EP Brain Food Series Recap: Dos and Don’ts of Design Assist

Education, Brain Food On-Demand, Membership,

COAA’s new “Brain Food” virtual education sessions provide a great way for less experienced “Emerging Professionals” (EPs) to learn and discuss project management fundamentals.  The July 2021 offering focused on the “Dos and Don’ts of Design Assist” and was presented by Scott Johnson – a Principal, Senior Project Manager, and Senior Electrical Engineer for Nashville-based Smith Seckman Reid (SSR).


First, a definition of the term Design Assist, provided by COAA Executive Director Howie Ferguson after the session based on his own experience on several projects:

Design-assist is not a project delivery method, like Design-Build, CM At-Risk, or IPD.  Instead, it is a means of engaging certain key trade contractors much earlier in the process – that is, early in design – to leverage their experience, knowledge, constructability suggestions, and/or ideas for reducing the time or cost of delivery or otherwise improving the system, material, or equipment being installed.


Early in the session, Scott polled the audience of 15-16 attendees and learned that most had little or no experience (or comfort) with Design Assist ... but also found that most believed that Design Assist offered high value.  By implementing the “Dos and Don’ts,” Owners may overcome comfort zone issues and improve the project delivery experience.


In no particular order, here are three highlights of the session:


  1. A critical first step in Design Assist is selecting the right trade partners/contractors, particularly ones who are familiar with the design process, are comfortable working in the conceptual stages of design, and can effectively communicate with the team of stakeholders.


  1. Another important task in Design Assist is making sure that all key stakeholders – including O&M personnel – are in alignment regarding the process itself and goals. This starts early in the process by setting clear expectations and defining roles & responsibilities.  This requires a shift in effort and workload, where more must be done (particularly by designers) earlier than with a traditional design process.  Doing so can lead to a number of benefits, though, including a compressed overall schedule, construction acceleration, improved coordination, less construction administration, lower risk, and established team trust.


  1. Collaboration is another major element for successful Design Assist. An environment in which the team actively works together is key here, where the project is the boss and everyone must check their egos at the door.  This sort of culture allows key decisions to be made quickly and openly with everyone at the table. These decisions then need to be filed away for quick access in the future, making documentation a crucial component of the team’s collaboration process.


Other takeaways:

  • Design Assist is a great way to identify and control scope creep early in the overall process
  • Involve Design Assist partners early – schematic design or design development stage
  • Design Assist doesn’t take more or less effort from the design team ... it just shifts the effort to earlier in the process
  • While large project examples were shared, the process is just as applicable to smaller projects, even if only the “mindset” of Design Assist is implemented
  • It is a best practice to pay for Design Assist services


To summarize, if you decide to implement Design Assist on a future project ... target only the appropriate trades and select the right partners; discuss openly and thoroughly so that all stakeholders are aligned; and, especially as the Owner, cultivate a collaborative atmosphere that puts the project’s best interests above all else.

by Derek Meyer (Life Spire Living) and Sally Shumaker (State of Wisconsin)
with input from Brian Bradley (National Heritage Academies) and Matthew Bakke (Medxcel)