Designing an infrastructure project is so complex, involving so many moving parts – literal and figurative – that it requires excellent organizational skills to carry it out well. How can a designer ensure that their project will deliver to everyone’s satisfaction, from engineers to contractors to owners to users?

A new course from ASCE Continuing Education provides the tools to help designers, managers, engineers of record, construction engineers and administrators, and others effectively manage design-phase project management tools, techniques, procedures, and practices.

Design Project Management” is being taught by Nils J. Gransberg, Ph.D., AC, A.M.ASCE, vice president of Gransberg & Associates Inc., a construction management and project delivery consulting firm based in Norman, Oklahoma. Gransberg also teaches engineering professional development and project management courses as an adjunct in the University of Oklahoma’s College of Engineering.

The course is featured as part of the ASCE Week program, Sept. 25-30, in Las Vegas.

Civil Engineering Source spoke with Gransberg about the importance of design project management to engineers and what attendees will learn from the course.

Source: What inspired you to develop and teach a course in design project management? What in your background has made you skilled at it?

Nils Gransberg: I have wanted to develop and deliver a course like this for several years. Having worked as a public agency owner's representative, I observed an interesting inclination to conduct hard negotiations with design professionals in order to reduce their fees on capital projects to below an arbitrary percentage rate.

However, on several of these projects, we experienced significant challenges from errors and omissions, large volumes of RFIs, difficulty in getting our design consultants to visit project sites after the first few months of construction, and consistently seeing the engineers and architects who had led design efforts being reassigned to other projects within their firms only to be replaced by inexperienced or marginally competent staff.

Research has shown that investing in the preconstruction/design phase has a direct impact on improving cost and schedule certainty as well as reducing scope growth due to change orders resulting from design errors. The “business as usual” approach to managing the design phase is increasingly inadequate as we see large, complex projects delivered with alternative delivery methods (CM/GC, DB, P3, etc.) that require a greater level of integration to be successful. 

Source: Do you believe there are design project management challenges in the industry, and if so, what are they? Do you see this course as helping to serve as a solution?

Gransberg: Absolutely, there are all sorts of challenges we face in managing the design phase of projects, but two primary recurring issues come to mind.

First, a common challenge stems from insufficient hours in design services agreements. We rely on our engineers to stay engaged during construction to answer questions, conduct site visits and inspections, issue directives, document construction progress, review pay applications, etc. When a designer uses the majority of their billable hours during the design phase design, it is exceedingly challenging to staff projects during construction with a subsequent contract modification.

Secondly, the timeliness of completing design activities directly impacts the construction schedule, especially in alternatively delivered projects that have aggressive schedule requirements. A week’s delay to the design process translates to a week’s delay to the construction schedule that may trigger the need to accelerate the construction schedule, increasing the cost of the work or causing a dispute between the owner and the general contractor stemming from a claim.

This course provides attendees with a variety of management tools and techniques to address these kinds of challenges proactively so that we can improve overall project performance and achieve our cost, schedule, and quality objectives.

Source: What is the most challenging element of design project management? How does your course tackle that and explain it?

Gransberg: Personally, I believe that the most challenging element of managing the design is cultural and perceptional. This stems from more than a century of separating design expertise from construction expertise, developing projects in a linear fashion (design, procure, build), and stereotypes of each party on the project team (owner, designer, contractor).

These preconceptions can challenge our ability to effectively assign risk, integrate contractor provided preconstruction services into the design effort, and understanding the skills and potential each party brings to the table as well as their underlying motivations that influence decision making.  The second module of this course is focused specifically on articulating the roles, responsibilities, and relationships of project team members, their unique motivations, and how to clearly communicate expectations, project objectives, and collaboration/integration between each party.

Design Project Management” will be held Sept. 26 and 27 as one of the courses taught during ASCE Week in Las Vegas. Get details on ASCE Week.