The Role of Specialty Contractor

The selection of specialty contractors for a design-build project and the process used in defining the role that each specialty will play on a project are some of the most critical decisions owners and design-builders make on a project. If selected carefully and allowed to bring their expertise to the table, specialty contractors can greatly benefit the outcome of a project, favorably impacting its budget, schedule and quality. The importance of the selection process and role that the specialty fills on a building project is outlined in DBIA’s Design-Build Manual of Practice Document Number 309: “Selecting Specialty Contractors.”

The role of the specialty contractor in design-build can take many forms, depending on the project, the owner, the primary design-builder and the contract arrangements. Working on a design-build project, the structural steel specialty contractor--the steel fabricator—may act as the design-build entity for the design, detailing, fabrication and erection of the project’s framing system. A steel fabricator may have engineering design capabilities in-house or it may enter a contractual relationship with a structural In many instances, the architect or another member of the primary design-build team may prefer a more traditional arrangement known as “design assist.” Here the structural engineer, as engineer or record, contracts with the architect separately from the steel fabrication team, yet continues to work in close consort with the steel fabricator on the project. The steel fabricator most often contracts with the primary general contractor or design-builder on the project.

Involvement in the early stages of the schematic design phase of a project enables the structural steel specialty contractor to contribute true value engineering services that enhance the project’s design and positively affect the budget and schedule. Whereas in a typical design/bid/build project in today’s construction world, value engineering often occurs late in the construction process as a last-minute cost-cutting measure to force the project to fit the budget.

Early involvement is the common element in most examples of how a structural steel specialty contractor is able to bring increased value to a project. How soon? The early stages of schematic design or even earlier are the optimum times, according to studies and specialty contractors themselves. A 1996 Construction Industry Institute study in conjunction with Penn State University of 351 projects showed that including the specialty contractor before design is 20% complete often resulted in improvements to cost, schedule and quality. A 2001 survey of 70 contractors and their experiences with specialty contractors by a Penn State architectural student found that in projects contractors rated as “excellent” the specialty contactor was engaged when the design was between 15% and 45% complete.

Whether serving as the structural design-builder or in a design-assist capacity, the structural specialty contractor’s involvement in the schematic phase and throughout the design process can result in myriad benefits for building project, including assistance with budget development, policing of the project scope and early procurement of structural steel to combat volatility in steel sourcing and delivery. Policing a project’s scope means that the structural specialty contractor can immediately address the impact of any changes in scope as to price and schedule immediately, leaving it up to the owner at the table to approve the change. The presence of an owner representative in the design meetings is essential to any design-build project or the project will be at risk of being compromised in terms of cost and schedule. Communication early in the process and often also increases trust and reduces risk.

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