In U construction projects, don’t trade oversight for speed

Traditionally, when University officials wanted a new building or dorm addition built on campus, they would first hire an architect or engineer to design the project. Next, they would solicit bids from contractors, pick the best firm for the job and then begin construction. However, in recent years the University has increasingly turned away from that design-bid-build model and toward a fast-track construction system that allows an architect and contractor to design and build portions of the project simultaneously. Proponents of the model, called design-build, say that it cuts construction time significantly and, when problems arise, moderates friction between building parties.

At the University, design-build has had some success. Notably, the renovations of Murphy Hall and Ford Hall were completed nearly eight months ahead of schedule. In all, the design-build model was used in nearly 30 percent of University construction projects over the past four years, including the renovations of Coffman Union and the Barbara Baker Center for Dance. Former Vice President for University Services, Eric Kruse, was cited by the Design Build Institute of America in 2001 as a “distinguished leader” for his support of the process.

However, the expedited construction schedules have also caused reason for concern. Critics have noted that with design-build there is little time for public comment on key decisions and projects are susceptible to costly design changes during construction. In a detailed report presented to the Board of Regents on Thursday, General Counsel Mark Rotenberg outlined some of the problems with design-build at the University. The report found that building inspections for workmanship have fallen off, and University oversight for such projects has been slipshod. Some regents expressed concern about possible conflicts of interest.

The report concluded that “inadequate plan review and inspection create especially serious potential risks” on design-build projects because the contractor and the architectural or engineering firm “owe their allegiance to one another, so neither is likely to bring concerns about quality of design or construction to the owner’s attention.” To reduce the likelihood of such problems, the report recommended that a third party oversee design-build projects. Another problem with design-build construction is that contracts don’t necessarily always go to the lowest responsible bidder. Rather, they are awarded subjectively based on what provides “the best value.” Addressing this point, Rotenberg recommended that Facilities Management “carefully weigh any time savings against the reduced price competition.” Rotenberg also stressed that the University change bidding requirements to remove a perception that the University is giving preferential treatment to certain firms.

The design-build model continues to gain popularity. The construction research firm F.W. Dodge recently estimated that within a decade design-build will represent 50 percent of all North American construction, based on industry forecasts. Surely, faster construction is a worthy aim. But there must be sufficient oversight to ensure that public dollars are best serving the public good. As its use grows, the University and the public-at-large need to be vigilant that speed doesn’t compromise accountability. Rotenberg’s recommendations are a welcome step in that direction. It is up to the Board of Regents and Facilities Management to ensure that they are implemented and adhered to.