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Rik Kunnath Remembers

Richard M. “Rik” Kunnath was a civil engineer who went to work for Mobile Oil after graduating from the University of Detroit. Later, he joined the petro-chemical division of BASF. As Kunnath explains it, he left the petrochemical sector when he realized that, as a civil engineer, his role would never be central to the mission of any company he worked for. In 1979, he accepted a job in Hawaii working for Charles Pankow Builders (CPB). This well-known firm was the quality construction company he needed to advance.

Kunnath’s career with CPB was a steady upward trajectory that placed him in the CEO’s office in a little over a decade. By 1993, he was a major up-and-comer at Pankow and he was quickly tapped to oversee his firm’s contribution to what would become the Design-Build Institute of America.

How did you come to represent CPB and ultimately to be Preston Haskell’s immediate successor?

Rik Kunnath: I think Dean Stephens, who was Vice President at Pankow, could see that if we were truly to move the industry forward toward adoption of design-build then forming DBIA would be a multi-year investment. I think they envisioned that my age and keen interest in design-build made me suitable for the assignment. I really appreciated it. It was an opportunity to be at the forefront — at least it had that potential.

What were the most pressing issues for DBIA as you worked with Haskell and the steering committee that launched DBIA as you began your term as National Board Chair?

Rik Kunnath: There were several issues — all valid — and all simultaneously competing for attention. There were endless good ideas. I remember a very early meeting of the Steering Committee [This group of five spearheaded the creation of DBIA in early 1993]. We needed an executive director but we had no money. When we hired Jeff Beard, we pledged that even if we never got another member, the Steering Committee would cover his salary and expenses.

There was a lot of uncertainty about whether we were going to grow. Other industry organizations were established around an entirely different purposes — a particular profession or trade. DBIA was radically different and it is scary hard to get behind something in which you have no direct self-interest.

Also, while we all agreed on the value of design-build there were a lot of different approaches. The language of design-build was not yet consistent. If we were going to advocate for design-build we needed to have the same play book. A considerable amount of time was spent defining terms. What did “turn-key” mean? The term “integrated services,” for example, had not been coined.

In your opinion what stands out as DBIA’s greatest accomplishment of the past 20 years?

Rik Kunnath: Our greatest accomplishment is professionalizing and advocating for co-operation and the integrated delivery of projects. Teams had been so siloed and those boundaries have been reduced or eliminated. Now, we are able to look together at how a project can best be done. You simply can’t overestimate the power of collaboration.

A huge surprise for me, and others, is that design-build became overwhelmingly more important in the public sector. Why? The private sector has no constraints. Prior to DBIA’s push for best value selection (BVS) the public building owner had no tools to control budget. Projects were late. Moreover, no matter how late a company was on the last job, the lowest bidder always wins and will win on the next contract. Through BVS, the public sector can almost compete at the private sector level. DBIA led the charges for best value. As a result, the public has a tool to pick quality people based on a myriad of factors. BVS would not have taken hold without DBIA’s advocacy.

How will the delivery method change over the next 20 years?

Rik Kunnath: Design-build will be with us for the foreseeable future and that future will unfold very much as it has for sustainability. We see model codes replacing sustainability requirements, very soon we won’t have to talk about sustainability as distinct; it will become normal operating procedure.

Design-build will be the same. Very quickly it will become a standard delivery tool that people will understand.

Some of the advantages of design-build are emerging and growing their own roots — IPD [Integrated Project Delivery] or just collaboration in general is moving the industry in different directions. But design-build has a lot to do with risk transfer. IPD is not really about that. DBIA should get credit for demonstrating the value of integration and creating momentum toward true “projectship.” The challenge for IPD is that most agencies can’t be in the ultimate risk position. How does the public sector take on that risk? That is where design-build doesn’t have a competitor.

Looking back, we wanted design-build to be private, but it became a major public delivery mechanism. IPD will be the opposite. Ultimately, the needs and ability of owners dictate the fate of any project delivery system.


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