By Eric Hornig
Custom play environments are unique spaces that require trained and confident builders to construct. Moreover, there are many different types of delivery methods that serve the construction industry, but not all are suited to play environments. Their deceptively small size and layers of detail can confuse even the most seasoned veteran, so it is important to target the right approach early in the process to gain the most advantage.
The Way It’s Always Been Done (General Contractor)
A general contractor (GC) approach utilizes a company employing experts in building. They typically perform approximately half of the work themselves and then subcontract specialty trades to complete the remainder. Some GC’s perform very little work and subcontract nearly everything.
This strategy assumes that you have engaged a landscape architect, typically as a prime consultant, who has sub-consultants for special disciplines. This team is brought together early in the process and works through the design, ultimately yielding bidding and construction drawings. These drawings are bid by multiple contractors, and the project is awarded to the lowest responsible bidder.
This method is familiar to capital-project developers, allows public transparency, and gives all qualified contractors an opportunity to bid. This strategy—for simple to complex projects—works best when a primary trade is aligned with the project, meaning the most important piece is performed by the GC. A benefit of this approach is a single point of contact (presuming the plans are already drawn up) so there is no question who is responsible. Many projects have been built successfully utilizing this approach, and it is relied upon frequently.
The true cost of the project utilizing this method is unknown until bidding, after much effort has been expended. Competitive markets can cause bidders to squeeze profit margins to an uncomfortable point, encouraging them to seek changes throughout the project or to cut corners where possible. Most are victims of market conditions and are fair and equitable with changes, but some contractors make a living this way. In this strategy, late changes are rarely free. It is important that the GC is part of the team, and that a professional, collaborative, and fair relationship is established and maintained.
Find an Expert to Help (Construction Manager)
A construction manager (CM) approach utilizes a company employing experts in site construction who can help plan, package, and administer the bidding and construction aspects of a project. For the purposes of this article, a client advocate-style CM, who works just like a consultant, will be utilized, with a pre-determined fee and no ability to profit from construction.
This strategy assumes a similar design process, adding the CM to the team as early as possible to provide expertise on tricky construction elements and current market information. The project is priced by individual trade contractors and is awarded to the lowest responsible bidder for each trade. The construction manager can hold the individual contracts or manage them for the owner.
It is advantageous to have another construction expert looking out for the owner. If this expert is involved early enough, cost overruns and technical challenges resulting in changes can be greatly reduced. Money can be saved by dividing up the trades and not incurring markup on their work from a GC. This is a particular value on larger and more complicated projects where there is enough work to entice each trade, and the extra oversight helps ensure that critical sequences run smoothly.
There is less value to this approach for smaller, simpler, and potentially single-trade projects that can be easily overseen. While CM’s can still provide quality improvements, the fees can sometimes overshadow the value.
Build It Together (Community Build)
A Community Build (CB) approach can take many different forms, but in general it implies utilizing volunteer forces or material donations to accomplish a portion of the goals.
This strategy requires the same design process indicated above but with the potential for more detailed or differently communicated documents for construction in order to better inform the volunteers. A significant leadership team needs to be in place to coordinate volunteer efforts as well as additional oversight in the field from the design team, material suppliers, and equipment vendors.
One playground manufacturer indicates that the potential financial savings yielded by this approach can be up to 30 percent of the cost of a playground.[i] This approach is heavily grounded in context, allowing the community to place its mark on a public space. If handled correctly, this process offers a richly rewarding experience for those involved and will create lifelong memories, particularly for the children who see their dreams and ideas take shape.
This approach is, however, like planning a large wedding. It can take a task force hundreds of hours to orchestrate. If a team has plenty of heart but no organizational skills, it is important to find someone who does, or it might be better to step quietly away from the project. Communication, presentation, scheduling, and a full understanding of the resources available within the community and the boldness to call on them are necessary.
Pre-manufactured components lend themselves well to community-build projects because they arrive with assembly-line, quality-controlled parts and the all-important instructions. Complicated elements, such as electrical and mechanical systems, concrete, and stone, need expertise, heavy equipment, endurance, and specialty tools to install. For these projects, there may be a combination of paid experts doing the more difficult work and volunteers helping at strategic points.
For these types of projects, it is important to set the bar realistically, as there will be deviations from the plan. Everything should be double-checked for safety and code compliance, and one should be prepared to accept some flaws. On the other hand, some things may be better than originally planned!
Figure It Out in the Field (Design-Build)
A Design-Build (DB) approach is one in which the vision has been clearly set and some degree of detailing has been developed by the design team, but some of the decisions will be left until the construction phase of the project.
This strategy demands a strong trust in the builder, earned through a portfolio of demonstrated experience. With the documents prepared, the performance can be detailed and the aesthetic requirements set, but some flexibility for artistic expression or system efficiency can be left to the builder. Documents may have more narrative information than usual and should clearly define requirements like warranties, structural needs, and regulating restrictions.
This method is typically reserved for specialty portions of a project that are difficult to document adequately enough for bidding or that might make the normal bidding pool anxious, causing them to inflate a proposal. This approach is useful for basic elements that are easy to describe in narrative, or very complicated elements that require fabrication and installation expertise beyond that of the design team.
Challenges with this method occur in the areas of trust and communication between the designer, owner, and contractor because without fully illustrated drawings, it will take a leap of faith that the project will turn out the way expected. Be sure to pre-qualify potential bidders; include check steps like scale models, shop drawings, mock-ups, shop visits, and in-progress photographs; and be prepared to react quickly and thoroughly to items presented. Adjustments can then be made along the way without incurring costs.
Just Do It Yourself (In-House)
An in-house (IH) approach is one in which individuals plan to use their own forces to accomplish a portion of the project. Many recreation providers have extremely talented staff and sufficient tools to deal with parts of the project. It is uncommon for an entire customized play environment to be tackled in-house, but it typically occurs for small pieces on almost all projects.
This strategy requires the same design process indicated above and generally comes about when costs become an issue. The main pieces of the project are priced by multiple contractors, with clear indications of what materials or labor will be provided by the owner and what coordination is required.
This is a money-saving method; using employees already on the payroll will better the bottom line of the project. Staff members may have a clearer understanding of the project and the property, being able to eliminate any learning curve that might be required by an outside contractor. There is also great value to keeping employees involved and giving them an opportunity to showcase their talents.
The drawbacks to this method are minimal, but the obvious one is that the staff has other things to do, so demands on their time have to be balanced. Depending on the task, they may also need training or additional equipment to accomplish this since it may not be part of their daily routine.
So, which method should you use? It depends on the individual project with specific criteria, context, resources, goals, staff, expertise, and tolerances. In sketching a plan for clients, it really isn’t any fun if the project can’t be built. So have fun!
Eric Hornig is a Principal and landscape architect with Hitchcock Design Group’s Recreation Studio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hitchcock Design Group is a landscape architecture and planning firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill.