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While still in high school, I started a residential design/build business with two shop teachers. I would design projects during the school year and then we would build them over summer and Christmas breaks. I learned how efficient it could be combining the design and construction. I was able to draw less, make decisions later and with more information, and put the money where it was most needed. When the opportunity came to try it as an architect professionally, I jumped at it.

In 2004, the University of New Hampshire issued an RFP that called for the addition of 400 beds with associated public and support spaces, including a convenience store, and the expansion of the existing parking and outdoor recreation areas to strengthen the existing Gables 600-bed community. These 400 apartment style beds were the first phase of a proposed 1,000-bed expansion. In addition, the University desired a sustainable design in the sense of durability and appropriateness of planning rather than experimental technologies. The program called for the delivery of these beds in 20 months, utilizing “institutional-grade construction which is durable and enduring, with high-quality workmanship and materials,” and employing a design/build delivery system. In this procurement method, the owner enters into only one contract – with the contractor or the designer, and the other party is a consultant. In this case, it was contractor-led design/build, but you can also have architect-led design/build.

The three existing Gables buildings were designed by Sasaki, in what I call the collegiate Georgian Gothic style. They had the Georgian material palette and some details from buildings on the main campus, but were also steeply pitched (16 in 12) roofs, more characteristic of the Gothic style. Their vertical expression related well to the verticality of the second growth forest that surrounded the complex and they were grouped around a forested quad that had an intimate quality. The original Gables were built by Suffolk Construction in 1991, who along with Sasaki would become one of the competing design/build teams.

Existing Gables buildings and the low wall that surrounds the wooded courtyard.

We decided to go to the walk-through to see what the project was, but also had an inkling that it may be Sasaki/Suffolk’s project to lose since the University’s stated goal was to build similar buildings. However, we learned that no one who had worked on the original buildings from either firm was still at that firm and that seemed to open the door for us because the University was well aware of this fact.

We teamed with Cutler Associates, a true design/builder, who had built a number of our projects over the years and whose head of design, Rob Taylor, was a former Associate Principal of our firm. The existing relationships among the senior staff made it easy to collaborate as I had worked for Rob at Huygens DiMella Shaffer early in my career. Cutler had an outstanding conceptual estimator, Rollin Morse, who could put real numbers to Steve Keyser’s conceptual designs.

The master plan indicated that the Gables would eventually have a total of 1,600 beds. As we believe strongly in the value of the campus master plan, our approach in the interview identified this challenge as a “1,000 bed problem, not a 400 bed project”. Utilizing the idea of multiple concepts, we explored with the University various scenarios for accommodating the full build-out and then decided which 400 beds to construct first to create the most effective long-term community. Approaching the project from a campus planning level, even though that was not a requirement of the program, was an idea the University found so compelling, that subsequent RFP’s began including a precinct study prior to building design in order to complement the broad direction established by the campus plan. They commented that one of the reasons we were hired was that we had made it clear to them, in their haste to move forward, that they were potentially going to make a mistake that they might regret when it came to future phases.

A couple of the concepts presented in the interview and the final solution that was implemented with future buildings ghosted in.

As is often the case, we ended up with a solution that neither the client nor we could have achieved without the other. In the end, we built on multiple sites around the existing complex, reinforcing the center of the existing community. We decided as a team that this was the right approach, even though it increased the construction complexity by having two sites and surrounded the existing occupied buildings with construction activities.

So the precinct planning established that reinforcing the existing center of the three building complex, which sits on a plaza that engages native woodlands was the right move. The existing complex possessed a compelling tension between the woods and the architecturally contained plaza. Our solution placed a building to the south, which expands the plaza, and one to north, which acts as a new front door and contains common spaces that were missing in the existing Gables complex. These included a recreation room, general store and expanded study facilities. A decision was made to expand the mail facility in its current location in the middle building of the existing complex to both reinforce the center and compel the students to move among the various buildings in their day to day activities.

The North building fronts a new quad created out of the existing parking lot. This provided a much needed green gathering and play space that did not exist in the original Gables due to its location in the woods. This was achieved without clearing any more trees which was important to the University.

Design concept sketch, final implementation, and an in-use photo of the new recreational quad.

DESIGN/BUILD DELIVERYThe knock on design/build has always been that people will use it for a salt shed, a bridge, or for speed, but not for a project where design is important. I have always believed that you can get quality design from the early collaboration with contractor. As Fred Mulligan of Cutler says, “Sometimes design problems have a construction solution and construction problems have a design solution.” I found this to be true in my earlier business. The key is having the contractor at the table early to hear the owner’s desires for the design firsthand because they can help achieve that as well. Too often in the traditional process, the contractor is brought in to price the job after the design is well developed. The objective measure of success is a lower price, so the contractor is quick to offer “value engineering”suggestions, often times focusing on key design elements. If the architect and contractor are jointly responsible for the success of the overall project and they jointly heard the design goals at the beginning, they can be more creative in the VE. The architect who is privy to the build up of the budget can also better articulate places to target.

In this case, the University had also done quite a bit of work to prepare for the project with a thorough program and design and with well defined construction standards, so it was relatively easy to understand the quality level they were looking for. Doug Bencks, University Architect and Director of Campus Planning recalls:“For the Gables project we implemented a much more rigorous design/build process then we had used previously, and it is now our model for design/build (we have done six more large projects with this contract structure since then). The process ensures that we have the detailed design review we need and expect while having a single contract and the opportunity for a faster overall project delivery. The Gables is just as durable, high performance, easy to maintain, and fitting in character with our campus, as any of our CM or design-bid-build projects.”That being said, speed was also an element behind the selection of design/build for the delivery of this project. These beds were needed for swing space so that the University could undertake subsequent projects which required the demolition of some campus housing well beyond its useful life. The greatest challenge was probably the schedule, which only allowed five months from the beginning of design to GMP. Our kickoff meeting was December 11, 2004 and we went into the ground on March 15th, 2005 during spring break. Producing design excellence in this time frame is a challenge that requires a well conceived plan, rigorous attention to detail, and continuous forethought to maintain design flexibility as packages are released for construction. The project was fast-tracked using multiple bid packages. Substantial completion was accomplished in approximately 18 months and the buildings were ready in the summer of 2006. The design phase was organized so that different topics were presented each week in a scenario that started with the precinct plan and built up cumulatively, all the way to the building details. It was imperative that the Owner got onboard and was prepared to make weekly decisions. Universities can be inherently democratic places and the time needed to build consensus can wreck these aggressive schedules. In this case UNH did an outstanding job of becoming a partner in the process and fulfilling their obligation to make timely decisions.

Design concept sketch, final implementation, and an in-use photo of the new recreational quad.

Another element that helped us was that the program called for the buildings to be compatible to the existing structures without being a copy. We did not have to search for the architectural language. While having the same program and number of beds (200 each) as the existing buildings, the new buildings penciled out 30% larger in terms of square footage based upon the program. This had the potential to effect the building scale and we spent a lot time on the proportions and siting to avoid overwhelming the existing complex. It was also important that this seem more like a campus evolving over time and less like an apartment complex. Six or eight of the same building design repeated over and over was clearly not the solution. The existing buildings were a pleasant combination of Georgian and gothic elements and became the point of departure for the new architectural design. Elements in the existing buildings had referenced some of the older buildings on the main campus so there are themes of detailing – brick textures, cast stone and arches that make the new buildings part of their larger context. Interestingly, when the students showed up to move in, the RA would give their room assignments followed by “old or new Gables”, they said the students would stand there and ask, “Which is the new Gables?” That was an indication that we had successfully accomplished that part of the project goals.

Textural Brick details and true jack arches relate to campus buildings. Textural brick band relates to the existing gables buildings while textural spandrels group the windows into a vertical composition.

The Gables represented a trial of design/build delivery of a substantial project for the owner who planned to follow this project with a design/ bid /build and then a CM at risk project to evaluate these three methods of project delivery. The owner achieved significant value through the teamwork of all parties, the owner, the architect, the contractor and the subcontractors.  In fact, the mason said he would work for less money if he could always be treated as a partner in the execution of his work as he was here. The owner’s Facilities Project Manager called it the “most defect free delivery he has seen at UNH.” In this case the University did their homework with a thorough program and quality standards, placed their trust in the design and construction team and received a project on time and under budget, as the University was able to transfer unused contingency funds to a following project. After establishment of the GMP, the risk shifted to the design and construction team, for no change orders were allowed except in the case of owner-initiated scope changes. In my thirty years in this industry, it is the first time that I have seen a GMP that did not go up. To that, we credit the estimating and management skill of our construction partners at Cutler Associates.

The design leaves no question as to why the complex is called the Gables.

It was a significant scale difference from my small residential design/build experience where I was also on site building and could make design decisions on the fly, but I believe we demonstrated that you can accomplish excellent design in a design/build procurement.  This project received numerous awards including a Citation of Excellence from Learning by Design and Gold Award from Brick in Architecture for the craft of the brickwork. We continue to seek design/build opportunities that have a strong design component and have completed over $300M dollars of construction including subsequent projects at UNH, University of Hartford, Wheelock College, Brown University, and in the private development world in Amherst where we are currently working on three student oriented apartment complexes. The Steve Tisch Fitness Center at Tufts University came about through a client looking to achieve good design while taking advantage of the design/build delivery system. After completion of the Gables project, our project manager Don Klema, said, “ I don’t think I can go back to old way of doing things because this was such a pleasant experience. Instead of pointing the finger or assessing blame, everyone just focused on how to fix the issues most efficiently.” And after all that is the point.