Design Assist: An Asset to Retrofit Construction

Uniting Owners, Contractors, Architects and Vendors Promotes Efficiency

Construction is a collaborative process. A broad mix of contributors—each with his or her own expertise and perspectives—must efficiently work together to bring a building to life. When a project is most successful, the owner, architect, contractor, subcontractors, and vendors find common purpose and work harmoniously to achieve the best results. Challenges, however, can arise when miscommunication and misunderstanding prevail.

Considering the complexity of the design and construction process, it is immensely helpful to make sure all the major players are on the same page during the early stages of a project. A subcontractor can be brought in close to the completion of the design phase, for example, to work directly with the architect, engineer and any construction professionals. Each trade then determines when and where it can step in and subsequently assist the architect and construction team with any element of the project deemed necessary. The overall goal of working in such a manner is to minimize the number of changes, challenges and surprises that can occur across a project’s timeline. This process is known as design assist, a procedure which engages all parties early, maximizes design efficiency and streamlines operations.

BEFORE: Transforming a big box mall into the Decker Center created unique architectural challenges.

“It’s a beautiful system,” says Eric Pros, director of design at DS Architecture in Cleveland. “It gets all the experts around the same table early in the process. The owner, contractor and architect can discuss the big goals of the project. By doing this, [they] can better understand what’s important to the owner and maybe aspects of the project that are less critical or more open to interpretation.”

Delegated Design Assistance

The design assist process enables the architect to benefit from practical expertise, which can help with designing a better structure. Contractors, subcontractors and vendors can provide key insight so the architect can fully understand the practicalities of the construction process and how his or her building will come to life.

“As an architect, I spend a lot of time trying to explain to builders how we want a building to come together,” Pros says. “Having someone that spends most of their time in the field involved in our process can help the design team make smarter, more efficient decisions.

It’s good to realize what you don’t know early, rather than drawing something up, thinking it’s a good solution and then finding out a year later that you had bad information. To know more ahead of time expedites the decision-making process and makes the entire design team more confident in its direction.”

“It’s best to get the right details as early as possible in design in such a way where flexibility remains,” explains Justin Lucas, senior project architect with GMC in Columbia, S.C. “I look for vendors that can help with delegated design engineering and detailing but also need to stay fair to the marketplace when doing public work. When you work with the vendor who may win the design, you can make the most impactful design decisions that meet the criteria of the project.”

AFTER: By using design assist, the architect was able to use metal panels to break down the scale of the former big box mall, add character to the facility and make the Decker Center into true architecture.

The best way to avoid the whole value-engineering conversation is to right-size the design from the beginning and build practical, reasonable expectations out of the gates.

“By starting the conversation early with builders and vendors, economies of scale can be used to get more with less,” Pros continues. “Having a resource to assist in decision-making is so helpful. For example, figuring out what kind of framing to use can make a huge impact in budget, and the folks in the field every day have a better sense of what the construction industry is doing.”

Sophisticated IMP Systems and Design Assist

Manufacturers of complex building products and systems often are very willing to assist architects who can, in turn, then take advantage of these resources and ensure the design is efficient and aesthetically sound.

“Delegated assistance from vendors isn’t as important with certain systems, like masonry buildings, but it is very helpful for metal-clad buildings and other multicomponent, layered wall systems,” Lucas explains.

“On a project with insulated metal panels, having the chance to sit down with product reps and installers from the manufacturer during the design process made it possible for us to develop the best details and come up with solutions together before the framing was even up,” Pros says. “Everyone coming together early in the process made the details the design team wanted much easier to accomplish and brought clarity to the details.”

Lucas has also found design assist to be helpful on projects using IMPs.

Delegated assistance from vendors, like CENTRIA, is helpful for metal-clad buildings, like the renovation of Fannie Emanuel Apartments, a low-income senior housing facility in Chicago.

“There are limitations to the lengths that panels can be mitered and this information varies per manufacturer,” he says. “That can change a design if it is not correct the first time. The lines need to be right, and the pattern needs to fit the length of the wall. The panels can only return a certain length and it is usually shorter than a designer thinks it can be. We can guess on clip spacing and show a diagrammatic representation of steel support locations but it is much better if the manufacturer can indicate them. Also, if you transition from horizontal to vertical panels in the same plane or wall, it is best to get help to detail this properly.”

“For us, working early in the process with the metal panel subcontractors helped make the installation process a breeze,” Pros says. “Once the insulated metal panels had been ordered, they arrived onsite and installed with ease.”

Fit for Retrofit

Design assist is also an effective method for retrofit projects, which require working with the physical constraints of an existing structure. This means that it is even more important for all trades to have a unified vision and to share appropriate information about products and systems at the early stages.

Bringing in product experts to collaborate, particularly when working with complex systems or tight design constraints, can minimize the amount of miscommunication and stress as the project develops. Pros recalls one scenario during work on a retrofit project where obtaining particular historic tax credits was one of the important goals laid out in early meetings between the design, construction and ownership teams.

“On this building, the state historic preservation office identified windows that were critically significant to the history of that building, so they became very crucial items for the project,” Pros says. “[These officials] weren’t concerned with other elements of the building, like the floors, but those windows had to stay the same. It was important that the builder, owner and architect all understood the windows are critical or historic tax dollars are off the table.”

By working with the window manufacturer in the early stages of this project, the designers were able to arrive at a practical solution that met the historic tax credit requirements and delivered on the owner’s building-performance needs.

The team then was tasked with determining the best way to replicate the aesthetic of the older windows while ensuring the new windows were able to perform to modern energy standards and codes.

By working with the manufacturer in the early stages to solve this problem, the designers were able to arrive at a practical solution that met the historic tax credit requirements and delivered on the owner’s building-performance needs. Had this decision been left for later, or had experts not been consulted, it could have resulted in a great deal of additional expense—and possibly even a loss of the desired tax credits.

 “By discussing challenges early with people with the right expertise, you might discover that they’ve seen this problem before and have already solved it, or they might have creative solutions you wouldn’t have discovered alone,” Pros says.

On many types of projects, design assist can simplify complex construction scenarios and achieve harmony by getting everyone on the same page from the start. This method of working can also generate considerable savings in one of the biggest commodities on any construction project: time.

“Design assist saves time during production,” Lucas says. “You can get a picture of what the dimensional requirements are so you can work around them and incorporate them into your design.”

Pros adds: “For simple projects where there are not complicated processes or materials involved, design assist may not be as important, but when time is a critical element, I think the approach has tremendous added value. There is no gap between the design and construction. It’s just a continuation of the thought.”

About the Author

Allen Barry
Allen Barry writes about architecture and sustainability from Chicago.

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