For instance, even though the site was surveyed twice in an effort to discover all buried utility conduits, a TV cable went undetected. And during construction, a previously unknown spring was discovered, causing delays. The list goes on: Three breakers kept failing because of moisture that poor sealing couldn't keep out; the mechanical room needed more work than originally expected to support new equipment; and a worker fell off a ladder and broke both wrists.
Some of those problems could have been addressed quickly, but in many cases they weren't. That's because the Air Force used a design-bid-build contract for the project, meaning it had separate contractors for design and construction, instead of a design-build contract, where one contractor is responsible for both.
In a previous $5 million facility upgrade, the Air Force had used a design-build contract through the Army Corps of Engineers. While that project was a success, the Army Corps of Engineers charged an 8% premium to manage it. This time around, the Air Force wanted to cut costs. It saw the design-bid-build route as a less-expensive option.
One throat to choke
But what the Air Force lost by using a design-bid-build contract was the proverbial "one throat to choke." As problems arose, new requests for information were issued, and multiple teams had to negotiate fixes -- adding months of delays. The Air Force had to work with contracting officers, financial managers, engineers, project managers and others, all of whom were being pulled by other priorities.
"It can be a very tedious process," said Brian Schafer, the infrastructure management chief for the Air Force's supercomputing center. "You can introduce delays that you really didn't anticipate."
With a design-build, there's a single point of contact, someone who knows the project and "can do that change quickly," said Schafer. "I think that was our main issue with this project."
The NOAA project: What went right?
While the Air Force was dealing with an aging facility and some old mechanical systems that presented some unique challenges, NOAA had a newer property to work with in an industrial park designated for high-tech tenants.
Unlike the Air Force, NOAA opted for a design-build contract, with the contractor acting as designer. NOAA had a conceptual design in advance, which it then used in its solicitation.
Darren Smith, the project manager who works in the office of NOAA's CIO, said the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages federal properties, favored the design-build option because it had a very tight budget. "It meant that we got a fixed, firm price for the whole thing," he said.