Alternative project delivery is all about R&R—resourcefulness and repetition

November 25, 2019 Robert Lemke

The right design team—with the proper experience—can help deliver on complicated, pricey projects

 

From major highway projects to student housing at college campuses to water/wastewater facilities, alternative project delivery (APD) is frequently becoming the go-to method. What’s the key to successfully delivering and overseeing APD projects? Some good R&R. No, not rest and relaxation, but resourcefulness and repetition.

Alternative delivery projects are known for being challenging and complex, typically led by very large contractors, and supported by experienced design firms and specialty subconsultants. After more than 13 years of traveling across the US and Canada to work on APDs worth hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in value, I’ve found the “secret” to producing a quality set of construction documents and delivering them on-time and within budget is not as difficult as it may seem.

All it takes is resourcefulness and repetition. But developing that R&R, that’s the challenge—and the fun. When people think of alternative delivery projects, usually they immediately think of humongous projects, which cost a gazillion dollars to design and build. There are several alternative project delivery methods, but the most common are:

  • construction manager/general contractor (CM/GC)
  • design-build (DB)
  • progressive design-build (PDB)
  • design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM)
  • design-build-finance (DBF)
  • design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM)

Regardless of the project size and delivery method, what it really comes down to from a design perspective is having the right team behind you that you can trust to do the work. This is key to any successful project. For alternative delivery projects, that trust must be on-point, all the time. I’ve worked on 12 alternative delivery projects over the course of my career, including wins, losses, and proposals. If you don’t have your “A-Team” working on these projects, or at least in charge of every discipline for that project, then you will most likely have some serious issues.

 

From major highway projects to student housing at college campuses to water/wastewater facilities, alternative project delivery (APD) is frequently becoming the go-to method. 

 

What role does resourcefulness play?

Naturally, there are many definitions for resourcefulness. For me, it’s the ability to figure out how to produce a quality set of construction documents that meet the scope, schedule, and budget requirements of the project by all means possible with the expertise I have at my disposal. That applies to all projects. Having said that, alternative delivery projects take a special kind of collaboration and communication. For that to work, it’s not just picking people with the required registrations and licenses.

When I am putting together a large alternative delivery team, I am looking back through my own personal network, through past project teams, and reaching out to people I trust in order to find good teammates first. Then, I look for good subconsultants who fit the mold. Alternative delivery projects are meant to be led by seasoned staff, not those individuals just beginning to learn their trade. You need staff who can hit the ground running, work under pressure with tight schedules, and who understand that quality control and quality assurance are not just words in the dictionary.  

Sometimes, it means building bench depth for large projects. It may require making the right hires with the necessary DB experience to add value, complement, and lead already knowledgeable local staff. It’s a twist on the adage—you have to spend money to make money; you have to hire the right people to do the big jobs. It allows teams with local, regional, or statewide experience to be augmented with the right design professionals with the critical DB/APD experience. 

In the end, the list of candidates to join your alternative delivery pursuit team gets narrowed down quickly based on skillsets, office location, and willingness to commit to the project schedule demands. This is all critical because a change in project team staffing—or a change on the client side—can easily take a project off track. It’s important to keep the group that starts the project through to completion. In fact, some clients are now looking at penalizing or disqualifying teams for staff changes in key positions. Therefore, it is even more imperative to maintain a consistent project team until the end of the design to ensure successful project delivery.

 

The list of candidates to join your alternative delivery pursuit team gets narrowed down quickly based on skillsets, office location, and willingness to commit to the project schedule demands. 

 

What role does repetition play?

Well, 13 years and many alternative delivery projects later, I’ve found that repeatedly working on these types of projects is the only tangible way to continually improve the processes needed for the timely delivery of a quality set of construction documents.

_q_tweetable:Regardless of the project size and delivery method, what it really comes down to from a design perspective is having the right team behind you that you can trust to do the work._q_

My first alternative delivery pursuit was in 2006 when projects where typically delivered using the traditional design-bid-build model. I was working on the pursuit of the IH 635 Managed Lanes project in Dallas, Texas, that would convert a portion of the existing IH 635 from a 10-lane facility to an 18-lane facility. This was the first time I was traveling on a weekly basis to perform design coordination and value engineering, with many hours spent developing alternative technical concepts (ATCs).

Since it was my first alternative delivery project, I had a much smaller knowledge base and zero project pursuits worth multi-hundred-million-dollars. The goal of ATCs is to develop a solution that is equal to or better than the client’s requirements that further improves operations, constructability, and lowers costs. Since my personal experience did not yet include past projects, past successes, and past failures of other large-scale projects, it took more work to pull together innovative and creative concepts.

However, with each project you complete, you’re able to pull lessons-learned into the next project you work on. What worked (and didn’t work) for roadway, drainage, traffic, environmental, and structure concepts developed for the IH 635 are now part of my catalog of experience, which I can use on any future projects. This concept applies not just to technical work, but to management processes as well. Experience and communication are key to keeping a project moving ahead. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s critical to be clear on approvals and expectations at the beginning of the project. While it sounds like common sense, the simple truth is this: pay attention to the similarities and differences between your projects.

This happened several years later when working on an express lanes project in Florida. One of our challenges was developing an ATC for a braided ramp concept using concrete or steel girders. I was able to reach into my back pocket and pull details from the IH 635 project in Dallas—which had a similar conceptual design—and share ideas for this Florida project, saving time and money. That experience—or repetition—was incredibly valuable. I can’t tell you the number of times it’s saved other projects I’ve worked on.

 

The South Fraser Perimeter in British Columbia.

 

Enjoying some R&R

When it comes to delivering huge—and costly—projects via various alternate project delivery methods, having the right team boils down to resourcefulness and repetition. Creating the right project team, with the right consultants and contractors, is fundamental to the success of any alternative delivery project.

Working on these projects has been a major part of my career and taken me across North America. I look back fondly at all my previous projects and can’t wait to get started on the next one. Just remember: to increase your success in delivering an alternative delivery project, you really need some good R&R.

About the Author

Robert Lemke

For Robert Lemke, managing large alternative delivery projects is much like coaching a competitive sports team. With more than a decade of experience in both, Rob’s an expert on pulling the appropriate people into positions that lead to successfully delivered projects and big-game wins.

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