Design-Build An Exit from the ‘Freeway Condition’

Posted on July 27, 2011


In his excellent design zeitgeist snapshot entitled Life Style, Bruce Mau wrote about two popular cultural phenomena he calls the “freeway condition” and the “franchise”. 

In our modern life, Mau argues we are captive to a life designed around a freeway condition, where everything happens so fast we ‘go with the flow’ simply for our own safety. With our jobs, family demands, personal needs, and information 24/7 existence, Americans find themselves moving at a pace which does not allow us to make conscious decisions about most things in our lives. We metaphorically enter onto a highway and once we get up to speed, we have a tough time adjusting to anything—social life, meals, routine—that cannot be decided and lived at this speed. Mau argues “it is only when we try to decelerate that we experience a problem.”

Similarly, Bruce Mau describes a related life style condition he calls franchise where people are so squeezed for time and results, they choose the franchised version of as many things in life as possible because they are mechanized, safe and predictable. Once tested and defined, the status quo becomes not only acceptable but sought after where, as Mau writes, “the known quantity, even if its quality is dubious, wins every time.”

To draw a parallel to design and construction, owners are stuck in a freeway condition with their construction jobs at their hospitals. The Facilities Department is slammed with its issues; Construction Management is busy coordinating projects; Ancillary Services is ironing out seven different contracts; the CFO is crunching monthly reports and drafting next year’s strategic plan; the CEO is fundraising—and no one has any time to slow down.

Likewise, when anyone tries to inject a modicum of improvement to their condition, the hospital folks unfortunately revert to the franchise idea:  I don’t have time to do proper research, so I am going to choose the ‘tried-and-true’ franchise solution, thinking the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t

Design-bid-build (DBB) is the franchise solution for most owners; it is the devil you know. A likely scenario heard is owners are not terribly thrilled with DBB, but it has worked for the most part in the past and, generally, has not led to major trouble on a project. Which is to say, fast food is not the healthiest, most filling food available, but it is food nonetheless, and has not led to major indigestion or a heart attack lately. DBB is the perfect brainless solution because no one has to think about it much. Even if there is a better way, it will be a hassle to have to think through it differently.  Owners are just too conditioned and comfortable with their franchises.

Design-build (DB) is the exit from this freeway condition. Design-build is a chance for owners to question the authenticity of what they have been doing around their hospital from a design and construction perspective. Granted, Administration and Facilities are traditionally change-averse, DB makes it easy to try something different. Design-build is, in many ways, less work for the owner. Project pace is really the biggest difference; action occurs sooner and buildings go up faster, so that owners are in their new facility quicker. With an integrated team, it is one call to the design-builder for any issue. With an open book guaranteed maximum price, the price is known and results of savings discussions are agreed upon at the beginning.

It is easy to have three or seven years go by and feel like you wanted to try something new with project procurement and never got around to it.  Or administrators change and for the Director of Engineering who may have been at the hospital eighteen years, everything resets again like “Groundhog Day”. Dollars are too precious for a hospital to live their project procurement life in the freeway condition

Sure, from time to time we need to move fast and use the freeway, but not all the time. Say no to the franchise, and take a week to vet some other options for your new “major project” than what you have been doing for the last five years.  Because it is hard to leave a legacy traveling on the freeway and blowing cash at the franchise all the time.