Published Online: January 22, 1997

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Getting More Out of School Construction Dollars

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As schools across America burst at the seams with the added enrollment of the so-called baby-boom echo, state and municipal taxpayers are being saddled with growing costs for building new facilities. In some cities, enrollment growth is so rapid that officials can't build schools fast enough.

But in fast-growing Miami, Fla., public school administrators have cut both time and costs through a construction method known as "design/build." Common in such industries as transportation and defense, design/build is less widely used in education. But that is starting to change, as states begin easing regulations that have long limited school officials' options.

Take Miami, for example. Until 1986, Florida law required school districts to hire separate contractors for the design and for the construction of public schools. An architect would draw up plans, then hand them off to a builder. The builder would then construct the school under the supervision of school administrators or an outside management firm. During construction, the builder inevitably would discover the need to vary from the plans, prompting costly change orders and construction delays.

But now, a district such as Miami's Dade County schools may hire one contractor for both jobs. As the Dade County, Fla., superintendent from 1990 until last June--and before that, as the deputy superintendent in charge of the district's billion-dollar school construction program--I saw firsthand the savings that design/build delivers.

The first school we built under this arrangement was G. Holmes Braddock Senior High, now Florida's largest school, at 39,356 square feet. Since that initial success, the Florida legislature has refined its 1986 design/build statute, making it easier for school officials to hire contractors according to design/build standards and to favor those firms with the most design/build expertise and experience. With the refinements in place, Dade County has turned to design/build as its preferred approach. The result: $3.6 million in savings since 1995.

Compare two Dade schools opened last fall. The facilities' specifications were similar. The only significant difference: Wesley Matthews Elementary was designed and built the traditional way, while John I. Smith was design/built instead.

The Matthews project was begun in February 1993, nearly a year and a half before the Smith project; yet Smith, the design/build school, was finished and occupied three weeks before the traditionally built Matthews.

Total delivery time for the traditional school: three years, eight months, and three weeks.

Total delivery time for the design/build school: two years and two months.

In severely overcrowded Dade County, every design and construction day counts. Thanks to design/build, Smith Elementary students were spared more than a year and a half in cramped classrooms. No price can approximate the worth in terms of their education.

But the savings can be calculated in dollars, and they're significant. Here again, design/build--not to mention the Dade County district--comes out ahead.

The total cost to design and build Matthews: $11,166,633.

The total cost to design/build Smith: $10,729,436.

That's a savings of $437,197, not including interest earned.

Where do the time and money savings come from? Better communication and better management inherent to the design/build process, according to the Jacksonville-based firm that delivered Smith. With design/build, there's no communication gap between the designers and the builders because they're one and the same, and they work together every step of the way. The project price is guaranteed at the start, and the only change orders are those requested by the owner.

As with every innovation, design/build has its detractors. This was originally so within my administration in Dade County and among some legislators and educators around Florida. Unproven in the education arena, they said. Not enough attention to aesthetics.

But Dade's mounting track record belies those concerns, as does the beauty of Dade's John I. Smith Elementary School and of Broward County, Fla.'s award-winning New River Middle School, both design/built by the same company.

The approach may not be for every project or for every school district. But for booming districts looking for quick, efficient delivery at less cost, design/build may well be the answer. For Dade County, it's been a godsend. The proof's in the numbers--and in the education of our students.

The not-for-profit Design/Build Institute of America recently published a "manual of practice" with technical and procedural information. To obtain a copy, call or write the institute at 1010 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Suite 350, Washington, D.C. 20001; (202) 682-0110.


Octavio J. Visiedo was the superintendent of the Dade County, Fla., public schools until last June. He is now the president of a private consulting firm in Coral Gables, Fla.

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