This month, Rick Ford is retiring from ESCO Communications where he has served as Vice President of Operations for the last 10 years. The curving career path that led him there gave him vast experience in the construction industry, which he has shared on many different levels by passionately promoting collaborative building delivery methods in Indiana and serving as a mentor to aspiring industry professionals.
His considerable mark in this industry will continue to grow as those mentors and others who learned from him begin to take on the mantle of leadership in their companies and associations.
A Unique Experience
Ford began his career as many others have. He entered the IBEW's apprenticeship program in 1970 with his last stop in the program being a gig at Commonwealth Electric, a national power that was ranked among the top five electrical contractors in the country in terms of overall revenue at the time. At 27, he was given an opportunity that would give him the experience of a lifetime and paid considerable dividends throughout his career.
Ford became the Site Project Manager at a uranium enrichment facility where the job was, among other things, to upgrade the capacity for their switchyards and build a uranium sampling facility.
The projects were both sophisticated and complex - at one point installing a piece of equipment that weighed over 115 tons - and Ford was exposed to a whole new world of construction that involved complying with complex regulations, highly detailed documentation, the highest safety standards, scheduling demands and the need for completeness, thoroughness and accuracy.
It was the watershed event of his career that shaped his path forward.
"The experience elevated my understanding of the business in a way that I don't know I could have gotten anywhere else," Ford says. "Commonwealth had the systems, progress tracking, cost accounting and the resources for training. And then the experience of working in that kind of site environment and being on my own had a very real and lasting effect on me and how I viewed the industry as a whole."
At Commonwealth, Ford worked with another young man who would ultimately have a great affect on the local construction scene. John Gaylor would go on to found Gaylor Electric, a company that at the time challenged many industry expectations by becoming a thriving, and ultimately national, merit shop electrical contracting operation.
A Winding Career Path
After finishing the jobs at the nuclear facility, Ford and his family were set to go on another assignment to Louisville, Kentucky. Then, Gaylor recommended that Ford be brought back to Indianapolis to be responsible for the service and small projects division at Commonwealth. As a result, the moving van, packed and on its way to Louisville, literally had to be redirected north.
And while at the company, Ford began using and embracing a delivery method that would become his professional passion: collaborative building or design-build.
Commonwealth ultimately closed its Indianapolis office leading to another legendary figure in the local construction industry, Riad Shaheen of Long Electric, to contact Ford about joining them. Here another pattern in Ford's career begins: watching out for the careers of his friends and colleagues.
Jim Black was in the apprenticeship program with Ford and they became good friends. Commonwealth had hired him too and they both agreed when the Indianapolis office closed that they did not want to end up competing against each other in different companies. So Ford asked Shaheen to hire Black and he ended up doing more than that. Every serviced truck driver and lead foremen went to work at Long and a number of other former Commonwealth employees landed there, too.
Unfortunately Shaheen passed away just 18 months later. That led to changes at the company with Ford leaving to join Gaylor where he was the Manager of Design and Estimating. The company had a growing presence in the design-build community.
The Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), which Ford has been a member of since 1996, created the title of Design-Build Designated Professional in 2002. Ford was a member of the first class, thereby becoming one of the first to ever achieve this title.
Meanwhile, Chip Roth had recently brought ESCO Communications back from a national rollout. Ford had worked there earlier in his career and jumped at the opportunity to return as their Vice President of Operations, a position that he has held there for 10 years until his impending retirement.
"It's been the biggest team focused environment I have ever been in," says Ford of his ESCO experience. "We have a really professional group and we get to do a lot of cool stuff, such as Lucas Oil Stadium and the Notre Dame Stadium. I was able to bring my operations experience to help build an infrastructure for ESCO operations and I have been able to do design-build in the technology sector that has been an exciting new challenge for me."
One of the most notable jobs that Ford mentions is being a part of the first design-build on the very first K-12 school in Indiana. "That was a nice milestone," he said.
A Passion for Design-Build
Throughout most of Ford's career, he has promoted design-build as a highly preferred delivery method. He has served in various leadership positions for the DBIA and its chapters.
For example, he was President of the Great Lakes Region and was instrumental in getting that chapter to move its offices from Chicago to Indianapolis. He then served on the National Board of Directors and also held the National Region Leadership Chair, putting him in a position to help all of the regions across the country on a regular basis. He has also served on the jury for the prestigious national student design-build competition.
Asked why the use of design-build began to steadily grow in the United States, he said, "The short answer is owners and practitioners like the working environment it creates, and the results it produces."
Ford sees the shift away from the long established design-bid-build approach, particularly as a specialty contractor, as a combination of three greater trends in the industry.
"Advances in technology continue to reset our expectations for the speed of information transfer. The pace of the industry prior to fax machines was set by moving paper via mail, courier, or package carriers. Response times were measured in days if not weeks. The fax machine delivered information in minutes. This advance created an appetite for speed we still have not satisfied.
"The Internet gave us a platform to distribute all types of document files, create project management websites, and remotely participate in real time. E-mail has become our preferred method to send and receive information. Now with wireless connectivity expectations are for immediate responses and instant information.
"This highly interactive data sharing environment is also an ideal tool to support team collaboration, an essential element of design-build delivery."
Secondly, Ford cites increasing pressure on the design community as another factor taking the industry toward design-build.
"Design completeness, clarity, and inter discipline coordination are critical to having the quality bid documents design-bid-build relies on. As purely quality-based selection of the design professionals began to include elements of fee competition, the resources to develop design details were reduced.
"Bid documents started to place performance requirements on the contractor. Contractors had to interpret the bid documents and determine "intent" in order to prepare bids. This forced them to gain expertise in areas that were once exclusively the province of designers.
"I believe this promoted a practice I call "˜information poker.' We only share information that supports our success in the project. Each letter, or RFI, is framed to get information the writer needs, without exposing information to others that could hurt them. This means many decisions are made without full knowledge of the facts.
"Learning to accept and manage design risk has given many contractors the resources to pursue design-build business options."
Finally, Ford sees a growing appetite among owners for better project results driving the design-build movement.
"Owners generally want projects that meet their needs and are completed on time, on budget, and without litigation. Design-bid-build delivery inherently has some limitations to achieving these goals."
First, in a bidding environment, the scope is developed without actual cost feedback. Budgets are established for planning but the actual cost is not known until the bids are received. At this point the design dollars have been spent so any changes to meet the budget cost all the participants extra money and time.
"Scope reductions through value engineering only net a fraction of the savings from the original estimated cost.
"This process shows how important it is to establish the cost of a project early before all the design work is done. Constructability and scheduling are also potentially contentious issues that are not fully addressed until the low bidders are determined. Since they are the ones that will do the work, their knowledge and experience level will drive the actual installation performance of the project.
"In DBB the owner holds contracts with the designer and the contractor which puts them in the middle of any disputes that arise from either party. That is certainly not a responsibility owners are prepared for, or enjoy.
"It seems natural they would be interested in the single source approach of design-build for their projects."
Ford sees the basic premise of design-build - that working together provides better outcomes than working independently - to be self-evident.
"Forming an integrated team of design and construction design-build professionals to conceive, plan and execute a project enables each to contribute their full value," he said.
He cautions that not everyone is suited to participate in the process.
"It is important to note the efficiencies, and creativity, expected from this team can only come from professionals who have learned to make the mental shift from DBB to DB.
"The two delivery systems are completely different and expertise in one does not translate to the other. A DB professional faces demands for insight to thoroughly understand the owner, team trust, listening and personal communications skills, and collaboration with the group."
He also believes that such project initiatives as BIM and LEED.
"Technical expertise is of limited value if it cannot be shared in a way to promote innovation. Collaborative environments are increasingly desired to support project initiatives like BIM and LEED. These goals are best met when they can be addressed by the whole team during the conceptual stage of a project."
"Design-build delivery has helped identify collaboration as a key driver of project success. For the construction industry to reach it's potential, collaboration is not enough. Owner demands for lower cost and higher performing facilities continues to grow.
"At the National DBIA conference last year Barbara Jackson, a DBIA National Educator, described her vision of the next step. She said in effect that collaboration is the sharing of information, and integration is the sharing of knowledge to create understanding. Design-build is already evolving into Integrated Project Delivery in many areas of the country, and throughout the world. The same forces that have caused this change are at work in Indiana.
"Design-build is not for every project or for every owner. However, it is coming and will continue to find supporters from those that want to work in an environment where performance counts. The first step is to learn how it works and how to participate to see if it is a good fit for your future."
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