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Design-build projects at the heart of this issue

Concern grows as Legislature considers public building process

Among many legislative issues concerning architects and engineers this session is a proposed bill that opponents say would result in action no different than “entrusting heart bypass surgery to a nurse.”

Stan Etheridge of Etheridge & Associates in Jackson, a licensed general contractor and registered architect, said the legislative push by the Institutions of Higher Learning that would allow universities to solicit design-build projects and negotiate with a single contractor rather than going through the architectural selection process has been viewed by many architects as a precedence for other publicly funded entities.

“It would be like entrusting heart bypass surgery to a nurse and using the doctor basically to do the cutting,” said Etheridge. “Why would you trust a $4-million building to a general contractor who doesn’t have the educational requirements? An architect goes to school for seven or eight years, interns for a year and endures very stringent examination requirements to become registered. But as a result of this proposed legislation, some larger contractors are promoting themselves as design-build by hiring architecture firms to develop the drawings. Then, the contractors take the lead on the project. That puts architects in the subcontractor role instead of in the role of owner’s representative — making sure the job gets done correctly.”

Rob Farr of Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons/Ltd Architects & Engineers in Jackson and governmental affairs chair for the Mississippi chapter of American Institute of Architects, said the bill would limit design-build campus construction projects to dormitory housing and parking structures and was initiated as “a time-saving issue,” he said.

“Some architects view this legislation as a precedent for other projects,” Etheridge said.

As it is worded, Senate Bill 3177 gives the universities the authority to award construction projects on university campuses without going through the bid process, said Perry Nations, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Mississippi.

“We, of course, are working on language that limits these to privately-funded projects instead of state-funded projects,” Nations said.

In a recent editorial, Robert Ivy, FAIA, wrote that many architects neither understand, nor want to understand, design-build.

“Some say (design-build) works best for repetitive, ‘dumb’ projects like parking garages, or where quality invariably suffers in the face of time or money constraints,” Ivy wrote. “However, statistics show that construction volume employing design-build is rising consistently, and according to the Design-Build Institute, is expected to surpass 50% of all building by 2010.”

One reason: owners are attracted to the simplicity of a single contract with an early fixed cost. A 1997 study by Pennsylvania State University concluded that design-build is 33% faster than traditional design-bid-build. Even though money was generally saved, measuring quality remained problematic.

Etheridge, owner of one of the few design-led, design-build firms in the country and the only one in Mississippi, is one of 10 practicing architects selected to help develop a blueprint of guidelines the American Institute of Architects will adopt. Recommendations will be presented next month in Dallas at NAIA’s annual convention.

“On state and national levels, we’re always looking for solutions,” he said. “For this proposed legislation in Mississippi, a suggestion would be to develop strategic alliances with contractors. Another? To promote architects as leaders of design-build teams.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com, mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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