Design and build is not the answer to everything

Design and build is not the answer to everything
Kurt Huseman
By Kurt Huseman

There were so many interesting views on offer in GCA’s January 2018 story ‘What does the future hold?’, that it’s perhaps mistaken to fixate on just one or two ideas. But I did get the overall impression that many quoted in the piece believe we are moving toward an industry where ‘design’ and ‘build’ become ever more closely entwined, to the point where architects are poised to take greater responsibilities for construction operations.

I have to be honest: I don’t see things panning out this way.

It’s important not to overreact here. What some architects have taken on these days is really just the feature-shaping function. But I do fear that admiration for this development model is perhaps indicative of an attitude vaguely indifferent to the complexity of the construction process. It also papers over important bedrock principles regarding how architects and builders have collaborated and should collaborate going forward.

Gil Hanse and Tom Doak, two designers highlighted in the article, have indeed created a model for themselves where they are paid to design golf courses and, in some cases, build them – or at least to oversee feature shaping using their own specialists. More power to them. But let’s not lose our sense of perspective. These are two of the most sought-after golf architects. As a result, they have more influence in project delivery. Architects may aspire to wield that sort of skill and influence, but these two guys remain the exceptions on account of the exceptional nature of the work they create. A less established architect who would pattern his/her own practice on the same model would, in my humble opinion, be placing that practice at great risk.

Yes, the desire is there for an architect to design one job, then maybe help his friend shape another project, with the understanding that friend may return the favour someday. But that’s a hard way to grow or even maintain a business over time. Sooner or later, the impracticalities of that kind of job-sharing, the pressures of keeping one client satisfied (plus another clear across the country), the necessity of trying to secure another one or two jobs for next year, becomes too much for just one person.

What’s more, I don’t see this trend (if it truly rises to that) evolving into any sort of new paradigm – because course construction is so much more than feature shaping. The challenges of labour and staffing, of keeping a construction team cohesive and efficient, of delivering a project that meets an owner’s objectives, are enormous. Then there’s weather damage and regulatory delays, the exposure of commodity pricing, ever-increasing insurance requirements, finding working capital to bridge the timing gap between payables and receivables. At first glance, it might seem manageable: ‘I’ll just get this guy to run the construction operation’. But what happens when that guy gets a better offer and takes off? What happens when you’re all set to lay sod and the supplier sells it out from underneath you? What happens when the talented people required to build your course are busy working on your friend’s projects? In a more evolved architect-led design/build model, these situations are the architect’s responsibility.

Sure, people can always come together in a non-traditional construction scenario and execute a project, maybe even a dream project. But try replicating it, on time and on budget. If you cannot, your brand and the sale of future jobs invariably suffer.

It’s also overly tempting to think of this design/build model as new. But Pete Dye established a similar model that Hanse, Doak and Coore & Crenshaw today employ on their projects. No surprise there, as Pete mentored most of them. I understand why architects would aspire to execute in this manner. However, the majority do not because they’ve developed project-execution strategies that leverage core strengths particular to their respective companies, and of those they employ.

There is irony here. Frankly, when an architect brings in two or three guys to handle feature development, we love it. It’s great for the contractor because these are individuals who can speak for the lead architect and make decisions when he’s not on site. It can really move a project along, but that only happens when the architect has talented guys in whom he truly has faith. Where that faith does not exist (the vast majority of the time), it hinders construction speed and efficient project delivery.

Post the Great Recession, contractors were continually approached about doing smaller renovation jobs (like updating bunkers with materials) without an architect involved. Of course, it’s the owner’s prerogative to make such a suggestion if he doesn’t want that expense. But a company like ours has consistently resisted and will continue to resist this temptation. We see the architect as another classification of client – I don’t see that changing in the next 12 years either.

I realise I’m coming off as something of an arch traditionalist. But this is not an industry that changes at the speed of light and there’s a lot to lose on both sides should architects and builders abandon the collaborative standards of quality, efficiency and mutual oversight that have produced such good work, such good results, for so long.

We at Landscapes Unlimited are not averse to change, and we don’t think ‘design/build’ is a dirty term. Landscapes has been a leader in contractor-led design/build project delivery over the years. Our approach: create a collaborative team, comprising a designer, owner and contractor, that is focused on meeting the overall goals and objectives for a project. We create a can-do atmosphere where an architect’s design concepts are implemented but not at the expense of delivering a high-quality project on time and on budget. We will continue to deliver projects this way, but I don’t see it replacing the traditional design, bid and ‘contractor-led’ project delivery.

Here’s another change we’ve undergone, one that speaks to the way we see the business evolving between now and 2030: Since 2008, we have regionalised our business to an extent I could not have imagined ten years ago. We needed our ears closer to the ground to enable face-to-face sales opportunities in more markets, because that’s where the business was. As new-builds and full-on renovation jobs became rarer, we prioritised smaller renovation jobs, because those were the jobs being bid. I see this continuing for at least another decade.

Folks will tweak the design/build formula and continue to experiment – they always have. And I think our business is full of great young design talent, much of which got its start in construction. (I know, because a lot of them got that training with us.) But I worry some of these guys confuse establishing an edge or getting a green to drain with the challenges/risks of running a job and truly managing the admin side of construction.

If I were a young architect with construction savvy pondering what the golf business will look like in 2030, I’d pay more attention to developing trends in construction timelines. We’ve traditionally been granted between eight and 12 months to build or renovate a golf course. Today we’re asked to execute a complete renovation in half that time, or less.

We all get the economics: clubs in Florida or the desert want play preserved through the spring; they want the course reopened before snowbirds return in the fall. Landscapes is a big, experienced operation. We can handle that short-construction window better than most anyone. But there is so little room for error.

What’s more, many of the projects we’re seeing today include substantial changes to golf course infrastructure like irrigation and drainage. In some cases the scope of this work accounts for 50 per cent of a renovation project budget. Couple this with coordinating other subcontractors (and material suppliers that are not involved in course feature work) and that percentage jumps up to 70 per cent of a project budget. I don’t see this scenario changing much over the next ten years.

While some designers may be interested in handling golf course feature work, typically they are not so interested in putting together the team to execute infrastructure or other work. This is another reason I don’t see the design/build model described in last month’s article proliferating, or evolving beyond the feature-shaping stage.

There’s a chance that, by 2030, these smaller construction windows could hugely affect design/build collaboration, for the better, especially if architects take a more substantial, substantive role in tackling these questions of expedited delivery. In my view, the better they are attuned to this shift, the more consequential their participation will be during the building phase.

Kurt Huseman is President of Landscapes Unlimited LLC’s Development and Construction Company

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.