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What is Design-Assist Construction?

New construction materials, tools, and techniques are fairly common, but what about delivery methods? Maybe you’ve heard of design-assist but want to learn more. Or maybe you’re just looking for a new approach to keep your next project on budget and on schedule. Either way, our breakdown of the design-assist process is here to help.

What is Design-Assist Construction?

Design-assist (DA) is a relatively new construction delivery method. It stands out because its focus is on bringing subcontractors into a project earlier than usual during the design phase. The goal of design-assist is to create a more solid design plan to reduce the time and money spent on a project. By leveraging the specific expertise of subcontractors during the design process, the project is also likely to result in a higher-quality end product.

The design-assist method allows the General Contractor to bring in critical trades such as mechanical, electrical and plumbing sub-contractors to weigh in on construction plans, in an effort to establish a credible budget from the beginning. The input from these specialists can better inform the choices of architects, engineers and construction managers to, in turn, make design decisions that will help construction to run more smoothly. This approach also helps keep the project on budget and on schedule and resolves design disputes while ideas are still “on paper” before ground is broken.

DA can improve design efficiency, cost management, speed to market, and constructability for nearly any construction project. With supply chain issues in the market, DA is one of the best delivery systems because lead times of materials are contemplated all through the design process (conventional plan and spec bidding is not as affective in this market because of the long lead times of materials and the inability to procure early). Regardless of the size or type of the structure you can reap the benefits of a design-assist project in a majority of instances.

The Design-Assist Delivery Method

Now we’ve defined the goal of design-assist construction, you’re probably wondering what the delivery process looks like.

1. Start with the design

Though DA is different from traditional construction methods, both still begin with a client, a contractor and a designer. It’s up to those leading the project to determine at what point in the design process they want to bring subcontractors onboard. Some prefer to get some ideas on paper first, but it can also be a good approach for some projects to begin initial designs with specialists in place.

2. Selecting subcontractors

A common practice for the design-assist approach is to use best-value bidding when hiring subcontractors during the planning phase. In an ideal world, the subcontractors you hire to help with the designs will also take part in the construction. However, price points and relationships can shift.

By taking care to set up clear boundaries amongst the design-assist sub-trades you’ve selected, you can still entertain competitive bidding in the various categories. Perhaps offer a “last look” to the design-assist subcontractor as you evaluate their bid against the competing trade bids, this helps to maintain competition and provides the client with the best, most cost-effective solution.

3. Finishing designs and establishing cost

Once your key subcontractors are onboard, they can begin the process of sharing their expertise with the architects, engineers, and construction managers. This is a crucial step in the design-assist method. The decisions made here are best positioned to keep construction smooth, high-quality, on-budget, and on time. Pricing is derived on an iterative basis, generally defined as schematic design, design development, and construction documents. These intervals of design and pricing allow the team to monitor scope or budget creep and make required corrections to eliminate surprises generated at the final estimate.

Once the detailed designs are complete, you’re already ahead of the game compared to traditional construction projects. The costs and schedule laid out in your plans reflect the experience of each subcontractor on prior iterations to remove the guesswork and prevent future conflicts.

4. Start building

Once plans and teams are in place, construction is set up to start off on the right foot. Your subcontractors likely made suggestions and decisions in the design phase to help things move forward with minimal disruption. Maybe they suggested areas where prefabrication can save time and money. Perhaps they ironed out some complex areas of the design to prevent surprises on site. Whatever insights they were able to share, or whatever disputes they were able to resolve, you can be sure the design-assist process is likely to reward you with a better build and a high-quality structure.

Design-Assist vs. Traditional Construction

We’ve already touched on some differences between DA and traditional methods. Here are some other points to consider when comparing these approaches:

  • Better budgets and timelines: Traditional construction methods lend themselves to a bidding process where typically the lowest bidding contractor lands the project. If you’re thinking the design-assist method is more expensive since it requires hiring subcontractors earlier on to help advise, you should consider the time, resources and labor saved by having specialists weigh in on designs. Starting a project with a well-rounded design is likely to be exceptionally beneficial for everyone in the end. Don’t forget: you can still have open, competitive bidding to make sure that good pricing is still received.
  • Fewer redesigns: Subcontractors and vendors don’t get to see plans until construction is about to begin if you’re using a traditional approach. This means there’s a risk of misaligned priorities, MEP coordination or collision issues, or even oversights between the designs and the site. Design-assist is extremely likely to prevent time and money wasted by going back to the drawing board.

Design-Assist vs. Design-Build Construction

The design-build delivery method is another option. While very similar there is an important difference between it and the design-assist approach to consider.

  • Who’s in charge: In most design-build construction projects, the General Contractor holds most of the power to select architects, engineers and subcontractors. Design-assist keeps this power in the client’s hands. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong approach it all depends on the client’s preferred involvement, comfort level and project specifications.

    • Lastly, the design-build method inherently puts liability for the project on the General Contractor. So not only does the comfort level of the client come into play, the contractor’s approach to risk can influence the project delivery as well.

Want to learn more about Design-Assist construction?

We’re ready to chat with you about the DA method and how it could work for your next project.