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U.S. official tells tale of how design-build beat low-bid system

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by Daily Commercial News last update:Jul 15, 2008

During his 26-year career with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Craig Unger oversaw the construction of 46 prisons at a total cost of more than $7 billion.
U.S. official tells tale of how design-build beat low-bid system

National Design-Build Conference in Edmonton

BY JIM VEENBAAS

DCN CORRESPONDENT

EDMONTON

During his 26-year career with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Craig Unger oversaw the construction of 46 prisons at a total cost of more than $7 billion.

Cost overruns, conflict, slow building schedules and delays were frustrating and commonplace—until Unger discovered designbuild and started using it for most of the agency’s construction projects.

“We were getting nailed with errors and omissions on large mega projects. There’s no such thing as the perfect set of drawings and there was always something missing. Our goal was always two per cent (for cost overruns), but on a $100-million project that’s still $2 million,” says Unger.

“We would put up a brand new prison and the roof might leak. The contractor would tell us he built the roof exactly like it was on the drawings so we would go back to the architect and he would tell us it wasn’t a problem with the drawings, but a construction issue. We would have to go out and hire an independent consultant and there was a lot of time and energy put into the process.”

Unger was frustrated that responsibility for errors and omissions was fragmented between the architects and general contractors, which essentially shifted responsibility back to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. By moving away from the traditional low-bid process to the design-build method, with a single contract that covers both the design and construction elements, the federal agency fast-tracked some construction projects, eliminated claims and litigation, created critically needed prison space and saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

“To this day, we’ve had zero claims, zero litigation and zero settlements. I don’t know of a single agency that went to low-bid after they went with design-build. That tells me there will be more and more design-build in the future,” says Unger, who retired from the federal agency in 2003 and is now vice-president of government affairs for the Design-Build Institute of America.

“Under design-build, you hire the architect and the contractor in one fell swoop. Any change order in design-build that has anything to do with errors and omissions in the drawings is now totally off the owner’s plate, but it’s the integration and the collaboration of the team that makes the difference and makes the process work.”

Unger was the keynote speaker at the 2004 National Design-Build Conference in Edmonton, Sept. 22 to 24. Architects, builders, project managers and business leaders from across the country attended the event to discuss design-build’s prospects for the future and to learn about the latest trends in the industry. Sponsored by the Canadian Design-Build Institute, the annual conference featured workshops, the annual awards for design excellence, case studies, panel discussions and even a tour of the Winspear Centre, home to Edmonton’s symphony orchestra.

The theme of the conference, the Power and Prospects of Design-Build, underscores the growing acceptance of the process and its expanding future role. According to Unger, design-build is now used for the majority of commercial projects in the U.S. Yet there are still some pockets of resistance. Seven states in the U.S. still prohibit the design-build method for taxpayer-funded projects.

“Architects have opposed it for many, many years because it took them out of the driver’s seat. Suddenly, the architects find themselves as potential sub-contractors and they weren’t particularly enamored with that. They’ve been able to fight it in some state houses because their lobby is very, very powerful. But like it, love it or hate it, it’s here to stay.”

last update:Jul 15, 2008

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