Innovative Design-Assist delivery enables University of California, Berkeley research lab to move forward
by Paul Erb, LEED AP BD+C, McCarthy Vice President, Operations
With today’s financial challenges, many projects are being funded with a combination of bonds, grants, donors and private fundraising – potentially secured at different times – creating a complex stop-and-go environment that is incredibly challenging to building design and construction. A plan with deferred phases can efficiently sustain project momentum. The Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical & Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley relied on this approach, utilizing an innovative Design-Assist delivery model and strong communication between the owner, contractor and architect to ultimately bring the project to fruition.
The Funding Challenge
The year was 2007, and Li Ka Shing Center had entered its preconstruction phase when the global economic crisis curtailed available funding for the project. As a result, the university only had enough confirmed capital to complete the core and shell of the 200,000-square-foot building, a research and teaching facility to advance solutions to the world’s most pressing health challenges.
Faced with a funding shortfall that threatened the future of the world-class research laboratory, UC Berkeley needed an innovative solution to keep the project alive and moving forward. Further complicating the scenario, the university risked losing its existing funding if it didn’t begin construction by January 2008.
This unique predicament challenged the design and construction team, comprised of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects LLP and McCarthy, to identify a strategy for effectively navigating the uncertain environment while quickly advancing the project toward final construction.
At the time, only one thing was certain: A traditional approach to constructing the project was no longer an option.
Selection of Design-Assist
After evaluating several alternatives, the team identified a “Design-Assist” delivery method as a logical means to facilitating a staged approach to move the project forward quickly, efficiently and successfully.
Design-Assist enables project team collaboration to occur early in the design and construction process. By engaging a single team of subcontractors at the front end of a project, many activities related to construction preplanning can be completed earlier than in a traditional design-bid-build delivery method.
Because it offered the quickest-possible path to beginning construction of the core and shell, the approach would save money over the duration of the project. The process also would surface potential constructability issues earlier, when they are easier and less expensive to resolve.
Finally, Design-Assist enabled the critical flexibility that would allow the team to complete future phases of the interior fit-out as the project received additional funding.
Leap of Faith
Although the case for pursuing Design-Assist was logical and compelling, it still required the university to take a leap of faith to give it the green light. Not only was the approach fairly uncommon at the time, but it also challenged a couple of prevailing notions about how a project is expected to proceed.
In traditional projects, the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and external skin subcontractors typically would not be brought on board until after the bid documents were 100 percent completed. However, under Design-Assist a single team of subcontractors is hired prior to the completion of the design process and continues throughout the duration of the project.
A major hurdle involved convincing the university that the increased initial investment required to pursue this path would save both time and money in the long run. In fact, because Design-Assist would shave significant time off the schedule, it would end up preserving significant budget that could be reinvested in lab furniture, equipment or finishes.
Putting it Together
Despite the uncertainty of its funding situation, the university showed great leadership and trust in approving McCarthy’s recommended strategy.
A $40 million investment from Hong Kong philanthropist Li Ka Shing formed the foundation of the project’s funding. Additional support would eventually come through state bond sales as well as through public-private partnerships with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
When funding was imminent for a specific floor(s), the university would release the design team to complete the design. By the time funding was officially secured, design documents would be finished and construction could progress.
The project team’s challenge was to efficiently incorporate the evolving design of the complex lab interiors while minimizing rework and disruption to construction work already in progress. Collaboration and flexibility became extremely valuable qualities for the project team, which were the very same qualities the facility itself was designed to support.
Because the schedule was so critical to the project’s success, McCarthy developed an innovative approach to problem resolution to prevent challenges and changes from delaying progress. Each week, an individual representing the owner, designer and general contractor would walk the project site with representatives from all the subcontractors, inspectors or any other parties relevant to current issues potentially delaying the schedule. This weekly ritual allowed the team to review issues that had the potential of impacting the schedule or adding unnecessary cost. The walks, which started during the beginning of structural work and continued through the completion of finishes, brought necessary attention to areas of conflict and congestion helping the project to move forward efficiently.
The project also incorporated 3-D Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology, enabling the design team to identify and resolve problem areas in advance of construction completion. Conversely, as the work progressed in the field, the design team was provided 3-D models of the as-built work to allow them to seamlessly integrate the ongoing design for future phases of work. These BIM efforts resulted in a clash-free 3-D model and eliminated costly change orders that can plague complex projects such as this one.The building also serves as a flagship for sustainability on campus, earning LEED Gold certification thanks to high efficiency MEP systems, three separate living green roofs, use of reclaimed wood, and natural light throughout all work spaces.
An Unquestionable Success
The Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical & Health Sciences facility opened on Dec. 12, 2011, right on schedule, because the team made a series of wise critical decisions. Had the project gone the traditional route, it may have never been built or would probably still be under construction. Instead, UC Berkeley now has a cutting-edge, world-class facility to advance the university’s pioneering research in biomedical and health sciences.
Fellow project team member Ken Billington of Affiliated Engineers, Inc., calls it, “A partnership that will not soon be forgotten.”
We couldn’t agree more.