Field Trips Aren’t Just for Kids

by | Oct 26, 2018

San Jose Water Company (SJW) recently completed their first progressive design-build project and largest capital improvement project ever: a $50 million upgrade to the Montevina Water Treatment Plant in Los Gatos, California. The project was recently recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers San Francisco Section as the 2018 Environmental Engineering Project of the Year. During his acceptance speech at the awards banquet, Andrew Gere, President and Chief Operating Officer of SJW, said, “The success of the project was founded upon partnering developed by the owner and the design-builder.”

Flashback four and a half years to March 20, 2014, when San Jose Water and HDR, their newly selected design-builder, conducted their first partnering workshop. At that workshop they jointly developed a partnering charter that included a common set of goals and objectives for the design-build project and a mission statement of “collaborate, innovate, achieve.” That partnering workshop, the subsequent partnering workshop updates prior to construction, and a refresher workshop during construction were keys to collaborating, innovating, and achieving extraordinary success. Interestingly, that initial workshop provided some hidden gems that added value and were rewarding to the entire owner/design-builder team.

One of the great benefits of progressive design-build delivery is the opportunity it presents for the owner and design-builder to work together to develop a design and construct a project that maximizes what the owner can do on a limited budget. One of the partnering workshop attendees suggested a field trip to look at similar water treatment plants where they could see the proposed improvements for their own project before implementing them and talk with other owners about their likes and dislikes. So, the core project team from SJW and HDR hit the road on two separate field trips up and down the state of California to look at four water treatment plants. The project manager assigned each field trip participant an action item: identify 10 items at each plant that they liked or disliked. The combined lists were reviewed at subsequent project meetings, and many of the highly desired items were incorporated into the project.

While it might seem like an obvious outcome of any field trip, the unexpected benefit for these team members was a stronger connection with each other. The extended time together and the conversations in the caravan between the different plants allowed us to get to know each other outside of the typical fast-paced work environment. It was on one of these trips that we learned that the owner’s project manager met President Lyndon B. Johnson outside the president’s ranch in Texas during the Vietnam War and that another participant’s father was in the D-Day invasion in Europe and he had revisited that region with his dad 57 years after the war.

Because of the experiences on our field trips, once the project started we decided to implement a practice during lunch at our monthly progress meetings; each member of the core management team (on a monthly rotating basis) would share an experience with the group, such as a trip they took with their family, what they learned from attending a conference, or any topic outside of the project scope.

The discussions among the project group during the field trips and subsequent monthly meetings helped develop a stronger connection between the owner’s and design-builder’s core management staff. It was this connection that helped us effectively navigate many of the challenges that occurred during design and construction of the project.

Lawrence P. Johnson, PE, DBIA, Vice President, HDR, Inc.

WDBC Past President Larry Johnson has over 40 years of design, project management, program management, construction management, and design-build experience in the water and wastewater industry. He has worked for both engineering and at-risk construction companies on some of the world’s largest and most complex water and wastewater programs in United States, Australia, and Europe. For the past 25 years he has been focused exclusively on collaborative delivery and has completed more than 18 design-build and construction management at-risk projects.