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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Design/build: A different way to do construction projects

If you are looking for entertainment, wind up your David Bloxom doll and say “design/build.”

Bloxom is passionate about many things – family, public education and the construction process called design/build.

Bloxom is chairman of the board of Speed Fab-Crete, a precast concrete company that his father started in 1951 as the Dave Bloxom Construction Co., which built its first building in Fort Worth in 1962.

“My dad and an architect would team up and deliver the project, kind of a one-stop shop. They knew what the budget was. He could tell the architect if he was getting too crazy with design that the people didn’t have that kind of money or want to spend that kind of money on the project,” Bloxom said.

He even teaches a class as a certified instructor for the Design/Build Institute of America, where builders can take classes, pass a test and receive a certification that says they know how to do design/build correctly.

The concept is rooted in history; some of Europe’s master builders were both builder and designer. But somehow that changed – and the construction trade that evolved in the United States around 1900 became more complicated.

The traditional method, Bloxom says, is “what we call design/bid/build – you hire an architect, everything is drawn up, everything is specified, then you put it out to bid.”

“You take the low or best bid. And then if there was any disagreement between what the contractor bid and the intent of the architect, the owner ended up being the referee, especially in the lawsuit. There was a high amount of litigation in that delivery method,” Bloxom said.

He says research about construction delivery methods by the University of Texas shows that to be the slowest and least efficient process, triggering more change orders and additional costs than other methods of building.

In that system, the architect was god.

“The stupid guy who made the worst addition mistake got the job, and the poor owner suffered through the whole thing and wondered why his project didn’t turn out like he wanted,” Bloxom said.

“I’ve had many clients come in here with big rolls of plans that they paid $100,000, $150,000 for, and they said, ‘This is what we wanted, but the guy never told us it was $3 million over our budget. He just kept drawing and drawing and drawing.’”

The step up from that process is called construction management at risk.

“It’s still a two-contract system,” Bloxom said. “You have a contract with the architect, a contract with the construction manager, which may be a general contractor, too.” But the construction manager is hired earlier in the process while the architect is developing the drawings and can give estimated pricings at different stages of the project to keep within budget.

With the design/build approach, there’s one contract, and it’s between the design/build group and the owner.

“There’s no arguing. You transfer risk to the design/build team from the owner. … That you don’t get in these other two delivery methods,” he said. “Actually, we know through our years of experience that it’s a more profitable delivery method for the contractor for the design/build team.”

But the concept is a hard sell to governmental units such as cities and school boards where the bidding process is still rooted in tradition.

“They hire the architect, then they hire the construction manager at risk when the plans are finished.” Bloxom said. “That is not using the strength of that delivery method; there’s still two separate contracts, so you still have this adversarial deal that can occur on the project.”

Bloxom recalls a presentation he made to the Texas Association of School Boards’ state convention with the late Jerilyn Kyker Pfeifer, who was superintendent of the Everman Independent School District, where Speed Fab-Crete did several projects. Everman ISD had been doing design/bid/build and someone at the conference asked why she had switched to design/build.

“She said, ‘Number One reason: change orders. I don’t have any change orders under design/build unless I ask for something different. If something isn’t right, they worked it out. I got out of the referee business. I got out of the lawsuit business.’

“‘And Number Two: I got worn out of being in the adversarial position of everybody. The design/build team is going to work together and get it worked out,’” Bloxom said.

In the early days, the traditionalists criticized design/build as resulting in ugly buildings, warehouses and the like, he said, because it didn’t allow for any sophisticated design or architectural beauty.

But that was then and this is now. People are living in the Dark Ages if they still think that, he said.

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Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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