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A controversy has erupted about the structural safety of a recently completed elementary school.  The core of the issue appears to be that the standard normally applied to non-critical structures (such as outbuildings) was used for the school building. The difference in what was actually designed and built may be significant, resulting in the possibility that the school may not adequately resist unusual circumstances such as minor earthquakes or extreme windstorms.

A newspaper article focused on the “series of errors” that could lead to a project getting all the way to completion without flaws being discovered.  While that is an appropriate line of investigation, it overlooks a fundamental question regarding the method of project delivery used for the building.  That method was “Design/Build,” which in this case was a single company providing the design and construction services needed to complete the project.  Structural engineering was also provided by this single company.

There are advantages to the Design/Build process when the Designer and Contractor are two separate entities, rather than a single firm. The Design/Build process, when provided by a single company, theoretically allows increased efficiencies through a closer integration of design and production.  However, it is my opinion that Design/Build that is provided by one entity has a significant liability.

That liability is the loss of checks and balances. In traditional project delivery, design and construction are provided by two separate entities and each has a contract directly with the Client. As a result, each party has the right and the responsibility to communicate openly and fully with the Client.  The two halves of the project – Design and Construction – watch each other and can help to prevent excesses, or critical omissions, on the part of the other.  Those experienced with a more traditional construction process can attest that such a method is not always smooth, but it does result in the client being informed and involved throughout.  When a Design/Build team composed of two separate companies provides services on a building project, many of the traditional checks and balances still remain in place.

We will all watch anxiously as this unfolds.  We all hope the taxpayers and their students suffer no harm financially or educationally.  And hopefully the entire design and construction industry will learn how to not repeat similar mistakes in the future.