What Keeps Me Up at Night: Integrated Whole Building Design – Justice Architecture

By Greg Offner

Most folks in our industry are aware it was THE world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright who coined the phrase “organic design” when he espoused the Integrated Design process. Today we use the integrated delivery method philosophy somewhere between regularly, and all the time when programming, planning, designing and constructing secure facilities. Frank was a great, if not the greatest influence on design within our industry. Greatness can be measured by the influence one has on society. A man who passed away more than 60 years ago, still influences our work products. We strive to conform to his very philosophy, that it is the architect’s obligation to assure consistency throughout the project and at every level of detail.

Not the owner, not the builder, but the obligation lies solely with the Architect.

Frank also helped us recognize the relationship between good architecture and the components, engineering, construction, and sustainability. A benefit from the Frank philosophy to this day we continually assess the connection between the parts and the whole of the project design, including the outcome. What sometimes keeps me up at night is the achievement of true integrated delivery requires a consistency of vision and collaboration by all members of a project team. However, when things start to unravel, the industry tends to point the finger at the Architect. As I have grown in my career as a Construction Manager, I continually look to the eyes of the Architect. They are the holder of the vision and are the driver of the collaboration bus. As a professional Construction Manager I am usually in the Architect’s corner.

The Master Builder’s Vision

If one associates the nomenclature of project leadership with the term “Master Builder” then I suggest the accountability for the success of a project is dependent on the entire project team who ultimately share the obligation with the Architect yet are dependent on the Architect to be the leader, aka, Master Builder! One of the Master Builders compendia of knowledge comes from “The Whole Building Design Guide,” better known as WBDG. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) developed the guide to foster communication and knowledge sharing among clients, practitioners, user groups and academia to advance the design and construction of high performing facilities. There is a gateway to information on integrated whole building design technology and it can be found at www.wbdg.org . To some it is the primary textbook of design collaboration. Some may find it a nightstand must that can help them cure their insomnia. For me, it is a page turner, and a lot of this article comes from the knowledge I gained from its use and how its study fostered my understanding of the Integrated Whole Building process.

The goal of the whole building, integrated design is to create a successful high-performance building using the skills of a high-performance team. That is the primary vision of most every project, regardless of size or complexity. Applying an integrated design and team approach to a project during the planning and programming phase is the first step. Buildings can be deceptively complex in that the form provides us with connections to the built environment around us and their function provides us with shelter, productive workplaces, rooms for learning and in our market sector, safety, security and treatment. The design of buildings requires the integration of many kinds of information into an orchestrated symphony of design and engineering and as stated above, the building process can be deceptively complex. The process doesn’t have to be.

The Process in Simple Terms

As a Certified Construction Manager, I can assure you that leadership is the single most important key to a successful project. Very few in our industry possess the knowledge and fortitude to be a Master Builder, particularly on a mega-project. Many times, the best leadership comes from a licensed, Professional Architect. An integrated process includes the active and continuing participation of users, code officials, building technologists, cost consultants, civil engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, structural engineers, specifications specialists, and consultants from many specialized fields. It can be like keeping the dog off the bed at night trying to collaborate and coordinate with these specialists. The best buildings result from active, consistent, organized collaboration among all players, and I believe this is best orchestrated by an Architect, aka, Master Builder.

The first step is to prepare a leadership team lead by a Master Builder. A project can be led collegially by several stakeholders, but I believe an industry “Best Practice” is to have such initiatives led by one individual. Each member of the team has a role and responsibility. For example, the role of the user/client is to identify the need for building based on quantifiable requirements for space and their responsibility is to ensure the project has the land and budgetary capacity to meet the need. The Master Builder will assign a team member with developing a needs assessment along with planning activities. The needs assessment can describe existing space use, estimate realistic spatial and technical requirements, and arrive at a space program around which a budget can be established, and a programmatic design concept can take shape. For larger or long-term projects, a professional construction manager or an owner’s representative may be engaged at this point; it may also be appropriate to produce a master plan that places individual design activities in context. Regardless of a project’s scope, you will sleep better if you have done your research and programming first. This task is the most crucial first step in developing a successful design.

No later than the completion of these tasks should the client engage a design firm or other prime consultant. Note, the Master Builder should not be the design architect of record. Rather, the Master Builder should be a registered Architect in the location where the project is taking place. For a design firm, the criteria for selection may include a client’s affinity for a specific architectural language, the provider’s experience with the building type, or the provider’s responsiveness to a site or the user itself. With sustainability and operational efficiencies as a project absolute, some clients assess potential architects for their ability to marry historic or newly conceived building forms to performance, or to achieve innovation more generally aligned with their current operations. Perhaps the best barometer for assessing a Design Firm is their capability to deliver projects on time and on budget.

In consultation with a team of subconsultants, the Design Firm or prime consultant establishes core design principles as well as some alternative conceptual approaches to the client’s needs. The design team also may produce initial graphic suggestions for the project or portions of it such as elevations and perspectives. Such suggestions are meant to stimulate thought and discussion, not necessarily to describe a final outcome. Note the importance of the team format at this stage: Involvement of sub-consultants is critical, as their individual insights can prevent costly changes further along in the process. The same idea also justifies early and frequent collaboration between the design team and the client, users, or other stakeholders.

From Concepts to Construction

Under the direction of the Master Builder, gradually a design emerges that embodies the interests and requirements of all participants, while also meeting overall area requirements and budgetary parameters. At this stage, schematic designs are produced. They show site location and organization, general building shape, space allocation, and an outline of components and systems to be designed and/or specified for the final result. Depending on the size of the project, it is often useful to have a cost estimate performed by a professional cost estimator at this point. For smaller projects, one or more possible builders may perform this service as part of a preliminary bidding arrangement. On larger projects, a cost estimate can be part of a multi-stage selection process for a builder, assuming other prerequisites like bonding capacity, experience with building type, and satisfactory references are met.

Design Development enlarges the scale of consideration-greater detail is developed for all aspects of the building-and the collaborative process continues with the architect facilitating the various contributors. The conclusion of this phase is a detailed design on which all players agree and may be asked to sign off.

The Development of Contract Documents involves translating the Design Development information into formats suitable for pricing, permitting, and construction. This is the best time for an owner or user group to let the team progress the design without owner driven changes. No set of contract documents can ever be perfect, but high quality can be achieved by scrutiny, accountability to the initial program needs, and careful coordination among the technical consultants on the design team. Minor decisions can be made at this stage, but changes in scope will become more expensive once pricing has begun; changes to the contract documents also invite confusion, errors, omissions, duplications all of which bring added costs to the project. Cost estimates by an estimator may be made at this point, prior to or simultaneous with bidding, to assure compliance with the budget and to check the bids. Bids taken at this point may be used as a basis for selecting a builder.

After the bid is awarded, the Construction Phase begins. Yet designers and other members of the team must remain fully involved. Decisions previously made may require clarification, suppliers’ information must be reviewed for compliance with the Contract Documents, and substitution requests must be evaluated. If changes affect the operation of the building, it is especially important to involve the user/client in their review. User requirements may change, too, and enacting those alterations requires broad consultation among the consultants and sub-consultants, new pricing, and incorporation into the contract documents and the building.

The design team and builder are ultimately responsible for assuring that the building meets the requirements of the Contract Documents, and that every system is tested and will function a designed. The building’s success at meeting the requirements of the original program can be assessed by the Master Builder or third parties and a final close-out. So, to assure a quality rest for each and every member of the project team, all must adhere to the following principles from the beginning to the end of the project: clear and continuous communication; rigorous attention to detail; active collaboration among all team members throughout all phases of the project. These are the qualities of a high-performance team and will be the best way to get a good night’s sleep.

Greg Offner is a Criminal Justice Consultant serving the Planning, Design and Construction Community, a valued member of the CN Editorial Advisory Board, and a regular contributor to Correctional News.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Correctional News.