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How Using an Owner’s Representative Can Improve Project Delivery

By Jim Avitabile, PE, DBIA

April 28, 2022

bridge running over roundabout with cars

Whenever an agency undertakes a new process, there is a learning curve involved. On a complex project such as a transportation megaproject, a slight misstep can be costly. These missteps can be more common – and just as concerning – when using a new project delivery method like progressive design-build (PDB).

Progressive Design-Build in Transportation

Although PDB has been used in many aviation and water/wastewater projects, many of the lessons learned do not translate into transportation projects. This is because those projects do not carry the same complexities as transportation projects. Complexities in transportation projects come in many shapes and sizes, most of which are hidden from view. Unforeseen conditions, underground utilities, third-party permits, stakeholder engagement and the need to maintain traffic through the working construction zone are unique elements of a transportation project.

The limited experience of our heavy civil construction industry in progressive design-build is of paramount concern. The fact that only a handful of progressive design-build focused civil projects have been completed provides an indicator of the learning curve that the industry must face.

The primary reason is that construction activities on a PDB may not be initiated until a design has been arrived at, which can be six months or longer after award. The progressive design-build contract must include a collaborative design phase that the contractor is comfortable with and that engages all parties.

The Role of the Owner

In contrast to progressive design-build, during the design phase of a Best Value Design-Build project, we tend to emphasize a more hands-off approach where the design-build team leads this effort once awarded the project. The design phase of a PDB project is intentionally different with all parties active in the process.

Progressive design-build dictates that the owner stays engaged with the design-build team throughout design. Design changes are performed at the discretion of the owner. Costs for these changes will be borne by the owner as well. Until a GMP is arrived at, delays associated with design changes are also the responsibility of the owner.

PDB is different in that it is founded on a high level of collaboration, owner involvement and trust. But what happens when the most qualified team is not the best collaborator? The value of having an experienced owner’s representative can be important to help establish and maintain guidelines. Innovation should not be compromised to achieve a schedule.

Real-World Success

At a recent DBIA conference, I was speaking with the owner of an award-winning progressive design-build project that was completed 10% under budget and used cutting edge technology. When asked what the secret was to the project’s success, he said it was "total collaboration."

Working as the owner’s representative, we selected and contracted with the best design-build team, but they were proposing a design that they were most familiar with – and it was the most expensive.

Instead, we agreed to use a different design that they had never used before. But by bringing in an advisor who was extremely familiar with the process we wanted to deploy, the design-build team learned the techniques of deployment and even helped identify additional cost-saving measures.

Together, the team resolved design and construction issues and kept the project on schedule. The owner’s advice was that it is imperative to have a team of consultants with the experience and technical leadership that can serve as an owner’s representative and assist the agency in determining the best options available.

Alternative delivery methods like progressive design-build can help save you time, money and headaches on your next project. Learn more about our design-build capabilities. 

Topics: Design-Build, Transportation, Alternative Delivery, Project Delivery & Procurement

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About the Author

Jim has 40 years of experience in the transportation market and is a recognized leader in alternative delivery. He can be reached at James.Avitabile@rsandh.com.

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