By Col. Miroslav Kurka, P.E., PMP, F.SAME, USA (Ret.)  

While design-build is regularly used for military construction projects executed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), less common is its application for Civil Works. However, the usage is increasing because delays in budget approvals are in turn delaying budget allotments to districts to later in the fiscal year. Design-build allows districts to obligate the entire design plus construction funding under one award, a more effective way to meet year-end requirements with very late appropriations.

The biggest values of design-build can be saved time in procurement and a potential for value engineering review and project phasing. Additional benefits include a “turn-key” construction process, especially when USACE’s internal engineering and contracting resources are overstretched.

Differences and Similarities

To date, Mead & Hunt’s design-build experience leans heavily toward food and beverage development projects and transportation infrastructure. Although our involvement with USACE on design-build is more recent, some key differences between the approach in the commercial sector and the USACE process have emerged very quickly.

First, USACE design-build requests for-proposal are generally much more prescriptive than those for non-governmental clients.

Generally, USACE does not authorize construction until 100 percent of the design is approved and a USACE design build project generally requires multiple design reviews, often at 65 percent, 95 percent, and 100 percent. Its designs must meet the requirements of all applicable USACE engineering manuals, regulations, and technical letters. And it may require an independent technical review or peer review of the design relative to project size.

Military Construction. Mead & Hunt first completed a design-build contract for a fire station at Fort Polk, La. USACE Fort Worth District and the base were very satisfied with the final design and construction, deeming the project a success. Still, the architecture-engineer team learned much through the experience. First, the ability to reduce design fees in USACE design-build is limited because the agency generally cannot accept a reduction in the number and detail of drawings, nor do they allow time saving by overlapping design and construction phases.

Communication among the end-user, contracting officer, builder and designer requires extra attention and effort. Furthermore, to fully realize the benefits of design-build and be profitable requires a design team that has solid experience with the builder.

Civil Works. In 2015, Mead & Hunt tackled a Civil Works project as the design-build team engineer for the design and replacement of two tractor gates (one flood and one emergency) out of the six sets at Denison Dam, which was first built in 1943.

Alltech Engineering out of Minnesota, which had replaced three previous sets of gates, was the chosen contractor. Alltech selected Steel-fab Inc. for gate fabrication because it had fabricated the previous gates. Analysis for fatigue and fracture according to the USACE Engineer Technical Letter 1110-2-584, Design of Hydraulic Steel Structures, was essential. This manual contains extensive requirements for evaluating and documenting fracture critical members of hydraulic steel structures. This design also required a peer review by another district.

Denison Dam, located on the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma.


Comparing Lessons Learned

The Denison Dam project reinforced the lessons learned at Fort Polk with a few additions specific to Civil Works design.

  • Design-build for Civil Works projects is less common than Military Construction and requires different qualifications. Therefore, most architecture-engineering firms cannot have a dedicated Civil Works design-build team, or use their Military Construction design-build team to complete a Civil Works design.
  • Civil Works designs for dam safety or flood control receive extra scrutiny.
  • Peer review by another district or one of the USACE Centers of Expertise may be necessary depending on the project size and type.
  • The ability to save costs using standard components is limited because every project is unique.
  • USACE districts often require an extensive design report together with plans and specifications to fully document all modifications to their projects.

Beneficial Outcomes

The benefits of design-build can still outweigh potential challenges. Funding design and construction under one awarded contract expedites projects receiving late appropriations. Having a “turn-key” construction process, especially when internal engineering and contracting resources are overstretched, is another benefit to USACE.

Finally, simultaneous work by the designer and contractor throughout improves the value and constructability of the design. It can also assist in resolving issues during construction.

Proposal Through Execution

Meeting the objectives of USACE Military Construction and Civil Works design-build projects is challenging. But the right recommendations during the proposal and execution phases can help to overcome issues that could imperil a project.

Proposal Phase. The engineer must carefully review the scope of work and all referenced engineering publications together with the construction contractor and fabricator to fully understand the effort required and adequately account for it in the bid price. The contractor, in coordination with the engineer, must submit a request for information to clarify uncertainty about requirements. The engineer must work closely with the construction contractor and fabricator to develop a realistic design, fabrication and construction schedule. The entire design-build project team needs to understand the goals, objectives, timelines and procedures of all approving entities.

Execution Phase. The design-build project manager should hold an in-person kick-off meeting with key design team members (engineer, construction contractor, fabricator) and key district personnel (contracting officer, contracting officer’s representative, technical/project manager, and technical/safety leads) shortly after contract award. During the meeting, the team should review the scope of work to ensure everyone knows the expectations of deliverables, and also review the design and construction schedules to understand USACE submittal review timelines, and determine if the design will be peer reviewed by another district. Additionally, it is important to address communication protocol and requests-for-information.

The design-build project manager should schedule routine (at least bi-weekly) meetings with the design team, construction contractor and fabricator to update status and identify and resolve issues. The project manager should document all correspondence, meetings, and telephone calls with the district. If confronted with a design challenge, they should immediately notify the contracting officer’s representative and schedule a meeting with the district to present the challenge and potential solutions. Above all, the entire design-build team must ensure continued correspondence and cooperation between the designer, the contractor, the contractor’s fabricator and the district.

Successful Project Delivery

Design-build is one of the principle project delivery systems in the construction industry. USACE already uses design-build as its primary procurement method for Military Construction.

As more districts use design-build for Civil Works, successful application of these recommendations will lead to greater instances of excellent project outcomes.

Col. Miroslav Kurka, P.E., PMP, F.SAME, USA (Ret.), is Vice President, Water Resources Group Leader, Mead & Hunt;

[Article first published in the November-December 2018 issue of The Military Engineer]