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6 creative steps to saving dollars and time on big infrastructure projects

December 19, 2019

By Mike Riggs

For design-build projects, alternative technical concepts are critical to winning work and delivering successful solutions

Little did I know that a book report I wrote as a 10-year-old student would send me down a career path that has me working on massive infrastructure projects across the US. I guess the iconic Brooklyn Bridge has that kind of impact.

Even now when I travel to New York City I have to go see the Brooklyn Bridge. The whole story of designing and building it, it’s just so fantastic. As we prepare for 2020, it’s amazing to sit here and think about what they had to overcome in the 1870s to build that thing.

But those kind of projects—that thinking outside the box—is what got me interested in civil engineering. For the last decade, I’ve been working on multimillion-dollar alternative delivery or design-build transportation projects. They may not have the immediate recognition like the Brooklyn Bridge, but they are vital to the communities where they are built.

Much like I imagine the designers, engineers, and builders did on the Brooklyn Bridge to deliver it, today’s alternative project delivery (APD) projects require creative thinking. And there’s a name for that: alternative technical concepts (ATC).

“Spaghetti Junction,” or the Kennedy Interchange, where Interstates 64, 65, and 71 all merge in downtown Louisville. Stantec was a design consultant on the Walsh Construction design-build team to complete the Downtown Crossing, one of the two segments of the massive Ohio River Bridges project. The team completed the Downtown Crossing segment for $860 million, finishing more than 18 months early and $90 million under the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s preliminary cost estimate.

What is ATC?

Simply put, ATCs are innovative solutions that promote efficiencies, reduce risks, accelerate project delivery schedules, and reduce project costs. Working with the contractor, the design team can offer cost-effective solutions equal to or better than the baseline design and/or construction criteria requested by the agency procuring the project (the owner).

The ATC process is most commonly used with design-build project delivery where the owner issues a Request for Proposal containing basic project configurations, design, and construction criteria. As a design-build team, we submit ATCs based on our industry expertise—from both the design side and the construction side. The owner reviews the submissions and grants approval of the concept. If the concept is acceptable, the design-build team may incorporate this concept in its technical and price proposal. This process allows contractors to submit innovative concepts and solutions in a confidential manner.

ATCs are typically used on large design-build projects where the best-value selection may depend on the degree of innovation in the technical solutions developed by the teams. The ATC approach promotes competition and innovative approaches early in the design process, giving owners the opportunity to select proven design and construction solutions offering the best value.

On all alternative delivery projects, the owner is looking for something to differentiate one design-build team from another (besides price). That can potentially be an innovation in the design—an innovation where you could add value to the project (a betterment) but at no additional cost.

For me, there are six important steps the design team needs to consider when working on ATCs. And, honestly, you’re not likely to win one of these major projects without incorporating one or more ATCs, so it’s important to get it right.

US 90 at LA 318 Interchange in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. The Stantec team submitted an alternative technical concept (ATC) that eliminated a loop-entrance ramp that would have been more difficult and time consuming to construct and replaced it with a tight urban diamond ramp configuration in the westbound direction.

1. The right resources

I think there are three key project areas you look for in developing effective and successful ATCs; they are roadway related, structure related, and maintenance-of-traffic (MOT)—aka traffic control—related. This is where you’re going to have ideas that can directly affect project cost, schedule, and impacts to traffic, which the owner will see as benefits and that will improve the constructability of the project and help your team win.

For each of those three areas, you need to get the right people—with the right experience—involved.

For instance, when it comes to roadway design, you must have team members who are good at geometrics. They need to come up with alternative alignments, better ways to layout ramps, whatever you can come up with to improve project value. From Day 1, the team needs a senior geometrician to look at the project and start developing different ideas for alignment.

It’s the same thing with structures and with MOT. You must have senior people looking at the project from the beginning.

Whether those people end up working on the project down the road or not, is not important. But an initial look at the project by experts is critical to being able to say, “Hey, maybe there’s a better way to do this.”

2. Preparation means homework

This may seem obvious, but it’s necessary that the whole team understand one thing: what the owner is expecting. This can be gleaned from the project technical provisions (TP) or the technical specifications from the owner. Those are the requirements for the project.

Those requirements are the road map. Does it say “you shall provide” three lanes of traffic from Point A to Point B? If it does, that’s the owner’s gospel. You can’t go and suggest something different.

ATCs are typically used on large design-build projects where the best-value selection may depend on the degree of innovation in the technical solutions offered by the teams.

3. There are no stupid ideas

When you’re developing ATCs, there are no stupid ideas. Now there’s going to be a discussion with the contractor and you about those ATCs, and that’s going to winnow out the real crazy ones.

But initially, jump outside the sandbox all you want. Heck, jump outside the playground. Come up with something different.

If you think a cable-stay bridge would work for this project, then get together with the contractor and see if that will save time or money or add long-term benefits. Now, the contractor may say, “No, that’s stupid.” But bring up your ideas because sometimes there’s a gem that’s only found because someone said, “Hey, what about this?”

4. Be OK with “no”

In reality, you’re only going to maybe get 1 in 5 ATCs approved by the owner. So, going in, you want to be innovative. You want new ideas. But many of those are going to be rejected. You’re walking a bit of a fine line between what the owner thinks the project’s going to be, what the TPs say, and what you think you can do.

At this point, it’s critical to remember that as a design team our client is the contractor. The DOT may be the owner, but we’re working as a design-build team and our reporting line is to the contractor. So, even if my team has worked with the DOT as a client dozens of times, we can’t fall back on, “Well, that’s how the owner always wants to do it.” If that is our thinking, then what’s the point in hiring our team?

We must push the boundaries of “the way they always do it.” And sometimes because we’re pushing and being innovative, the owner may say no. That’s OK. But they might say yes, especially if we have done our homework.

The US 460 Connector provides a link between US Route 460 improvements in Kentucky and Virginia’s Coalfields Expressway. The design-build project features three bridges, the Grassy Creek Twin Bridges and the Hunts Creek Bridge.

5. Understanding and matching the project scope

The owner’s scope is their dividing line between what can and can’t be done. An example of scope in this instance is the number of lanes on a highway. We must understand that scope. But we must be innovative and willing to push. That’s our job as designers on a design-build team.

So, have we done the research? Can we say:

  • Here’s how it’s been done on another project
  • Here’s how we did it in another state
  • Here’s why it doesn’t violate the design standards

If we’ve done that, we can comfortably say to the owner, “It may not be the way you do it, but it’s still an acceptable way to do it based on sound engineering principles.” Now, we have an ATC that gets the owner’s attention and can improve the project with cost savings, time savings, or something else.

Most owners won’t accept an ATC that reduces the scope, so be ready to explain and defend.

6. The bottom line is cost

When we get down to it, nearly every design-build project is heavily weighed on cost. That’s what drives the owner.

The real point of ATCs is to create best value. Most often, that’s by designing an alternative that reduces cost, but is also frequently reflected in finding a way to reduce the schedule. An ATC may be a little more expensive to build, but it may save you so much time that it’s worth building it that way. The owner is interested in the overall project cost, not necessarily cost by project component.

At the end of the day, the project completed to the quality the owner and public expects, early and/or under budget, means a more satisfied owner (and a very happy contractor!). That’s why we work so hard to come up with good ATCs and get them approved.

ATCs: the key to success

Design-build projects are fast paced and generally a lot of pressure. I like that (I know—I am a little crazy!).

But what I really like is coming up with different ideas and collaborating with the contractor. Honestly, the best design-build projects are the ones that have innovative, thoughtful alternative technical concepts. And those ATCs are part of what makes being an engineer and especially being part of a design-build team so much fun.

  • Mike Riggs

    A senior project manager of transportation, Mike has over 40 years of experience. He’s worked on a variety of projects of all sizes and scopes—he’s done everything from large design-build projects to small roadway rehabilitations.

    Contact Mike
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