Design assist for glass fiber reinforced concrete GFRC facade on Versailles Contemporary building

Design Assist Interview with Architect Zack Cooley

Chicago, IL – Two years ago, Building Blocks worked with Brandon Haw Architecture in a design assist process for Versailles Contemporary. It is the final addition to the Faena District in Miami Beach. Zack Cooley was the technical design lead for the project. He previously worked at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Brandon Haw formed Brandon Haw Architecture in 2014 after concluding a 26-year career at Foster & Partners.


Versailles Contemporary is an eighteen-story condominium. The high-rise is located between Roy France’s classic Versailles Hotel and the Faena House. It is the last parcel of the Faena District in the Collins Avenue Historic District of South Beach. The Faena District was developed by Alan Faena. Versailles Contemporary was “designed to create open space around the original landmarked Versailles structure,” to “maximize views of both the ocean and the western sunsets,” and to hold “a harmonious relationship with its historic and contemporary neighbors” according to Brandon Haw Architects.


The undulating white facade features rounded glazed corners and extensive cantilevered balconies that, “float above the ocean’s horizon.” These oversized, light-as-air balconies are a perfect design for glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC). Building Blocks was brought into the project for a design assist phase. Design assist helped the team at Brandon Haw Architecture maximize the design flexibility that GFRC added while managing constructability and cost.


Kevin Miske of Building Blocks recently sat down with Zack Cooley from Brandon Haw Architecture to recap the project, review the design assist methodology, and discuss the value of early subcontractor involvement to creating complex building skins.


Kevin: As the architect, what made you think that design assist for this project is going to be beneficial?


Zack: We go a certain distance in our drawings and then as we’re drawing through things and proposing things we develop lists of questions. We try to answer them ourselves but knowing what we don’t know is important in that process. So, for us to engage in design assist as quickly as possible we make the thing more real more quickly. Our knowledge of all systems and all details can be limited. Bringing in people who have years and years of experience on a certain system really helps our documents along.


Kevin: Have you worked in design assist with other subcontractors?


Zack: Yes, we have. My experience is that when the design assist is a bit more loose it tends to be less successful than the formal, intensive way that we engaged you. In fact, we’ve had subcontractors work in a form of design assist without charging anything. In hindsight, we should have put something on the table for their time because we didn’t get the full attention like we did your attention. Building Blocks stands out as a very successful working process for us.


Kevin: So, what do you think about doing this at-risk versus fee-based with a give back once it goes to contract?


Zack: I think your idea of a give back program…where we engage in the process and there’s a monthly fee, but it’s credited back if awarded the job, that would get over the hump on the ownership side. Being able to really quantify the savings for a client is difficult.


Kevin: There’s also secondary value beyond just the material cost.


Zack: Yeah. It benefits the design, too. More complexity doesn’t necessarily yield a better design. It was great with Alan because he’s gone through [design assist] on other projects so he understands the value. You have certain CMs and GCs that, until you go through it, you don’t really understand the value.


Kevin: On Versailles, the deliverable on the design assist process was allowing the design team to get to 100% CD. A knowledge transfer that allowed you to answer some of the questions you had at 100% DD, correct?


Zack: We’re always sprinting to draw. We’re producing and designing at the same time. So, if we know bringing somebody on board that: 1) is going to contribute the knowledge and get me from A to B more quickly, and 2) actually take part in the production, sharing details, helping develop details – that’s a win-win. As we reach the end of CD and DD we look for any way to get there quicker. It’s a no-brainer for us.


Kevin: Reflecting back on the design assist process for Versailles, what do you think worked really well and what do you think could have been done better?


Zack: The live work sessions were great; screen sharing, spinning around the model, drafting. There’s nothing better than a session where you discover problems and instead of saying, “Oh okay, we’ll walk away and address these problems and come back to it next week,” you have the tools out and draw through it right there in the meeting. It is a huge benefit for the project when you have people who are willing to play in the sandbox.


Kevin: Do you think there were any issues with us being remotely located?


Zack: Well, that was my thing that “could have been better.” If you’re in the same room it’s always better, but I’ve never worked on a project where everybody on the team is in the same city. It didn’t really matter because we could Skype.


Kevin: There is some benefit to being together. It’s something I would like to look at when we have our next design assist opportunity; to go to the architect’s office and work there with them. I think it’s a more focused effort.


Zack: It would be nice to somehow bake the physical mockup into the design assist process. We go through design assist, the drawings are finished, then there’s a big period where the GC is brought on board. Some way to seamlessly transition from design assist into a mockup where there isn’t this stopping point.


Kevin: The GC doesn’t have the benefit of everything we’ve been through, and then they are the one driving the mockup and it slows everything down.


Zack: It’s like starting from scratch a little bit.


Kevin: Because of that delay, especially like Versailles which was a very long delay, you start forgetting all the little pieces of knowledge that you earned during design assist.


Zack: You have to somehow convey all of that to the GC. They weren’t with you learning the lessons and you have to somehow bring them up to speed. On the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, which I worked on at Diller Scofido+Renfro, it was a bit earlier because the GC was decided early in the process. We entered design assist in DD, about the same time we did for Versailles. There wasn’t that re-education process. In fact, the mockup process was a bit more seamless because the GC did have the buy-in.


Kevin: With having the GC involved, we’re getting closer to an Integrated Project Delivery where the general contractor, the architect, and the engineer engage all of the critical subs that have dependencies on each other early enough that they help influence the design. For an IPD, you’d have to have a general contractor who is really leading that.


Zack: It’s a project-wide design assist, which is the ideal scenario.


Kevin: I can’t understand why our industry is so reluctant to take on more collaborative relationships. Design assist is really the precursor to getting to an IPD process. I hope that the industry continues to move in that direction.


Zack: For us, it’s all about the clients. We work for the clients. Sometimes we have clients who have gone through design assist before and they understand the value. They know they’ll save money and time. It’s all about expectations. Other times we work with clients who aren’t as familiar with design assist and think about it as a step by step process. They prefer to hire an architect, then pass it to the engineers, then to the contractors. They may be attracted to a more incremental process because they’re not committing to everything up front. If you have a client who prefers the a la carte process, it’s hard to convince them to do design assist. If you have a client or a third party adviser who has done it before, it’s much easier.


Kevin: Do you think it would be helpful to engage in technical design discussions earlier?


Zack: It depends on the project. If you understand what the broad strokes are and you know what the systems are early enough. Once those decisions are made, then the sooner the better. Even early DD if you have the systems finalized. Sometimes you don’t. For example, on Versailles we were talking about several options on the cladding, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate to start with you.


Kevin: On Versailles, it started off as precast, is that right?


Zack: We were entertaining precast seriously. Someone said it would be cheaper as precast and then we realized several weeks into it that that wasn’t the smartest path.


Kevin: So, do you think the outcome of improved cost, schedule, RFI’s, constructability, and quality were achieved with design assist over a design-bid-build process?


Zack: I mean, the cost was dead on. When we were going through those VE efforts, well after CDs were finished, it wasn’t really questioned. Everybody was comfortable with where we landed. Having that off the table whenever you’re dealing with so many other issues, to say that this issue is well resolved and we have a high degree of confidence in it is really beneficial. I think we nailed that. What do you mean by schedule?


Kevin: Getting to 100% CD faster.


Zack: Yeah, yeah. Well, that definitely, but also some of those details wouldn’t have been where they ended up. It definitely gets you there quicker.


Kevin and Zack agreed that by the end of the design assist process, Versailles was more comprehensive and ready to transition to the next stage than a project typically is at that point. A major factor was the design assist process. It was also thanks to Brandon Haw Architecture’s well detailed DD set. Most DD plans have only about 50% of the required information for accurate costing but theirs were more developed.


Design assist was responsible for keeping the costs of this project consistent from initial budget on February 23, 2015 until contract on April 16, 2016. Generally, when a project progresses from DD to CD, costs increase as more requirements and complexity are identified. Design assist subverted the norm by maintaining the same costs from one stage to the next. The design assist process requires a more collaborative relationship between architects and their contractors. The results are a more thorough, well considered design that is executed on a faster timeline.