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AEC Seminar Focuses on Change

Engineering and construction project
Delivering significant engineering and construction projects on time, within budget, and in an efficient and collegial manner in an era of economic uncertainty was one of the primary topics discussed at a recent seminar attended by engineers, builders, and lawyers. © Kevin Burke/Corbis/AP Images 

A recent seminar focused on how engineers and builders can better serve clients by improving project delivery, performance-based designs, and dispute resolution. 

January 31, 2012—As the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professions begin to crawl back from the most significant economic downturn in recent memory, the pressure to deliver projects as efficiently as possible, within tight budgets and deadlines, is driving many to reconsider their own internal approaches to such functions as project delivery, performance-based design, and dispute prevention and resolution. Owners expect all segments of the market to do more with less, carefully managing risks and balancing the tradeoffs between price, quality, and timeliness.

It was with this in mind that the national engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Inc. (SGH), based in Waltham, Massachusetts, recently conducted a broad industry seminar on such topics attended by representatives of all branches of the AEC industry as well as the legal profession. The January 18 seminar, “Rising from the Economic Ashes: A/E/C After the Great Recession,” explored ways in which the AEC industry can better deliver services to clients in the challenging post-recession economy. The seminar focused on three specific topics: improving the delivery of building and infrastructure projects; improving performance-driven design and construction practices; and developing better dispute-avoidance and resolution strategies. The conclusion reached by these experts was that while AEC firms may not be able to change the economic realities in which they operate, they do have the power to change their internal and external processes with an eye toward improved efficiency, and this will result in more thoroughly serving their clients’ needs and continuing to succeed in the midst of today’s challenging economic climate.

“There are things that we can’t change,” says Brent Gabby, P.E., a senior principal in the Waltham office of SGH and one of the seminar’s presenters. “But if we have the ability to change some things, such as internal, integrated product-delivery methods and ways of delivering value and efficiencies to our work, then let’s do it in a very smart way. We want to have these conversations just to understand where we are going.”

The first presentation of the conference, “Setting the Stage for Success at the Contract Phase,” was presented by Kenneth Rubinstein, a director in the law firm of Preti Flaherty, which has offices throughout New England, and Paul Milligan, a senior construction attorney with the Boston and Manchester law firm Nelson Kinder + Mosseau PC. Rubinstein and Milligan addressed alternative project delivery methods to design/bid/build—including design/build and integrated project delivery (IPD)—for bridges, buildings, and infrastructure. “The question is can we build a better mousetrap,” says Gabby. The implications of such alternative project delivery models, and ways to select the most productive ones for different types of projects, were discussed. The experts concluded that success in project delivery may involve implementing some of the basic building and design techniques that have worked for ages, Gabby says. “We discussed ways to make sure we design and construct buildings with tried-and-true methods as well as using technologies available to provide a more efficient process.”

This presentation included a debate on whether IPD is too high-risk for all parties involved, and whether design/bid/build will be phased out by alternative methods. “Nobody thought there would be a huge chance of that,” Gabby says, “but things are moving toward more team-building,” with the owner, contractors, and architects collocating on-site “regardless of the delivery method.”

The presenters concluded that adopting appropriate and fair contract provisions is the critical next step in the evolution of all delivery methods, because this can discourage disputes and encourage partnerships.

Gabby presented “Increasing the Probability of Success Through Improved Practices,” the second presentation of the day, which focused on result-driven practices, including peer reviews, preconstruction mock-ups, quality-control testing, and performance commissioning. The presentation recommended incorporating these tasks into project schedules from the start in an effort to reduce costs, call-backs, and defects.

“Thinking Creatively to Bring Feuding Parties Back Together” was the final presentation of the day, and it focused on dispute resolution. Presenters Kurt Dettman, a principal of Constructive Dispute Resolutions, a consulting firm in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Catherine Shanks, an independent alternative dispute resolution professional based in Boston, discussed the profession’s best practices for reducing construction disputes at the lowest cost. Dispute avoidance mechanisms were explored, including risk allocation, collaborative project management principles, shared risk/reward systems, claims-prevention reviews, and effective partnering. Gabby points out the importance of conflict resolution techniques for avoiding a resolution by jury trial. “[In a jury trial] you have no control over the outcome because the case goes to people who often times don’t understand construction,” he notes. This presentation also covered techniques to contain costs and minimize delays through post-claim project management and approaches to third-party dispute resolution.

The seminar’s experts concluded that the AEC profession is entering a time of significant change. Gabby says that the period of time from the “mini-recession of 2001” until the more significant recession in 2008 “should not be considered the golden years of construction.”

“Everything was booming, and AEC [firms] were doubling and tripling the size of their companies during that time,” he says. “But we can’t forget that explosive growth was based on a false economy. Moving forward, we are not going to have that exponential growth, but we are going to have some growth.” And now is the time to plan for that growth, the panelists concluded. “If we are going to grow our industry, we have things that we can change to make it more efficient moving forward,” Gabby says.



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