Why your megaproject needs a design integration manager

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As design-build jobs grow in size and complexity, many need a designated person to facilitate communication between all parties and to ensure the project stays true to the owner’s vision, said panelists at the Design-Build Conference & Expo in Maryland last week. 

That’s where a design integration manager comes in.

“Design-build jobs are getting bigger and bigger by the day it seems like. Teams are huge, managing hundreds if not thousands of activities,” said Sean Gellhaus, associate vice president and national contracting manager at Kansas City, Missouri-based HNTB. “When you have a big team managing lots of activities, communication is critical, because if A, B and C don’t know what X, Y and Z are doing, you’ve got a big problem headed your way.”

A design integration manager keeps the project meshed with design expectations through each step of the building process and proactively mitigates conflict. Usually builder-supplied, they liaise with the design lead and construction manager as well as the owner, and mitigate issues as they arise by breaking down communication silos.

“[The design integration manager is] the glue that holds the entire design-build project together,” said Lori Ann Stevens, vice president and director of technical design with New York City-based Turner Engineering Group, a subsidiary of Turner Construction. “They are there to ensure that the owner’s needs are met, that the architect’s design integrity is preserved and that the estimate remains in that reserved bucket.”

An ideal design integration manager should be an experienced and effective leader, a collaborative decision-maker and a mediator, the panelists said. They should know how projects work, and respect the roles that everyone plays on a project and understand how they work together, said Scott Martin, project director and design-build market lead at Houston-headquartered engineering firm Walter P Moore.

Key responsibilities for this role include overseeing fundamental design direction and confirming the project meets its goals and criteria, establishing design budget “guard rails,” facilitating timely design decision-making, coordinating delivery of design packages and facilitating design and constructability reviews as well as communication between design and construction teams.

Here are five tips from panelists to make design integration management successful.

Build and nurture team trust

It’s important to build a team dynamic early and foster an environment of accountability, said Susan O’Connell, managing principal of higher ed with Los Angeles-based AC Martin, an architecture and planning firm. Getting everyone together during the project pursuit stage is a vital way to build trust — and if that’s not happening, foster it through active listening, team lunches and the like. Ensure everyone understands the scope, the schedule, the budget and the risks up front, O’Connell said.

Know the criteria and client goals

The design integration manager has to deeply understand the project criteria, said Stevens, and clearly lay out who is responsible for what before the pursuit, i.e. construction means and methods, who is managing which consultants and when the consultants get transferred to a trade partner. They need to have probing conversations with the design team to ensure the criteria they’re designing to is correct. 

In a lump sum contract pursuit, it is imperative that someone read all the documents because there’s no mechanism to change a bid once it’s been sent. That’s still important on a progressive design-build job, but there’s more wiggle room: During validations a manager can — and should — challenge project elements or criteria and present better ways of doing them.

Harmonize design integrity with the cost reality

A design manager should identify potential issues as they arise and propose well-researched solutions that still capture the client’s vision, said O’Connell. Construction partners should do best conceptual estimating for a design up front, and if it doesn’t fall in line with the client’s budget, work should stop until the entire team has a solution everyone is happy with.

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