Three Ways HKS Deploys Design-Build Best Practices for the FBI

Located on the emergent 243-acre Science and Technology District at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, the FBI Innovation Center is a training facility for agents learning the latest cybercrime combat tactics. Set to open in 2024, the project — designed by HKS through a design-build contract with Clark Construction Group — exemplifies best practices set forth by the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), also known as Design-Build Done Right®.

Design Build Done Right® (DBDR®) outlines how architects and contractors, engineers and trade contractors can achieve the highest levels of quality in procuring and contracting design-build services and executing project delivery. In addition to universal best practices, the DBIA also establishes more specific standards for certain markets including the federal sector.

Design-build can reduce challenges and inefficiencies that often accompany traditional design-bid-build projects, according to Jim Whitaker, FAIA, FDBIA, HKS Global Practice Director, Government & Alternative Project Delivery and Principal-in-Charge of the Innovation Center project.

“Contracts don’t legislate good behavior, but project delivery methodologies can encourage good behavior and design-build does that,” Whitaker said, adding that DBDR® best practices are a great tool to enhance overall project outcomes.

David W. Triplett, DBIA, MBA, the FBI’s Chief Contracting Officer and Facilities Acquisition Unit Chief has been instrumental in advocating for and educating others about DBDR® within the FBI. Triplett, who has presented about the Innovation Center to industry groups across the country with Whitaker, is passionate about project outcomes that better support the FBI’s mission and said the building will do just that.

“The Innovation Center will be the centerpiece of the new academic campus at Redstone Arsenal, and we are very proud of it. It’s a fantastic design,” Triplett said.

HKS architects and designers have brought dozens of large-scale federal facilities such as the FBI Innovation Center to life on strict timelines and budgets with airtight coordination. Here are three of the essential ways HKS and the firm’s partners deliver such projects by deploying design-build best practices:

1 – Building Trusting Relationships

On traditional building projects where there are multiple contract holders, team relationships are often established in a “command and control” environment, according to design-build expert Lisa Washington, Executive Director and CEO of DBIA. Design-build projects are different — they have a single source contract holder, the design-builder — and clients, contractors, and designers must collaborate from the beginning. Teamwork is fundamental to the process.

As the Innovation Center building owner, the FBI fully embraced DBDR® principles and established a network of design and construction experts who would be advocates for and talented executors of the design-build process.

“When done right, design-build allows the owner to select a team with culture alignment that will help them achieve goals. The FBI learned the best practices and were able to select the right team for this project,” said Washington, who attended an Innovation Center presentation at the 2023 Federal Design-Build Symposium by Whitaker, Triplett, and Barbara W. Wagner, DBIA, an industry-recognized DBDR® expert from Clark Construction.

“When done right, design-build allows the owner to select a team with culture alignment that will help them achieve goals.”

Selecting, organizing and training a high-performing team where members’ strengths complement one another is non-negotiable in design-build, Whitaker said.

“Because construction starts before design is done, the requirement to cooperate and plan activities is essential,” Whitaker said, noting that the first 30 days after the project is awarded is “the highest value, most impactful period of performance for the whole contract’s duration.”

From the onset of the Innovation Center project, the HKS and Clark team — having previously worked together on more than 30 projects, many federal and design-build — understood the importance of fostering a supportive team atmosphere. Before and during the procurement process, they held extensive, confidential meetings to formalize teaming agreements with designers and trade contractors and to ideate design solutions. After they were awarded the project and project execution proceeded, they collaborated to validate building program requirements, and develop the project’s full design and a detailed project schedule.

By putting this amount of effort into building and maintaining relationships, the team was able to accomplish what Washington calls the “most important aspect” of design-build.

“There is no magic bullet or piece of equipment that will make a project successful— it’s how the people work together, engage with the owner and have mutual trust and respect,” Washington said.

2 – Committing to Design Excellence

Throughout a design-build process, there are many opportunities to produce exceptional design outcomes, especially in federal projects. Whitaker said projects at Redstone Arsenal have been procured — or are being procured — using a best-value technique with a fixed stipulated cost, which means the contractors and designers all “get a chance to shine” because they are not reduced to a low-price bidding war. For the Innovation Center, the FBI set its price and chose the Clark and HKS team with this best-value, qualifications-based selection (QBS) method, which isan adopted best practice of DBDR®.

HKS committed to designing the Innovation Center as a signature centerpiece for the new campus capable of supporting learning and exchange of ideas. The design is also intended to attract top talent for the FBI — young professionals who want to train and work in dynamic, modern surroundings. The building itself is a recruiting and retention tool.

The project features a three-story academic and workplace structure with an attached practical problem training facility. Though these elements were initially intended to be unified in one building, the HKS team came up with the idea to decouple the components and make them elegantly stand out while maintaining the highest levels of security in design. HKS also worked with landscape architects and civil engineers to advise on master plan adjustments that would support the FBI’s goals for the overall campus, again illustrating how teamwork and coordination are required to fulfil design-build best practices.

Washington said that design excellence like what the Innovation Center designers have achieved goes well-beyond aesthetics to include building performance, environmental context and sustainability features. Design-build as a process, she noted, is perfectly suited to help teams create high-design, high-performance buildings that will last a long time and provide federal agencies value into the future.

 “The FBI understands that best value and low cost are two very different things,” Washington said. “[With this design] …they’re getting the best value for the taxpayer dollars, a facility that is state of the art that they and this nation can be proud of.”

3 – Anticipating and Managing Change

Federal building projects often come with challenges related to cost, bureaucracy, and aversion to risk. And just like on any building project, goals and expectations are subject to change throughout the process.

Unlike traditional building projects where most major design solutions are generated in early phases, design-build projects allow for the development and implementation of new design solutions during completion of design and into construction. The design-build process inherently enables instantaneous response and quick decision making when modifications are required, Whitaker and Washington said.

By adopting design-build best practices of DBDR®, the FBI Innovation Center team could overcome significant hurdles as the project progressed. First, the team navigated trials of procuring and contracting the project during the height of the COVID-19, which meant team members had to be extremely flexible and detail-oriented with technology, schedules and virtual communications to maintain lockstep coordination. Due to pandemic restrictions, the FBI and the design-build team never met in person during the entire procurement period.

Later, after construction had already started, unforeseen mission critical requirements necessitated changes that presented a challenge to the original design and construction schedule. Whitaker said the HKS team jumped into action immediately, creating new design solutions that still met project goals while reacting to the real programmatic needs of the FBI as Clark proceeded with construction.

“With design-build, we could actually prosecute a change in a timely manner,” he said. “Nimbleness and adaptability are crucial.”

As the FBI Innovation Center swiftly moves toward opening its doors, the project team continues to demonstrate that its ability to support clients with efficient, flexible responsiveness can lead to exceptional design and construction outcomes. And exceptional outcomes are exactly what federal building owners such as the FBI need, so they can carry out their mission in high performing environments. By implementing DBDR® best practices from day one, project teams and federal clients can create such places that stand the test of time. And Whitaker says the key to success is getting a good start.

“The very best design-build teams know that you have to build the team first before you build the building,” he said.