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Design duration

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I've been running into an issue lately that seems related to a larger trend.  "Design-Build" is construction industry parlance for a contract arrangement where the construction contractors hire the design-team.  Most of the time, the Architect is hired by the General Contractor and the Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) trades hire engineering consultants (Engineers) to develop their portions of the plans.

The primary reasons behind this contract relationship are to save time and money.  Since the contractors have a vested interest in seeing the job built, they're motivated to steer their design professionals towards efficient solutions.  While all of that is true, there's the problem of selecting contractors in the first place.  Clients looking for design-build projects to save money, are particularly insistent upon competitive bidding.  This means that contractors are expected to produce bids for designs that don't exist.  In some cases, the clients will provide half-completed designs for the contractors to bid upon.  Sometimes, the client just waves their hands around at the job walk talking about how pretty everything should be.

In my experience, those challenges are nothing in comparison to design duration.  On the rare occasion that a GC provides a schedule for the design, we're seeing insanely long durations.  A GC on one recent job estimated that completing the design would take 1.5 times longer than it would take to build the project.  In other words, they expect it will take longer to draw a wall than to build it. 

I'd love to just chalk that up to an over-estimate. Unfortunately I can't because the design-build projects we've actually done have mirrored that ratio more often than not.  This is deeply frustrating for me because as an electrical contractor, the engineer's we've hired routinely complete everything they were hired to do in a week or so.  Projects that were stuck in design for 11 months or more required perhaps 80 hours of engineering from start to finish.  Even accounting for the petty last-minute changes that came along, the engineer rarely took a full hour to turn them around.  To give some sense of what's involved, the electrical plans typically constitute anywhere from 25% to 30% or so of the entire drawing set. 

The really vexing part of this, is that once in a great while, we'll have a client who really needs to get the job done.  In those cases, we can go from our first glimpse of the space to final occupancy in remarkably short order. 

In both cases, we might be doing the same amount of work, just one job lets us work efficiently while the other drags it out.  Our price would be very similar for both situations if we didn't have to attend all of the design meetings.  Nearly all of our clients/contractors stipulate that we must attend weekly meetings for the entire design duration.  This completely changes our business model because we're taking productive staff offline to attend unproductive meetings.  We not only lose production on the design-build project, but we lose the opportunity to pursue something lucrative with our time.  It's been my experience that the projects with long design durations are more likely to stall out, which means we never get to build the job. 

This outcome doesn't bother the design-professionals because they get paid whether the job happens or not.  However, the client's inevitable anger is directed towards the contractors they hired to make their project happen.  After months of drudgery and profitless work we can end up with an angry client who hires our competitor to build our design.

From the contractors point of view, the whole point of taking on this kind of work is to secure a backlog of work.  From the client's point of view, the whole point of this approach is to make the contractors responsible for delivering their timely and cost-effective project.

It sure doesn't seem like either of these things are likely to happen when the design drags on.  If that's true, then it stands to reason that project success relies on an accurate estimate of how long it really takes to complete a design. The unspoken challenge is determining how much certain individuals will delay the project. 

The problem as I see it, is that we're generating noise with complex contractual relationships, rather than generating results via personal accountability and transparency. 


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In the residential field, we call it "picking up the architect and carrying him to the finish line".  It's not unheard of in this market for an architect or design firm to be fired by the client while retaining the GC.  Different from commercial work thou, we tend to have simpler projects with more control exerted by the clients.  

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I can't speak to the design duration issue specifically. 

But I find a human tendency to hold "hostage" the effective deployment of their skills or knowledge in an effort to exert control. 

What is organized striking, after all? Really what you have there, rockstar, is a mini strike situation.  No different than a walkout or a production slowdown. 

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I might be reading your issues wrong but I see nothing wrong with the design end taking much longer than the production end.

Getting a design right can be a complicated process, especially when the variables are changing as the project progresses.  Additionally, informed decisions have to be made many times along the way and those can't be "off the cuff" in most projects--they often have to re-review the overall picture to make sure today's new tweak hasn't affected yesterday's.

Heck, I'm working on one right now for a farm equipment manufacturer in Belgium that has been dragging on for 6+ weeks--trying to get them to understand their initial mistakes, change those assumptions, revise their machine plans to match the new designs, review whether those new designs will meet their needs, lather rinse repeat.  Measure twice, cut once.  The actual parts involved will take about 4 weeks to make so we're right at that 1.5 times design to fab ratio.

Monkeying on paper is a lot cheaper than re-work, shortcomings, or change orders--and does take just as much time (or more) than hammering out the actual thing once the plans get stamped.  

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Judson,  You're reminding me of several past projects there!


Exo313  I can see why you would come to that conclusion, however I the timing of my situation steers me to a different conclusion.  These people are trying to put their best foot forward to get hired.   I suspect they feel the proposed design duration is on the short side of possible.


Kozzy,  I can think of several situations where the design would legitimately take longer than the construction.  Really small projects that would take a few days in the field, may need permitting which brings a whole lot of requirements to the design desk.  Intricate projects that require a detail drawing for everything can also command a lot of design time compared to construction.  In both of those cases, I agree with you.

The projects I'm writing about are more of the same mindless repetition that defines the"bread and butter" of commercial spaces.  "Open" floor plan office designs where the cube-farm for plebeians are placed at a wonky angle to the rectilinear room.  The conference rooms and big honcho offices are the only ones who get walls, which means they're packed around the elevator riser, or they're hugging the exterior walls.  

There's rarely any form of ceiling or carpeting because it's more "creative" to work in a space where noise, smell, disease, and distraction are free to spread.  Every time I walk one of these occupied offices, everyone is wearing ear buds to tune their coworkers out.  Their discomfort is palpable. 

While I'm sure some Architect in quirky eyeglasses is selling the client on their "unique, and collaborative use of space". The fact remains that it's a repetitive pattern that not only minimizes cost, but it also minimizes the necessary detail drawings.  I don't know how long it takes them to pick the most ridiculous shade of paint for their "feature" walls, but there are precious-few design details for anyone to go over.

I will say that the "design" meetings that I've been forced to attend aren't usually productive.  In general, neither the client nor the architect feel any compunction about leaving major decisions in perpetual limbo.  I know of several Architects who reliably interrupt anything that threatens to close an issue.  Meetings are rarely concluded with assignments for tasks, deliveries, and deadlines which would make the next meeting worthwhile.

The design-build projects I've done have revealed little evidence of basic management, leadership, or scheduling in the design profession.


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