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October 31, 2006 8:01 AM CST

Design-build and Masonry Construction


A worker pumps grout into the cores of concrete masonry units to embed the reinforcement and create strong walls.
A worker pumps grout into the cores of concrete masonry units to embed the reinforcement and create strong walls.

While design-build may be unfamiliar to some people, it’s not a new concept - in fact, it’s quite old. Master builders in ancient Greece used this system to design and construct some of their most monumental structures that are still standing today.

Over time, other delivery systems for construction became common. Today, design-build is not business-as-usual for a majority of North American construction projects, although it is gaining popularity. This article introduces design-build and its benefits, and touches on its potential role for modern masonry construction.

According to the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), the basic idea of design-build - and its biggest claimed advantage - is having one entity with full responsibility for taking a project from concept to completion. Responsibility translates to accountability and brings with it the power to control the whole job, including all the important aspects like cost, schedule and quality. The single-entity approach provides the potential to reduce the owner's administrative burdens.

There are three typical approaches to administrative organization of design-build projects:

  • Integrated design-build firm, where architects, engineers and builders all work for the same company

  • A prime contractor with a subcontractor, where both an architect-engineer (A/E) design firm and a building contractor are involved, but either entity can be the lead

  • A joint venture between an A/E and a contractor
DBIA indicates that design-build has been growing steadily for the past 30 years. Since the mid-90s, it has come on strong, particularly for complex and unusual projects. That said, there is no reason it can’t be used on any type of job. In fact, DBIA estimates that more than 50 percent of non-residential design and construction will be via design-build by the year 2015.

The advantages of design-build apply to most, if not all, types of construction. But masonry construction, in particular, provides a good fit with design-build. Outlined below are several reasons why the two are suited to each other.

Design-build optimizes the teamwork approach. In masonry, there are a number of different specialists working on any given job. For structural masonry, masons lay units and mortar, but others may place reinforcement. Where another type of structural backup is used, coordinating masonry infill or veneer work with the other trades can require extensive scheduling. Timing these activities may be better accomplished when there are complementary, rather than competing, forces at work. Design-build is well suited to this coordination, because there is a clear hierarchy and a single person or group with the right knowledge of activities, specifically critical ones.

No Lead Time
A masonry wall can have various craftspeople working on it at any given time.
A masonry wall can have various craftspeople working on it at any given time.

It's been said that masonry follows a slower construction path because it is laid by hand, one piece at a time. Whether this perception of timing is true is a matter of debate, but what can be said is that a majority of masonry walls are made from materials that are in stock and ready for immediate delivery. Design-build, primarily because it allows for the right sharing of knowledge, uses this timing to the advantage of the schedule. No long lead times (for off-site activities) equals early starts, equals faster project completion.

Moderate Building Size
Especially for buildings of a certain size, design-build offers the potential to optimize the masonry construction process to arrive at a time-competitive schedule. Smaller to medium size buildings - single-story "big-box" buildings and structures up to four or five stories tall - are quickly erected with masonry. And the marriage of material with application is a good one. Many of the best attributes of masonry, like fire resistance, thermal mass and acoustic privacy, are captured for these types of buildings, such as hotels, theaters, commercial retailers and multi-family housing, such as apartments or dorms.

More Control, Better Results
According to Jim Rende, AIA, of Alternative Energy Design Inc., he has achieved better results when going the design-build route. His associate, Cooper Kessel, AIA, is an architect and licensed contractor in charge of the construction company and oversees the corporation that encompasses both entities. Rende said that architects will have more control over building design when things run smoothly. Getting the architectural and construction components working closely together on all phases of a project allows smooth operations. Ultimately, this leads to good design, and the subcontractors seem to take more pride in their work when they are producing a well-designed project.

About the Author

Jamie Farny is the Program Manager of Masonry and Special Products for the Portland Cement Association, coordinating research and promotion activities regarding cements for masonry and white cement. He participates on committees on concrete, plastering, mortars, and masonry units of the American Society for Testing and Materials and the American Concrete Institute. He holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright© 2006, Portland Cement Association Originally published in PCA's August 2006 Masonry E-Briefing. All graphics courtesy of Portland Cement Association.


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