Managing Risk and Innovation of a Federal Design-Build Historic Renovation
Fort McNair Building 60
Photo Credit: Max Kun Zhang

Every construction project regardless of size inherently comes with risk; with that risk, comes the opportunity for innovation. To effectively balance the two in a design-build delivery method it is essential to foster a collaborative and solutions-oriented culture. Our founder Mort Mortenson once said, “Accomplishment is virtually unlimited when people work together as a team.”

Pre-Construction: Identifying Risks

To put it simply, risk can be defined as the amount of exposure to an unfavorable outcome. When managing risk, it is crucial to determine WHAT is the risk, the risk is FOR WHOM, and what is the REWARD from the risk? When managing risk, it is crucial to determine the nature of the risk, who it affects, and the potential reward associated with it.

Project risk can be broken into four main areas:

  1. reputational
  2. budget
  3. technical
  4. schedule

Within the project, each risk category affects different stakeholders. By assessing these facets, one can better determine whether the potential rewards justify the associated risks. Risks are managed rather than avoided; without risk, there is no reward.

A Culture of a Solutions-Oriented Mindset

One example from Mortenson of balancing risk and innovation in a historic federal design-build project is the Building 60 renovation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. The renovation of Building 60 aimed to transform the 100-year-old officers’ club into a state-of-the-art classroom and administrative facility that modernized the space, while respecting its historic character. From the outset, stakeholders faced shared risks concerning procurement strategy, design intent, and construction scheduling. At the beginning of the project, the team (owner, design-builder, and designer) went through a partnering session, as required by the RFP. During this session, each team member shared their expectations regarding collaborative delivery. Together, they created a mission statement that recognized contractual obligations, integrated communications, and their own unique leadership qualities. Creating this mission and referencing it at the beginning of each meeting established alignment, open communication, and opportunities to be innovative.  

During Construction: Creating Innovation from Risk

Throughout the Building 60 Renovation project, there was a consistent effort to foster an environment embracing diverse perspectives to address challenges  as they arose. For example, at the beginning of the project the design-build team was given a 3D model and 2D drawings to begin the drawing documentation process. However, during the project’s risk assessment, it became clear that information was missing, necessitating swift action by the design-build team to prevent schedule disruptions. The initial solution was to follow the traditional architectural survey method. Though a proven process, it still carries risks such as time constraints for completion and inaccuracies from human error. 

As a result, the team discussed an innovative solution and the impacts involved by using the laser scanning method. Laser Scanning provides high-quality, accurate measurements and is cost and time-efficient; however, as a new workflow, it can present a learning curve for teams. After considering the risk and reward, the Building 60 team opted for this innovative approach. 

After the data was imported into the design model, the representation of wall locations was refined, and their depicted thickness updated. The point cloud even documented the unique historic details in the building which allowed the design team to document each historic detail with accuracy to the field. One instance is an arch that was relocated to an upstairs ballroom. Due to the accuracy of the design, the construction team was able to build the new walls and relocate the arch without quality errors.

Photo Credit: Max Kun Zhang

The Reward from Managing Risk

Building 60 at Fort McNair exemplifies balancing risk and innovation in a federal design-build historic renovation.  The occupants moved into the building on time, ready for the start of their academic program year.  In 2023, the project won three Design-Build Institute of America Mid-Atlantic Region awards and a DBIA National Award of Merit in the Rehabilitation, Renovation and/or Restoration category. The project thrived due to collaborative teams uniting to bring forward innovative ideas.

Photo Credit: Tech Sgt. Mozer O. Da Cunha

Post-Construction: Learnings

In summary, from managing federal design-build historic projects, we have gleaned four essential insights for future similar projects: align project goals with the delivery method, prioritize intentional teaming from the project’s onset, recognize as Dr. Barbara Jackson highlighted, that “great teams think unalike,” and use the process as a guide while focusing on the end result.

If you’d like to learn more about how Mortenson manages risk and achieve innovation, please contact Allen Troshinsky, here.