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Use of design-build draws mixed reviews

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — Anoka County wants to improve traffic flow on Highway 14 with an upcoming $32 million project, but the work is noteworthy because it represents a first in Minnesota.

It is the first project to participate in a pilot program that lets the state’s cities and counties do transportation work under the design-build delivery method, an alternative to awarding the work to the lowest responsible bidder.

The state Legislature approved the pilot program in 2009. Design-build has typically been off-limits for cities and counties, because the thinking is that small government entities may not have the right in-house expertise to make such projects work.

Although design-build is increasingly popular, not everyone is sold on it.

Supporters say owners can save time and money by using design-build, which lumps design and construction into one contract and lets some construction proceed while design is still being developed.

But critics say the design-build process is too subjective from a contracting standpoint and that it presents more risk to contractors, among other concerns.

Charles Cadenhead, Anoka County construction engineer, said the use of design-build on Highway 14 will enable the county to complete the work quicker than originally envisioned, thus reducing the project’s effect on businesses and travelers.

Under the county’s original capital improvement program, Highway 14 work would have dragged on for the next six or seven years and would have been awarded as five projects.

Now, the county can let it as one project and complete the work in two years, Cadenhead said.

But design-build skeptics, such as David Exe, owner of Woodbury-based Industrial Engineering Inc., see it differently.

Exe told Finance & Commerce, a sister publication to The Daily Reporter, in 2005 that taxpayers aren’t well represented in the design-build process because the designer answers directly to the builder, not the public owner.

He likened it to getting a divorce and having oneís spouse hire one’s attorney. Reached by phone, Exe said nothing has changed his view.

“If the engineer is hired by the contractor, who does the engineer represent? You are supposed to represent the public,” he said.

People fear that the owners will get a lower-quality project because they don’t have direct control over the designer, but “that is somewhat belied by the studies that indicate that owners are more satisfied with the finished product when they have a design-build project team,” said Peter Halls, a partner at Minneapolis law firm Faegre & Benson and an active member of the Design-Build Institute of America’s Upper Midwest chapter.

Halls said the designers who work on design-build projects have liability not just to the design-build contractor but to “other foreseeable plaintiffs,” including the owner and the general public.

Others note that design-build exposes contractors to more risk because they are contractually responsible for the design as well as construction.

Mike Headrick, an operations manager with PCL Construction Services Inc. and a DBIA member, said design-build contractors are willing to take those risks, but “they have to make sure they are being compensated for that risk.”

Headrick said the pros of design-build outweigh the cons.

The biggest advantages are faster project delivery and getting the contractor involved in the design process right away, which improves collaboration and increases “price certainty” for the owner, he said.

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