AIA Panel Explores Enhanced Efficiency and Profitability Opportunities
The recent AIA ’23 conference featured a panel discussion on how improved project integration results in better project outcomes, as well as potentially lower building costs, faster project completion, and better firm financial returns. Among the improved project outcomes panelists discussed were more sustainable, equitable, and resilient solutions. The panel was hosted by Amy Bunszel, executive vice president of AEC Design Solutions at Autodesk, with panelists Robin Carnahan, administrator of General Services Administration (GSA); Jennifer Devlin-Herbert FAIA, president and chief executive officer of EHDD; and Eric Lamb, member of the board of directors at DPR Construction.
Rewards and Risks of Project Integration
Lamb and Devlin-Herbert FAIA explored ideas about how architects, engineers, contractors, developers and building teams can work together to reduce costs, increase profitability, and reduce design and construction timetables. The challenge Lamb shared is that the AEC industry suffers from optimism bias that leads to unrealistically low budgets and unattainable schedules. The bid process forces owners into a “low bid is the best” mindset that often results in both project delays and budget overruns. “If you need to value engineer a project, you have failed,” said Lamb. He believes the ideal approach is to build an integrated team approach to determine the most realistic cost for the project rather than selecting the lowest bid.
Collaborative design and building teams, or integrated project delivery, has been around a long time, but is still not widely adopted. By bringing together the entire team in the beginning, Lamb states you can develop a more realistic budget and timetable. Everyone—developer, architect, contractor and all the sub-contractors—have a voice on goals, cost estimates and the process. Devlin-Herbert FAIA noted this is particularly helpful because architectural drawings are never detailed enough to get the accurate sense of the building’s complexity and costs. Architects are good at understanding the nuances and “gray” areas, while engineers and contractors are good at the black and white. “You need all these voices at the table to create an accurate and predictable project,” says Devlin-Herbert. “To do this successfully requires new ways of collaborating, a well-thought-out process, and a shared risk/reward pool.” Lamb’s most recent integrated project was completed early and came in eight percent below budget. This led to increased bonuses for all firms on the team and he noted that everyone is still friends! He shared that the building is also a model of sustainable design.
Lamb and Devlin-Herbert FAIA discussed the two most significant risks of integration. The first is that some clients worry about the costs of engaging everyone at the beginning. Some clients believe that the high earlier costs will continue throughout the project. However, these early investments in coordination are followed by more efficiency in the planning, design, and construction process that results in lower final project costs. The second challenge is creating a disciplined decision-making process that engages the team and develops structure to get to the right design and construction answers. It is essential that the team identify and agree upon this decision-making process early on so they stay focused on meeting deadlines.
Increased Federal Investment in Sustainability
During the session, Carnahan conveyed the General Service Agency’s (GSA’s) interest in integrated design and its belief that integrated design results in more sustainably designed buildings. She shared that the Biden administration has increased its investment in federal building sustainability efforts, including testing novel technologies, from $1 million to $30 million. The $30 million will go to 20 new companies through the GSA’s Green Proving Ground (GPG) program to advance American-made technologies that accelerate the path to net zero emissions. The GSA is leveraging one of the world’s largest real estate portfolios—US federal buildings—to test and evaluate these new technologies in buildings.
Since 2011, GPG has evaluated 104 technologies and has been sharing results on its website. The GPG program focuses on improved air quality, greenhouse gas accounting, grid-interactive efficient buildings, high-performance technology onsite renewable systems, and window retrofit technologies to reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions. At the center of the GSA’s philosophy is a belief that functionality and building use is changing and the best designs require flexibility, adaptability and sustainability. The program focuses on building reuse, not just to address current needs, but also to make buildings futureproof. Carnahan also reported that one of GPG’s greatest challenges in maintaining healthy buildings is the elimination of water infiltration.
Key Insights from the Panelists
At the end of the session, the three panelists were asked what were their key ideas related to integrated projects. Carnahan shared that the GSA is interested in collaborating with architects and wants to be a testing ground for new ideas. Lamb shared that builders are facing tremendous labor shortages and are looking for ways to improve the building system as a result; more are turning to prefabrication, which he expects to be the wave of the future. Devlin-Herbert FAIA concluded by encouraging architects to step outside their comfort zone and be more collaborative, and include more voices at the design table.