Innovation Center Symbolizes Design Excellence for Government Projects

When HKS Principals Jim Whitaker and Heath May review federal project opportunities, they know that typically most are awarded to the lowest bidder. But the program of requirements for a confidential federal agency project they encountered last year was different: it was for a new campus’ flagship building and came with a stipulated price.

The project’s fixed price inspired a “full-blown design competition” where design-build project delivery teams could push the limits of what was possible within a predetermined budget, Whitaker said.

Looking for an attractive destination to support a growing employee base, the government client outlined parameters for an Innovation Center and CUP2 situated on an emerging 240-acre office campus at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

The procurement was what the Design Build Institute of America calls Design-Build Done Right, where teams competed based on qualifications and design talent rather than lowest costs. Whitaker believes that the unique procurement style offered “the true best value” for taxpayers, the federal client and competitors.

With award-winning design-build partners at Clark Construction Group, the HKS team developed ideas to exceed the client’s expectations early in the proposal development stage.

“We were able to bring the full force of the architect’s creative horsepower to deliver a solution that wasn’t just a matter of chasing the low number,” Whitaker said.

May, the project’s Lead Design Architect and Director of HKS’ Laboratory for INtensive Exploration (LINE), said the team sought to put forth design solutions that would serve project goals far into the future. Their mission was not to simply meet minimum requirements, but to exceed them and delight the client.

“Our first creative endeavor is interrogating the brief we’re given and that’s what set us up to color outside the lines,” May said, remarking that LINE studio members take a ‘what if’ exploratory approach with every project, including this one.

Designing for Maximized Value and Connectivity

The program of requirements contained detailed requests for multiple structures including a landmark four-story building to house offices, training rooms and shared spaces for employees. In developing their proposal, the design-build team — architects from HKS, a team from prime contractor Clark Construction Group, captive trade contractors, landscape architects and a host of local and national engineers and specialty consultants — analyzed the opportunity and gathered for group discussions.

The conversations yielded thought-provoking alternatives. Rather than submitting a design that adhered to the client’s request for a four-story building, the design-build team daringly proposed a three-story structure instead.

May says that contractors and structural engineers determined that shifting from four stories to three provided significant value. The new approach allowed the architects to maximize the fixed price by pursuing more inventive design solutions with better aesthetic and place-making qualities.

“It’s not a matter of saving money,” May said. “It’s reapportioning investment into something that is potentially a higher and better use.”

“It’s not a matter of saving money,” May said. “It’s reapportioning investment into something that is potentially a higher and better use.”

A Courageous Course of Action

In awarding the project to the HKS and Clark design-build team, the client acknowledged the potential of what Whitaker calls a “courageous course of action” to design and deliver a set of stunning buildings that defied the typical rules of engagement for government contract work. He says that in addition to appreciating the proposal for its technical and legal compliance, the client also respected the bold design moves and “demonstrated their reciprocal courageous behavior” by green-lighting the project award.

Architects from HKS’ Government and Commercial Interior practices along with building scientists, project managers and members of the LINE studio have all contributed to the project, which is now in construction. Whitaker believes that having designers, pre-construction, procurement and operations professionals working concurrently to complete the large project has led to an interesting and beneficial dynamic not common in traditional design-bid-build pursuits.

With a commitment to implementing Design-Build Done Right best practices, the team continues to collaborate with the client, making decisions that create a supportive environment where their employees can do important work and lead healthy, balanced lives.

“The expertise, the different disciplines we have within HKS and our partners enable us to take those steps,” said May.

Whitaker and May equate the team behind the Innovation Center to a group of musicians working together to create something exceptional.

A guitarist and bassist in his spare time, May believes major advancements often happen when musicians — or in this case, design-build teammates — collaborate with trust and creativity. For a federal client that desired facilities capable of supporting its staff’s success, the design team’s communicative, harmonious and open process has been fruitful.

“There’s great reward to be had when everyone is listening to each other in the moment and what comes next is largely dependent upon the conversation we’re having right now,” May said. “Through that conversation — that’s where you reach new horizons.”