Building Innovative Buildings, Building Innovative Delivery Systems

by: Kim-Van Truong, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Assoc. DBIA
In 2015, I was assigned to handle construction administration for the Legends Aquatic Center at my alma mater, U.C. Berkeley. The project initially began in 2012 and involved an innovative funding model and an innovative project delivery method.

The innovations were successful because they allowed for strong working relationships among the client, the university, the design team, and the contractor.

Constrained state budgets make it difficult for public universities to finance major new building projects. A new(ish) method for overcoming this challenge is the donor development delivery model. In this case, four alumni of U.C. Berkeley saw how much the university needed a dedicated training venue so that swim teams wouldn’t have to share Spieker Aquatics Complex with recreational swimmers. In addition, because Spieker lacked a diving tower, student athletes had to drive 45 minutes to Palo Alto to borrow Stanford’s in order to practice.

These alumni—Ned Spieker, Rick Cronk, Don Fisher, and Warren Hellman—founded a nonprofit organization called Cal Aquatics Legends. They approached the university with a proposal to lease a site on Bancroft Avenue, raise all the money for the project, serve as developer, and donate the improved site back to the university.

They tapped Peter Schnugg—a U.C. Berkeley alumnus, a donor, and a former water polo player—to serve as the owners’ representative. Peter is also a former partner at Spieker Properties, so he really understands project development. With a seasoned developer at the helm, Cal Aquatics Legends chose the construction manager design-assist project delivery method instead of the traditional design-bid-build process that public institutions typically follow.

This saved a lot of time. When public universities are the client, they have to go through a lengthy request for qualifications process, followed by interviews with architecture firms, a selection process, and contract negotiations. Then more months go by while the architect designs the building and completes construction documents so contractors can submit bids—more interviewing, more selecting, more contract negotiations. With the construction manager design-assist model, developers can simply call on the professionals they want to work with. That alone shaves six to eight months off the project’s timeline.

Even more helpful, the contractor starts collaborating with the architect early in the design process. In this case, Cal Aquatics Legends hired ELS to design the facility and Vance Brown Builders to be the contractor. Starting with the schematic design phase, Vance Brown began providing design assistance for the structural systems for the pool and dive tower and for the mechanical systems. The contractor researched design options, handled cost consulting, and checked for constructability. Getting their input early on saved a lot of time during construction, greatly minimizing change orders and requests for information.

With construction manager design-assist project delivery, the owners’ representative, architect, and builder work as a unit. It was easy for me and Adam Rupp, Vance Brown’s project manager, to collaborate with Peter.

Even though Cal Aquatics Legends was paying for the project and overseeing it, the facility ultimately would belong to U.C. Berkeley, of course, so it was our job to make sure that the university received a swim facility that met their needs completely. The construction manager for the university was Jack Scanlin. With many years of construction management experience, he was a great resource to bounce ideas off of. We’d all sit with the contractor representatives during construction meetings and work out different solutions and options.

Photo: Lawrence Anderson

The construction manager design-assist project delivery gave us unusual flexibility. Seventy percent into design—six months into construction—some donors came forward with additional funding specifically to upgrade the locker rooms. That was fabulous, but we had to race against the clock to get it done. We worked closely with Peter and Alicia Rowell, the development director for Cal Athletics, to identify how to apply the new funds. Vance Brown helped us figure out how the upgrades would affect the schedule and the pricing. It was possible to add radiant heating to the floors, but the contractors were about to pour the slabs, so we had to coordinate carefully. Vance Brown held off on the concrete pouring and told us how many days the donor had to give the thumbs-up to our proposed upgrades. In the meantime, the contractors worked on other aspects of the project.

Before the additional funding came on board, we’d had to remove skylights and canopies and the wood ceiling to stay on budget. The new funding meant we were able to put those elements back in. I jumped into heavy-duty coordination mode to get the documents to the site so Vance Brown could proceed. If we’d been relying on a traditional design-bid-build project delivery method, we would have paid a significant premium for the changes. As it was, we got it built without going beyond the budget or the deadline.

The Legends Aquatic Center opened last fall. The process met with rave reviews from Cal Athletics, and the U.C. Board of Regents is now using the donor development model for other projects within the U.C. system.