The design build delivery method is usually associated with cost- and schedule-driven projects on which architectural excellence is low on the list of priorities. In the traditional model, the lowest-cost team brings a completed design to the table that then forms the basis of a contract. The client is always asking for more and the builder works to deliver the minimum. The architect works for the contractor and can do little to address the owner’s frustrations.
I recently had the opposite experience.
The University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus (UTM) is nestled in a wooded enclave that hugs the watershed of the Credit River. The UTM Instructional Centre is a 155,000 SF of state of the art teaching complex that has won international acclaim while exceeding a project brief calling for state-of- technology and environments to inspire the next generation of collaborative learning practices. The Instructional Centre, designed by Perkins + Will and built in 2011 by Eastern Construction Company Limited redefines perceptions on the traditional design build method, achieving client satisfaction, design excellence, multiple awards and LEED Silver Certification.
At the end of May, I gave a presentation on the University of Toronto Mississauga Instructional Centre at The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s annual convention in Winnipeg Manitoba. The goal was not only to impress an audience with the images and accolades of a great design, but rather to share the story of a great design and construction process. I invited key collaborators on the project, Stepanka Elias from the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Project Planning group and Eric Zvaniga, the Project Manager from Eastern construction to share the podium and, together, we offered our varied perspectives on what is a remarkably successful project by any standard. The fact that the Instructional Centre was designed and built in only 22 months through a Design Build method makes the project truly worth sharing as a case study for new ways to think about design, construction client service.
When pursuing this type of work, it’s important to keep five factors in mind. These lessons emerged through the discussion of the assembled audience of 150 professional architects, project managers and client representatives that day in Winnipeg.
1. Create a strong team culture and value-driven partnership
For the UTM Instructional Centre, schedule, program and design excellence became the three primary drivers for the project. The team realized that the alignment of these three elements was essential to the project’s success and that this would require a highly collaborative approach, with construction, design and client expertise informing every major decision. The team was structured with Eastern providing overall leadership and a direct contractual relationship with the owner. Eastern structured two streams of meetings that would run in tandem for the duration of the project. Design build team meetings occurred weekly, with the entire team present, and focused on schedule, budget, design and constructability. Client design meetings occurred bi-weekly and focused on architectural design and the achievement of programmatic and planning goals. Each of these steps and identified goals were important to creating a unified team, and laying the groundwork for an efficient and focused project.
2. Be ready to hit the ground running: a lesson for the client and design team
Along with creating a strong and focused team, of critical importance is ensuring that that team (along with the client) are ready to hit the ground running on day one. A key to the Instructional Centre’s success was UTM’s ability to streamline the stakeholder input process and provide the architects with a program that was ‘rock solid’, having been vetted well in advance. A highly structured user interface allowed the design to be responsive to user needs while ensuring that movement was always in the forward direction.
Another key factor in the project success was early and continuous dialogue with the local authorities having jurisdiction. The City of Mississauga was considered a partner in the project from the outset and their early understanding of the design and schedule goals paved the way for a series of partial and conditional permits that allowed the phased construction process to take place.
Predesign activities were carried out in a few short weeks and conceptual design was underway by the end of April 2009.
3. Develop a design of striking clarity
Creating a unified vision is of the utmost importance on a project of this scale and speed. Ensuring that every team member, as well as the client, feels like one unit can keep the project on track and moving towards its final completion in a timely manner. On UTM IC, our design team developed the concept of “Three Teaching Towers” to organize the teaching spaces of the program into a trio of three-storey towers, separated by light-filled atria and circulation spaces. The large 500-seat, 350-seat and 150-seat auditoria were placed at the base of each tower, and smaller classrooms and seminar rooms were situated on the upper floors. A connecting gallery of student services and study lounges addressed the campus green to the south. This early design concept was able to address the broad requirements of the program and establish the major site planning and landscape design moves.
4. Schedule is king – Design supports the tenders and tenders support the design
With a general architectural direction, the integrated team dove into a period of intense activity through the spring and early summer of 2009. While we continued to refine the complexities of accommodating the program and the architectural expression, building systems were developed apace through an iterative process involving the entire team. Despite the holistic evolution of the design at this stage, Eastern kept the team focused on two key priorities: structure and site. In July of 2009, UTMIC was submitted for site plan approval with the City. In August, the design team issued the early works tender package, which included demolition, bulk excavation, site servicing, caissons and foundations. By mid-September, the project had site plan approval and a conditional building permit, allowing Eastern and the sub trades to begin work on site a mere 20 weeks after coming on board. At the ground-turning ceremony, our plans and renderings presented the image of a fully conceived design with the signature form and unique copper cladding already evident. Moving forward, design activities were tailored to serve the needs of a series of sequential tenders. Design packages were developed to 90% completion and then put out to tender. The finalization of construction details occurred during a negotiation phase of each tender with the favored sub consultant providing input into the constructability of the design.
5. Choose your moments: Maintain design excellence while retaining project schedule goals:
The UTM IC’s integrated design build team learned how to balance the importance of budget and schedule goals with the design vision. By working in an integrated way with the constructors, the design team placed a greater emphasis on schedule, trade sequencing and constructability. A less is more approach was developed to maintain design production and construction schedule. The net result is a design that is focused on maximum impact within the logic and schedule of construction. As architects we learnt a lesson in simplicity and the prioritization of aesthetic means.
A clear example of the team’s approach is seen in the design and execution of the pre-patinated copper cladding. At the conceptual stage, the cladding was identified as a signature element of the building’s aesthetic. Within a set of relatively broad aesthetic parameters, the team placed considerable energy into researching a wide range of possible installations, again weighing cost and schedule against the desired effect. In the end, a narrow vertical plank system was adopted instead of a larger-format composite panel system. The chosen system allowed for faster installation and greater dimensional tolerance, which allowed the product to be ordered prior to the completion of the superstructure. The resultant schedule savings allowed the time necessary to perfect the custom patinization of the individual copper planks. In this instance, what was good for the schedule was also good for the design.
At UTM, the traditional design build method was modified into what is best referred to as an ‘integrated’ design build (IDB) where client, builder and design consultants developed the design together, working towards mutually established goals. With the right team, IDB also offers substantial advantages over the design bid build delivery method. When the contractual barriers that separate designers and builder are removed, the energy that is usually expended on trying to enforce the conditions of the contract documents can be directed towards the best interests of the project. By harnessing the power of collaboration, the IDB model can achieve more in less time without sacrificing the owner’s needs or architectural intent.