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Young Architect Guide: What Is Integrated Project Delivery?

With everyone cooperating from the very start of a project, there should be fewer expensive, annoying change orders and revisions. Everybody can win!

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

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If you’ve worked in an architecture office in the past 10 years, you’ve probably had someone tell you about how great Integrated Project Delivery is, how it’s the way of the future, how it will save everyone money and how it just makes more sense. But there’s a good chance that when that person has tried to explain to you what Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is, your eyes have slowly glazed over as a stream of words and phrases like “optimization,” “strategized decision-making” and “collaborative risk-taking” trickled out of their mouth. Then, you probably said something like “Huh,” nodded, smiled, walked away and thought about lunch.

But it’s not their fault that your co-worker couldn’t clearly explain it! Here’s how the American Institute of Architects (AIA) introduced IPD in a 2007 guide:

“Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is a project delivery approach that integrates people, systems, business structures and practices into a process that collaboratively harnesses the talents and insights of all participants to optimize project results, increase value to the owner, reduce waste and maximize efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication and construction.”

I have no idea what that really means, but, despite all the jargon, IPD is a really reasonable way to design a building, and it’s not quite as complicated as the blurb makes it sound.

To start with, IPD is a project delivery method. “Project delivery method” is a way to describe the relationships between the client, architect and builder and how those people work together to design and build, or “deliver,” a building, or “project.” IPD is a relatively new kind of project delivery method, but there are many others that have existed for as long as architects have been around. The most traditional is the “Design-Bid-Build” method where the owner hires an architect to design a building, and then the owner separately hires a contractor to build the building. That kind of setup should be pretty familiar as most projects are still “delivered” that way.

Typical architect-contractor relationship in a Design-Bid-Build relationship, image via Architecture Admirers

Now, if you’ve worked in an architecture office at any point, you know that it can be pretty frustrating to get a building built, and a lot of people blame that on the traditional Design-Bid-Build delivery model. People say that this method pits the architect, client and contractor against one another and each of the three spend years fighting one another over budgets, schedules and poorly drawn details.

It’s not just that design is frustrating; it’s also that there is something really wrong with the construction industry. That same 2007 AIA document lays out some pretty staggering statistics:

“[A]n Economist article from 2000 identifies 30 percent waste in the U.S. construction industry; a NIST study from 2004 targets lack of AEC software interoperability as costing the industry $15.8B annually; and a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows construction alone, out of all non-farm industries, as decreasing in productivity since 1964, while all other non-farm industries have increased productivity by over 200 percent during the same period.”

Think about that: Construction is the only (non-farm) industry that has actually gotten less productive over the past 50 years. Despite the rise of 3-D printing, the iPhone and Airbnb, the construction industry works more or less the same as it has for decades, and it’s only falling further and further behind.

IPD is supposed to change all that.

There are some varieties to the details, but generally IPD means that the architect, client and contractor sign a joint contract or form a joint venture at the very start of the design process and the three agree to share risks and responsibilities between them. Because the three start working together on Day 1, there is ideally much more communication and cooperation built into the process, and because the contractor is involved very early on, they can have a lot more input on how the design will be built, preventing a lot of hiccups down the road. Other key consultants could also join this core team, like structural or MEP engineers, if they are likely to play a big role. The whole idea is to get everyone working together more efficiently.

Diagram showing the relative flexibilities and costs of IPD and traditional design processes, image via AIA

Money plays a big role in this, too, of course. Many IPD agreements are structured so that the three parties will share in any cost savings or cost overruns, meaning that should a project go horrendously over budget, the architect and contractor will take hits financially, not just the client. That’s a pretty great incentive for all parties to keep the project on time and on budget. There are a bunch of other standards, like LEED ratings, that the project agreement could make and for which the architect could be rewarded if they are met. This means that the architects aren’t just designing a building to get the job done and get paid, but they are also getting paid more if they do a really great job. Not only that, but because everyone has been cooperating since the beginning, there are fewer expensive, annoying change orders and revisions. Everybody can win!

That also means everyone can lose, and therein lies the greatest potential danger of this arrangement. Because they are exposed to more risk, everyone has to work a little differently. Architects have to learn to include engineers and contractors in the earliest phases of the design process, and architects aren’t generally known for liking to share control. This requires change, and this is where new(ish) technology, and programs such as Revit, comes in.

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters by Morphosis, which was one of the first high-profile projects to successfully use IPD, photo via Wikipedia (Geographer)

IPD starting developing at the same time Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology matured. In the wee years of the new millennium, early IPD advocates thought that if everyone on the project team worked from a shared digital model, then it would be easier for the team to stay on the same, er, screen. People still like to talk about BIM and IPD in the same breath, but you don’t need BIM software to run an IPD project and vice versa.

There aren’t clear numbers on how common IPD is becoming, but major companies like Morphosis and Skanska have taken it up, and it’s likely to stick around in one form or another for some time. It’s worth getting comfortable with and maybe even using, but for now at least you know what it is.

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters by Morphosis, which was one of the first high-profile projects to successfully use IPD, photo via Clark Construction

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