design-build team. Up-front communication also was critical.

"It took a lot of collaboration and some concessions on DC Water's part to establish a comfort level whereby Cambi would be willing to come to this country to help them understand the processes, and for the design-build teams to accept that unique relationship with a team member," says Phil Braswell, biosolids program manager for Brown & Caldwell, which oversees that work for DC Water. "And all this had to be arranged and accepted before bidding on price could begin."

A commitment to collaboration also has helped DC Water meet its ambitious goals for minority- and women-owned business enterprise participation. Ray says as many as 300 small subcontractors took part in Clean Rivers outreach meetings to share their skills and resources with the project's prime contractors.

"We're meeting our objective of 32% MBE for the entire project and 7% WBE for the construction phase," Ray says. "And of the 183 new hires for the tunnel project, more than 100 are D.C. residents."

DC Water still will rely heavily on consultants and contractors, particularly on upcoming tunnel jobs, but Hawkins is pleased to see the agency become a magnet for rising young engineers. "Young people want to be part of something exciting, and the work we're doing is helping us recruit top talent," he says.

That kind of enthusiasm will be critical as DC Water tackles other projects on its lengthy infrastructure agenda, including addressing a 1,200-mile pipeline network, portions of which were installed before the Civil War. The agency plans to step up that activity in 2015 and intends to perform most of the engineering work in-house, to provide better coordination in the construction phase.

Other big-city utilities face the same challenge, but Hawkins says DC Water is uniquely positioned to handle it successfully as long as it continues to demonstrate the projects' value to those who pay the bills.

"If we're going to ask our ratepayers for increases to cover costs, we have to prove that we're making those dollars go further. We're cutting our energy costs, and we're reducing the district's carbon footprint," he says. "Everything we do has to work. We can't be wrong."