December 1, 2009

Collaboration Makes Better Projects


Winter 2009

In August, attendees of the AGC Summer Convention in Sunriver participated in a series of discussions about collaboration and communication on construction projects.

The program began with a tongue-in-cheek example of a typical project gone bad, in the form of a short film in which AGC's own Todd Hess played the contractor and the architect. Both characters expressed their frustration and disappointment with failed communications, though neither person recognized or acknowledged his own responsibility for the breakdowns that doomed the project. While played for laughs, the film made it clear that too many construction projects suffer from poor communication.

The discussion panels that followed, made up of real design professionals and construction contractors, presented a different view — that collaboration is possible and can be a key to success. Larry Gescher of Slayden Construction Group, Scott Williams of Hamilton Construction, and Larry Fox of OBEC Consulting Engineers discussed the development of the Willamette River Bridge replacement project in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon Department of Transportation's largest single bridge project and its first experience with a general contractor acting as construction manager (CM/GC). Steve Anderson of P&C Construction and Jon Anderson of Anderson Dabrowski Architects discussed their relationship in the design-build development and construction of Columbia Memorial Hospital Health and Wellness Pavilion in Astoria, in which the construction contractor was responsible for obtaining and coordinating the project design.

Both projects are large and complex. Each participant came with its own objectives. OBEC wanted to design a signature project for its own community. Slayden and Hamilton sought to provide ODOT with a successful first experience with CM/GC contracting. P&C wanted to build a good building for a profit — without callbacks. Anderson Dabrowski wanted to introduce the owner to design-build construction, develop a good client, and build a community icon. Presumably the architect and builder in the film would have had similar objectives, but unlike the panelists, they did not see the advantages that collaboration could present.

The most striking theme running through the discussions was the mutual respect and trust the panelists afforded one another — respect for the skills, abilities, and efforts of the other participants and trust derived from knowing that those resources would be applied to advance their common interests. Trust allowed them to ask another for help and respect led them to listen.

Trust was absent in the film portrayal. When the architect couldn't resolve a design detail, he communicated the problem to the contractor in the form of a note buried in a set of construction drawings. The contractor, recognizing the problem from the beginning, communicated his concern by burying a note in a (very large) stack of information requests. Neither was willing to recruit the other's help, and each left the problem to be discovered and resolved by the other; thus the problem grew and impacted the project.

On the Willamette River Bridge project, the engineers relied on the contractor's expertise in scheduling and sequencing complex structural systems over protected waterways and found that the contractors were valuable allies in managing the owner's and community's expectations about the project. The contractor relied on the engineers to provide accurate information and develop design alternatives that would accommodate aggressive schedule requirements. On the Health and Wellness Pavilion, the contractor relied on the architect to understand the owner's larger objectives and trusted the architect to moderate the expectations of its sophisticated and often opinionated client.

On both projects, the design professionals and contractors had to make a commitment to collaboration and found it challenging to ensure that their commitment was carried throughout the ranks of their organizations. Construction employees are in the habit of ascribing responsibility for all project woes to the designers. Design professional staffs are not accustomed to asking the contractor for help. These habits are hard to break, but the benefits are worth the effort. Larry Fox provided an example of the benefits. When asked, "How does collaboration with a contractor benefit a project?" He replied, "It makes for better engineers."

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