Design Review

GCN Photo by Henrik G. DeGyor

The State Department is upgrading the defenses of its sites around the world. Security reasons prevent stating the location of this new embassy.

New security measures include reinforcing walls and windows in State's construction projects.

DrChecks takes the pulse of State's building plans

The State Department's Overseas Building Operations office is speeding up the design of its construction projects with a Web collaboration tool called Design Review and Checking System, or DrChecks.

The Army Corps of Engineers developed DrChecks for military and civilian construction. State's building operations office adopted the tool for its work at 12,000 overseas properties and 260 posts, including embassies, consulates, residences, warehouses, offices and Marine Corps housing.
Retired Maj. Gen. Charles E. Williams, the office's director, said the need to 'improve perimeter defense and access control' became clear after the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa and gained intensity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

State's geographically dispersed project teams had always exchanged review comments on paper until the 1999 pilot of DrChecks.

The tool linked the teams via a secure Internet client-server architecture, showing each user only the appropriate functions and information.

'We couldn't initially do business on the Internet because much of our design work is sensitive,' said Robert Clarke, an architect and manager in State's Design and Engineering Branch. 'We originally rolled out DrChecks on the department's secure intranet.' Later, the office worked with the Corps of Engineers on a virtual private network. Enhancements to DrChecks, under the development name ProjNet, included a firewall and VPN access to an e-government portal, plus tools and secure Internet file transfer.
Williams said ProjNet is one of State's first e-government business applications.

'It will let us pass our critical design work along to others in a much more efficient way and cut the costs and logistics of transferring files,' he said.

After reviewers learned how to use the tool, they wanted to expand its use to all their work, which has six phases: a review kick-off, a collaborative review, technical coordination, designer response, reviewer back-check and finally an integrated design review meeting.

In the review kick-off meeting, the design team confirms a submitted design's completeness, security management and cost. At this step, the team rejects designs that are over-budget, incomplete or inadequate in security.

During the collaborative review phase, reviewers enter comments into DrChecks, which tracks them with names, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses.

The technical coordination meeting screens out inappropriate, redundant or conflicting comments.

Statistics collected from this integrated process show that, on average, 20 percent of the design problems are eliminated by this point, before architectural and engineering contractors see the comments.
The architects and engineers also provide feedback through DrChecks. They can tag each comment for its impact on cost, scope or schedule. At this point, 70 percent of review concerns are satisfied.

During the reviewer back-check, each originating reviewer closes out the questions or explains why the architectural and engineering responses were not accepted. At this stage, 18 percent more issues are resolved.

The remaining 12 percent of open issues indicate disagreement between the government and the architect or engineer about a technical design requirement or its implementation. These comments undergo an integrated review by all stakeholders, either in person or via teleconference. The meeting concludes when all stakeholders have agreed on a resolution.

'DrChecks puts more discipline and consistency into the design review documents than was possible before,' Williams said. 'Negotiations are friendlier because the government's position is clearly stated'and this helps avoid disputes in the first place.'

DrChecks has about 500 users and 46,000 comments for 403 projects so far. On a $100 million project, Clarke said, he conservatively estimates the time saved at 60 staff hours.
DrChecks also speeds up conflict resolution. The office has cut about 20 days from each design review and, for the same baseline $100 million plus a 3 percent inflation factor, has saved an estimated $167,000 in construction costs.

A third advantage is fewer change orders, which amount to about 0.25 percent of each project. Against the same $100 million in construction dollars, that translates into $250,000 in savings. In all, the estimated savings with DrChecks is $500,000 for a $100 million project.

The tool paid for itself in less than a year. It initially cost $250,000 for setup, and State pays about $70,000 per year for a subscription fee, full technical support and maintenance of secure servers.

'From the number and type of comments, DrChecks showed us the specifications and requirements that are most often misunderstood,' Williams said. That has helped to clarify design guidelines, project definition documents, statements of work and requests for proposals, he said.

The system also shows which architectural and engineering contractors most often disagree with reviewers' comments. It has a corporate lessons-learned module that the office is just beginning to implement.

Agencies can subscribe to ProjNet through the Army's Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Ill.

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