Sometime during the late 1950s, a seemingly simple yet ultimately revolutionary idea was taking seed in the mind of young engineering student Preston H. Haskell III. One day, while back at home, the future civil engineer shared his nascent idea with his father.
“I would like to have an office as both an architect and a contractor,” the young Haskell announced.
“No son, it’s not done that way,” the elder Haskell replied.
The younger Haskell, now 82, recently recalled the exchange with his father during a talk with ENR. Later, Haskell would clarify that his mining-executive father was otherwise “very helpful and supportive” of his education and career. But Haskell then quickly admits, “I disregarded my parental advice.”
More than 60 years later, countless contractors and designers should be happy that Haskell rebelled the way he did. Because that seed of an idea would germinate and grow well beyond his initial thought, and, with his constant championing, open the way for broad adoption of public-sector design-build procurement. Later, Haskell helped establish the Design-Build Institute of America, serving as its first chairman.
Design-build’s adoption by the public sector ranks high in the history of construction innovations, says Rik Kunnath, president of The Charles Pankow Foundation, an organization based in McLean, Va., that funds construction industry research and promotes collaboration.
“I just can’t imagine any single thing that has had a more positive impact on productivity and cost competitiveness in U.S. construction than design-build,” says Kunnath, who followed Haskell as DBIA’s second chairman.
Indeed, a 2018 study produced by the Construction Industry Institute and the Charles Pankow Foundation comparing various project delivery methods noted, for instance, that design-build projects are delivered 102% faster than the design-bid-build approach, the most common delivery method used by public project owners.
Steve Halverson, who now chairs Haskell’s corporate board after 19 years as the contractor’s CEO, concurs. “It’s hard to overstate his contributions” related to design-build’s place in today’s construction industry, he says.
Describing Haskell as “relentless,” Halverson adds: “He operates always with a great sense of urgency, and he didn’t want to wait for the (design-build) market to develop. He wanted to make the market. And that’s why he started DBIA—to standardize the best practices so that anybody could experiment with and try to execute design-build as a model.”
Many others helped spread the design-build gospel, especially as it relates to the founding of the DBIA, but “Preston is really the first among equals,” Kunnath says.
When told he’d been singled out by ENR Southeast as its 2021 Legacy Award honoree, Haskell deflected the credit for these achievements onto others, commenting that the recognition is “not deserved.”
While “others might think” Haskell deserving, he tells ENR Southeast: “I accept on behalf of all the people I’ve worked with over the years, principally within the Haskell company, but also a lot of outside people.
“That’s particularly true of DBIA,” he continued. “We all worked hard back in the early 1990s.”
Dead Set on Design-Build
Haskell founded his namesake firm, the Preston H. Haskell Co., in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1965 with an eye toward collaboration between designers and contractors even though at the time, as he says now, “Design-build was a relatively unknown delivery process.”
Building upon his interest “as a very young fellow” in not only how buildings were constructed, but also “how they were conceived and planned,” Haskell’s company offered some in-house engineering from the start.
“I just can’t imagine any single thing that has had a more positive impact on productivity and cost in U.S. construction than design-build.”
– Rik Kunnath, President, The Pankow Foundation
“As much as my time permitted, I would provide electrical and mechanical engineering,” he says. And in 1970, the firm hired its first registered architect, enabling it to provide architectural, engineering and construction services in-house.
A $1-million multifamily apartment building in Jacksonville had marked the firm’s first contract, “but I wanted always to broaden our scope of practice to commercial, industrial and institutional projects,” which would eventually become main project sectors for the company—now known simply as Haskell.
Haskell’s work in the industrial sector led to the firm’s adoption and steady use of the tilt-up concrete construction method. Haskell, the man, whose company was an inaugural member of the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, was recognized in 2013 with the Peter Courtois Memorial Award. In presenting the honor, the association referenced Haskell as a “contemporary visionary.”
Of his firm’s tilt-up efforts, Haskell says the goal was to take the practice as it existed then and make it more economical and faster. To that end, Haskell, the company, found ways to design tilt-up panels that would replace the then standard use of poured-in-place foundation walls. Additionally, the firm helped bring about tilt-up panels that were load-bearing.
“Like everything else, you make it better and faster, and you find best practices,” Haskell says, adding, “you’re never satisfied with the way it was done yesterday.”
Finding better ways to build was an arguably defining focus during the creation of the DBIA. As Haskell recalls, he and Jim Gray, the chairman of Lexington, Ky.-based Gray Construction, were discussing their frustration with the lack of attention that the design-build delivery method was receiving from within a national general contractors association.
Haskell credits Gray for first voicing the idea of an association dedicated to design-build, but the two were definitely already on the same page.
“Let’s talk,” Haskell said almost as soon as the words left Gray’s mouth. And the two men drew up a list of about 15 individuals that they thought would be interested in the venture and eventually held an initial meeting in Washington, D.C., in February 1992.
Kunnath, who was present at that 1992 meeting, recalls that “the general national interest in design-build was increasing” and that Haskell “sensed the moment,” inviting a strong group together for the purpose of creating the DBIA, including Gray, Kunnath (then of Pankow Builders) and Don Warren, then of Suitt Construction (now of McCrory Construction), among others.
In addition to setting up this first meeting, Kunnath says Haskell “provided both the logic and the leadership that had the group coalesce around the idea” of a national organization.
“That’s why he started DBIA—to standardize the best practices so that anybody could experiment with and try to execute design-build as a model.”
– Steve Halverson, Chairman, Haskell
The work was just getting started, though, and design-build remained unavailable for use on public projects in many states.
“Founding DBIA did not solve the problems overnight,” Haskell says.
Haskell and the rest of the DBIA organization eventually turned their attention to Congress, where they lobbied for and eventually won passage of federal legislation that enabled the use of design-build on federal contracts.
Halverson, who became CEO of Haskell’s company in 1999, said that for the first two years he served in that position, Haskell himself was “always off in Washington advocating for federal legislation or in any state or city that was even thinking about design-build.”
Florida was the first state to make legal the use of design-build on publicly funded projects, and the state DOT quickly employed the new delivery option.
Ananth Prasad, executive director of the Florida Transportation Builders Association—and former Secretary of FDOT—said the state’s ability to use design-build delivery proved critical at times. One example occurred in 2009, when, with the national economy in trouble, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It provided funding for “shovel-ready” projects that could be started right away.
“States that didn’t have design-build delivery couldn’t do that,” says Prasad. FDOT, on the other hand, responded to “the stimulus” by putting together a $7-billion package of projects, the vast majority of which were to be procured via design-build contracts. The state was able to assemble the package so quickly, Prasad adds, because it had responded similarly—and largely with design-build contracts—to a post-9/11 economic stimulus enacted in 2002.
Today, Haskell remains steadfast in his belief that design-build enables great innovation. And the U.S. awaits a new national infrastructure program where such innovation will be needed and welcomed.
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