The design-assist model, if done in a way where scope and responsibility are not clearly communicated and outlined in the project’s initial stages, can blend far too many gray areas across traditional boundaries. Often times, this leads to an unsuccessful experience for one or several of the project team members. Expectations and value are best described by the owner and identified in the format of a contract that is clear and concise.

Contractual risks traditionally flow downhill from owner to designer, owner to contractor, and then on to the subcontractor. Depending on how a project is procured and the quality of the design and construction team members, behaviors that were once desired when the project was awarded may fade under the pressures of actual execution. It is at that point where the contract begins to bend to suit the firm’s needs. How can this be fixed?

If innovation, collaboration, and shared risk is a desired outcome, aligning expectations beyond the honeymoon of a project pursuit can carry through to a successfully completed project. The idea of design- assist can be done well, but it is best to do so intentionally and from the onset of a project. When you have the right people doing the right things at the right time, it produces a positive outcome.

The most successful project teams, regardless of the delivery method, rely on all team members working toward the same goal. Open conversations – whether it is safety, quality, client satisfaction, or the ability to make a fair profit – might come more naturally in an integrated project delivery (IPD) or design-build setting due to contractual drivers. Design-assist models inherently shift risk, whether intentional or not, and forces the drivers of each team to align closer to traditional design-bid-build behaviors. Rather than all team members rolling up their sleeves and working side-by-side to find the right solution, each team retreats in an effort to protect their interests and minimize the risks. In the end, the owner pays for lack of teamwork in the form of a compromised design, extended schedule, reduced quality, lengthy entitlement discussions, or budget overruns.

Ultimately, the more design-assist contracts are closer aligned to what is seen in integrated project delivery or design-build, the better. In order to influence the future of design-assist models, team members (general contractor, architects, engineers, subcontractors) need to fully develop and assign the scope, responsibilities, and risks. Contracts should be aligned so that fixed relationships between all team members exist and the owner should be encouraged to allow the design-assist team to operate in a performance-based/contracting arrangement. This allows the team to not be hindered by a prescriptive program. Finally, it’s encouraged to explore the guaranteed maximum price or shared saving contract with team members. By incentivizing team work, collaboration, and establishing honest communication early on, design-assist can be an effective model for any project.


  • Mike Miller

    Mid-Atlantic Division Leader

    As Southland's Mid-Atlantic Division Leader, Mr. Miller is responsible for the overall performance of the division, ranging from project selection through construction completion. His expertise lies in design-build delivery across a diverse group of market segments and he remains an advocate for the early formation of integrated project teams. After joining Southland in 1996 as a project engineer in Southern California, he moved to the Southwest Division where he was promoted to project manager. In 1999, he spearheaded the opening of a new regional office in the San Francisco Bay Area as division manager, then moved to Southland's Mid-Atlantic Division two years later to serve as project executive for the historic renovation of the Pentagon. Since joining the Mid-Atlantic Division, Mr. Miller also served as operations manager before his appointment to division leader in 2009. By focusing on true integrated design-build project delivery and lean construction methods, Mr. Miller has helped guide several of the company's divisions to success throughout his 16 years of design-build mechanical engineering and construction experience. He has not only been a part of the management team on several of Southland's largest and most challenging projects, but also assisted in the continued growth of his division. Mr. Miller received a bachelor's degree in architectural engineering from Penn State University. He is actively involved in the Partnership for Achieving Construction Excellence (PACE), an industry-university alliance focused on education, research and interaction, and is an active member of the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA). He has also served as president for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA). Mr. Miller has served on Southland's Board of Directors since 2011.

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