Working with a Design-Build Firm on Your First Project

There are a few modern ways to perform the art of building your new fire station.  Currently, the one that has made major waves within the industry is working with a Design-Build firm on a CM@ Risk project or a traditional cost sharing Design-Build project.  


These two ways have more similarities than differences and within either existence it is likely a formality from your board of directors which method is chosen.  All those items being equal, your choice of contractor should be based on experiences of construction for your needs, knowledge of industry trends, department specifics, location to your area, and the unspecified “fit” that the chosen contractor brings to the table.  Not all decisions are easy and not all decisions will be black-and-white within your board of directors, but as most do, a point system to help determine the best fit contractor is a qualifying technique that can be used to help. 

One of the most important times, after the decision process has been made, will be the first client-contractor meeting.  It is similar to a first date where both individuals know what they want out of the relationship and both have a good idea what they bring to the table but breaking through the ice and getting to know one another is vital, before we talk about marriage (money).  Of course, unlike dating, we typically do not have much time to learn about the entire family history before we must get to work and start learning the needs of the client and work within the timeframe of construction.  However, taking the first steps slow will help launch the next three months of design into a high velocity spin cycle. 

The first thing the client must do is know your station and write down your needs.  Every station is different and every station has different wants, wishes, desires and must-haves.  These items need to be documented and those items must be presented to the contractor at an early stage so they are not overlooked during the design phase.  As a builder, it is disheartening to be so close to a design the client likes and discover they have forgone a “weight room for 12 people” or a “Captain’s Lounge.”  While the meetings are taking place, have a secretary for the fire department taking notes to ensure all comments are being documented and have those notes sent out as reminders after the meeting.  This is a common practice for most experienced contractors, but if more than one person is taking notes, the likelihood of missing an element reduces. 

Know Your Timeline

Knowing your timeline is a helpful piece of information when it comes to the speed of build.  Current construction time varies depending on the size, shape, complexity, and location of the project, but the permitting process can take anywhere from 90 to 120 days.  If you are in a more urgent need than most, be prepared to answer questions at a rapid pace and have your building committee prepared to have virtual meetings or last minute “urgent” meetings to discuss the process as it unfolds.  Giving your Design-Build General Contractor the information they need, at the right time, will help accelerate the process and have the least down-time as possible. 

Have a Budget

Have a budget in place when you start the conversations with your general contractor.  Have a range of price in mind based off talking with other stations that have just built in the recent years.  Know that every station is different and all prices are changing at a rapid pace, but have an idea of what you are comfortable paying based off your tax base and income.  One of the worst experiences a General Contractor can have is designing a building that the client loves but can’t afford.  Be ready for suggestions on how to stretch your budget to ensure the “must-haves” are taken care of first, and the “want-tos” follow behind. 

Be Open Minded

Listen to the ideas of your contractor’s past experiences.  Remember, you hired them for a reason and you want their experience to help you move from an idea on a page to a structure you can touch.  They have built stations in the past and they have a portfolio that proves positive results can come through the process.  Allow yourself to take a back seat on design while the professionals orchestrate the floorplan into a fundamental design that flows and works for your needs. 

Visit References

Take trips to completed stations of your Design-Build General Contractor.  Allow them to show you their work and what they have put in place for other clients.  Talk to the clients and consider what changes, likes and dislikes of their station they would recommend.  Work with those ideas to ensure your story is one that is full of excitement and eager anticipation to move into your new home. 

Ask Questions

Last, ask questions during the process.  No question is out of the way and no question should be left unasked at the end of the day or project.  Use this time when you are around your general contractor to understand the process and how all components need to work together.   From drawings, to purchase agreements, to schedules, to construction; all elements need to follow one another, in a straight line, leaning on one another’s proper completion. 

Overall, your knowledge and responsibilities are important during the process of your first build.  For most, one new construction project is all many stations will see in a lifetime.  Remember, try not to rush the process, or get too hasty with your decisions as your choices are there for many years to come.

Goosie Kennedy is a Project Manager for D. R. Reynolds Company, Inc., a Design-Build General Contractor.

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