The Advantages of a Design-Build Approach

Food retailer Weis Markets stay a step ahead by modifying the design-build process to suit its needs

In the fall of 2013, when Jim Murphy joined Weis Markets as director of construction, the food retailer already had completed construction documents for a 100,000-square-foot addition to the deli and dairy section of its main distribution center in Milton, Pennsylvania. The project was an important one; it consolidated delivery schedules to save time and fuel costs and increased both productivity and competitiveness. But the process was slow. Murphy waited for various approvals and watched as plans went back and forth between owners, contractors, and architects. Finally, in April 2015, he and his colleagues held a groundbreaking ceremony. After navigating several design issues, they opened the doors several weeks behind schedule in March 2016. While the project was ultimately a success, Murphy knew there was a better way.

A Design-Build Evangelist

As he watched it all unfold, Murphy looked for opportunities to influence strategy and met regularly with senior leaders to advocate for a modified design-build process he thought would improve efficiency, shorten construction schedules, and reduce the amount of change orders. Prior to joining Weis, Murphy worked for HEB, PetSmart, Wal-Mart, and Tyson Foods. The eight foundational years spent at Tyson opened Murphy’s eyes to the advantages of the design-build approach. As a project manager in charge of roofing, he helped a senior project manager complete a large-scale development that included a hatchery, a feed mill, and a processing facility early and under budget. When the contractor overlooked electrical components, his company—and not Tyson—paid for the remedy.

Murphy became a design-build evangelist, and he has since developed the philosophy throughout his career. “Bringing the contractors in as valued partners early on a project has many advantages,” he says. “As a director of construction, I rely on their expertise because they build things on a daily basis. They see new materials and fresh concepts all the time, and they know so much that can help me on a job if I let them have input.”

After several conversations with his leaders at Weis, Murphy had made some headway. “I think I wore them down,” he jokes, “but my boss gave me a chance to demonstrate the merits of the design-build approach.” Murphy got the green light to proceed with an important freezer-expansion project at the same distribution center. Armed with a floor plan and a scope of work, he set a pre-bid meeting with five design-build GCs. Then, each company developed a presentation for key players, including the internal construction department, the architect of record, end users, and Weis’s leadership team. Weis narrowed the field to two companies with freezer-expansion experience and gathered final guaranteed maximum price agreements before selecting Conewago Enterprises, Inc.

Once the contractor was on board, the project moved quickly. Conewago sent construction documents to Weis within four weeks, and soon, work was under way. “Design-build goes fast because the owner and contractor are in constant communication from the start,” Murphy says. “They know our goals and we know their process. There are fewer problems and surprises.”

Mutual Benefits

The process also allows owners to benefit from a contractor’s expertise and experience. After hearing that Weis was forecasting future growth, Conewago advised Weis to increase width and raise roof height during the freezer-expansion project. Murphy agreed, and together, the parties found a way to do so at no additional cost. The move allowed for more pallet storage space and eliminated a planned expansion. When the larger building plan encroached on an existing building, Conewago researched and found a precast wall that satisfied the concerns of the fire marshal. Murphy says the opportunities and savings may have been overlooked, had Weis attempted the design on its own.

The results speak for themselves. Murphy and his team completed the freezer-expansion project ahead of schedule, and once the dust settles, he expects to receive a deductive change order from Conewago.

Weis is taking this modified design-build process into the realm of new store construction. New store timelines have been reduced to 27 weeks. As senior leaders see results and embrace the approach, Murphy is looking forward to taking design-build to other areas. In doing so, he’ll help the company stay atop the fiercely competitive food retail market.