So do all building contractors produce the same results? They might appear to be the same, talk the same language, and yet there are vast differences between their approaches to a project. Contractors do not all have the same experience, spend the same time researching, or produce the same results. So what do you look for in a contractor?
Let’s take a different approach and compare a fire station to a contractor. We’re not talking about saving lives and protecting property; we’re simply talking about third-party perception.
All fire stations are the same. Would you agree with that statement? If you’re a layman, the answer might be yes. If you’re a fire fighter or EMS technician, you’ll beg to differ. They appear to have similar fire or EMS trucks, fire fighters and/or medical technicians, buildings with overhead doors, etc. How they get from the fire/EMS station to an emergency is the same: They turn on the siren, drive slightly faster than normal, and arrive at the scene in the same fashion. Even the fire fighting personnel is the same: They wear the same turnout gear and fire helmet. Does the public know the difference between a paid or volunteer station? Operations are the same; however career firefighters are at the station when calls come in. Volunteers may meet at the station or go directly to the emergency.
If you look past the pretty trucks, you’d discover the equipment for each fire/EMS station is specific to the typical emergencies in that district. Personnel are all trained, equipped and experienced on different levels, and ISO ratings and response times go hand in hand. Preparedness and the capability of the station, whether paid or volunteer, is the only way to quantify true results.
All contractors are the same. They all drive pick-up trucks, have similar equipment, employ project managers, estimators and superintendents. But are they all alike? Some specialize in bid work, while others are excelling in design and build. Although all contractors have a license to build, not all have the preparedness or capabilities to design. How does this relate to building a new station?
There are two basic methods to designing and/or building or renovating a new station. Whether you’re mandated to bid a project or choose the design build route, the criteria for selection is the same.
The traditional approach is to hire an architect to complete the architectural and engineering design and then place it out to bid to contractors. Multiple contractors will bid on a specific set of plans and compete to obtain the lowest project cost. The architect focuses on design, and the contractor provides separate pricing. Knowing the low bid will be the accepted bid forces contractors to focus on price only, if they want the job.
The other method is to hire an architect and contractor team to work hand in hand with the owner to prepare a set of plans that answer design and cost considerations simultaneously. This is commonly referred as “design build” with everyone accountable to the owner. To take it a step further, a contractor who has a designer on staff is considered a true design builder. This allows for better communication, shorter time frames from design to construction, and ultimately a single source responsible throughout the entire project.
Design build provides the owner with design choices and material selections that have a major impact on the budget.
Let’s start with design choices. You could be shown several fire or EMS stations that are visually very similar and not know if the structures are conventionally built, have a metal infrastructure or are pre-engineered. Perhaps this has no impact on your decision, but it should. An essential facility must remain functional for the public good even in the event of a major disaster, such as a severe earthquake. Understanding how construction methods impact the design is important to the budget. Architectural design elements on the exterior, structural engineering and life safety have tremendous impact from the onset.
A design and build team that identifies the cost of construction throughout the process will produce a functional, practical and economically sound project. The design build method allows the owner to have complete control over the design based on budget requirements and other considerations.
One example of how a single item may impact everything from design to functionality is overhead doors vs. bi-fold in the apparatus bays. Bi-fold doors may look very similar to overhead doors when comparing one station to the next; however there are subtle differences. Architecturally, either one will work; structurally, both have wind loads. However one is live load to a roofing system and the other requires floor preparation. For budget considerations, one is five to six times the cost of the other. And functionally, one may open in three to five seconds while the other takes five to seven seconds. All these considerations need to be defined in the design process.
A builder examining the cost of materials and labor for installation during design provides the owner with sound information. The owner, knowing the impact of cost, can make an informed decision for both budget and functionality. Ultimately, the final decision would be based on balancing the need for cost vs. performance for that station.
The design build method is accomplished by knowing the budget in advance or by creating a budget throughout the process. In either case, you’ll get more bang for your buck when both design and construction are the responsibility of a single supplier. Having a design that meets all requirements including budget allows construction to operate efficiently and effectively.
In summary, getting the most bang for your buck is more than looking at the cost. To bag a trophy, you must do your homework. Consider scope of work, materials and functional requirements. Building your new station relies on experienced team members in the same manner that answering an emergency call requires the right staff and approach to impact the final outcome.