The transportation construction world continues to learn lessons about risk and relationships in design-build. With an unprecedented amount of federal aid anticipated for highway, bridge and transit projects, it is also starting to move further toward progressive design-build (PDB).

“Progressive design-build is new in transportation,” said Dave Nardon, director of alternative delivery for Superior Construction. “Just a couple of years ago, if you asked twenty people what progressive design-build is, you’d get thirty answers. It’s not [construction manager-general contractor] or design-build."

Nardon, speaking at the Design-Build Institute of America’s annual transportation/aviation conference held in Orlando April 6 to 8, noted that in PDB, the two-phased selection process becomes qualifications-based and requires the engineer, contractor and owner to act as one team. The method is best for “schedule-driven, complex, phased construction,” he noted.

Kathryn Weisner, construction and contractor administration engineer for the Federal Highway Administration’s Resource Center, said that recent PDB projects in Utah and Maryland were state-funded, but now states are considering the delivery method for federally-funded projects and are reaching out to the FHWA for help.

But potential PDB teams should “be prepared with the manpower, time, and patience needed in changing processes,” she added. “We saw some design-build trends that were not good,” such as an owner trying to shift all risks onto the team or having a high price component for bid submittals along with the qualifications requirement. “We’re hoping to see that shake out better,” she said of these situations. “Owners are seeing now how contractors will price the risk passed on to them. In some cases, the states have said they will take the risks back. With progressive design-build, they don’t just pass on the risks and walk away.”

Michael Romero, engineering manager with the Utah Dept. of Transportation, said that UDOT’s $385-million US 89 widening job, done with PDB, took only 14 months from development to start of construction, saving about four months compared to traditional design-build. Where typically UDOT and its consultants would create a baseline and documents to give to the contractor, “now there is no arbitrary design” that “the contractor won’t use,” he said. Instead, the contracting team is involved in the scoping and design, and an independent cost estimator is used to reconcile any differences.

While PDB can maximize transparency and creativity from the PDB team, it can be daunting at first, said Geoff Neumayr, chief development officer with San Francisco International Airport, which has utilized alternative project delivery for 16 years on billions of dollars’ worth of projects. “When you start with a blank sheet of paper, it makes people uncomfortable,” he said. But working through that discomfort can build trust and social engagement, he added.

Jeff Siddle, project director with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority in Tampa, said the agency has used PDB for 23 years “with hardly any litigation.” The key is for owners to be reasonable and fair, he said.

Owner’s representatives must also shift their aim from “protecting the owner” to “being an advocate for the PDB team,” said Neumayr. And Weisner, evoking the “Let It Go” song from the movie Frozen, advised owners to differentiate between prescribing their preferences for a project and what they truly want the project outcome to be. Instead of focusing on, for example, desired lane widths or types of materials to use, “what is the desired end result?” she said.

Contractors’ Input

In another session at DBIA, contractors spoke candidly about what they would like to see in design-build jobs. “Standards of care and limits of liability are the biggest players,” said David Pupkiewicz, senior director of business development for Archer Western Construction, a division of Walsh Group. Owners should be more communicative regarding why they might shift risks onto the team, and design partners might take on more quantity risk.

He added that some states like Florida have a risk register in place early in the procurement phase. “What risks do we see—or that the owner thinks we see?” he said. “Owners need to share more information … we will keep that information confidential.”

Jason Hoyle, vice president with Branch Civil, said wryly that contractors wish they could ask owners for their design-build qualifications. Noting that owners’ consultants often inundate sets of plans with comments, he said, it would be better to “have these conversations early on.”

He also noted the balance between doing many things early on versus the potential to utilize innovative ideas. “Do we potentially squelch innovation by doing things upfront? It’s a trade-off.”