An Anniversary Conversation with DBIA’s Deb Sheehan and Don Warren

We are at the halfway point of DBIA’s 30th anniversary celebration, and we hope you’ve enjoyed looking back on where we started as well as forward to where we’ll go next. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to celebrate three decades of Design-Build Done Right® without the visionaries who brought the idea to lion wfe or the leaders who keep us looking ahead. 

Current Chair of DBIA’s National Board of Directors Deb Sheehan sat down with early DBIA visionary Don Warren to talk about how much the organization has grown, the role benchmark moments like 9/11 and the Great Recession played in the industry, the importance of Design-Build Done Right® and where DBIA should be focused next. Warren shares his thoughts on how students and young professionals can set up the future of design-build, stressing the need for those groups to engage future professionals from across the AEC industry.

Transcript included below.

Deb Sheehan

In a career spanning three decades, Deb Sheehan, DBIA, ACHE, LEED AP, EDAC, Healthcare Market Strategy Leader for DPR Construction, has been honored for her evidence-based project delivery approach. Honing a background in business management, design, engineering and construction, she champions short- and long-term strategies that shape industry trends and anticipate next-generation solutions. Sheehan has overseen the delivery of more than $9.5 billion of investments in design solutions for the built environment as a project executive. Whether advising global clients such as the Turkish Ministry of Health or the Kuwait Public Institution for Social Security on innovations in building design and project delivery, Sheehan seeks to be a change agent within the building industry.

Her success in partnering with clients around the world has made her a sought-after industry expert. She has garnered recognition and had her work published by organizations such as Building Design & Construction, ACE Building Summit, Building Innovation Summit, Advisory Board, Health Facility Management, Joint Commission International, Sg2 and the World Health Congress.

Sheehan is a recipient of Building Design & Construction’s inaugural 40-under-40 program and the Healthcare Design Top Twenty Making a Difference in Healthcare. She is a diplomat of the American College of Healthcare Executives and an Executive Committee Member of the Design-Build Institute of America National Board of Directors. She holds a degree from Miami University (1989) and is an Honors recipient of the University of Wisconsin Business Management Program (1993) and Harvard Graduate School of Design (1994). Additionally, she maintains DBIA Certification and registration as a USGBC Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) professional and Evidence-Based Design Accreditation (EDAC).

Don G. Warren

One of DBIA’s “Founding Fathers,” Don Warren, FDBIA, has been an influencer in the organization since its inception. Warren’s roles have included serving on the Board of Directors from 1993 to 2000 as well as being the chairman of the Board in 1998. He was also the chairman of the Process Industries Committee from 1999 to 2001 and is well known for working on two DBIA Projects of the Year (1996, 1999).

In late 2022, Warren joined Omega Construction, one of the Southeast’s leading general contracting firms, to lead their newly established, full-service Upstate South Carolina operation. Prior to that, Warren was Executive Vice President for McCrory Construction Company. Overall, he has more than 30 years of experience in design-build, which he has brought to his work as a DBIA instructor. Warren was named to the first class of the DBIA College of Fellows in 2018.

Warren graduated from North Carolina State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering – Construction (CEC). He is a licensed General Contractor in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Warren is a past board member of the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) and has been a member of the American Arbitration Association (AAA) National Roster of Neutrals since 2006.



Deb Sheehan  00:07

I’m joined today by Dan Warren, the Executive Vice President of Upstate Division at Omega Construction. As one of the founders of DBIA, Don has been an influencer in our industry for decades. Don’s service to DBIA has been extensive. He’s been the chairman of the board. He’s been on the board of directors from ’93 to 2000 and chaired it in 1998. In acknowledgement for his outstanding contributions to the service of the organization, Don was inducted as part of our inaugural class of the College of Fellows in 2018. Thrilled to have him here today. I’m going to kick us off a little bit with a discussion sharing my personal excitement as the newbie here, with really taking on the chairperson role for the national board. Huge year in front of us, guys. We’ve got a 30-year anniversary for this organization; Don has seen a lot of that history. And I’d love to just open it up today and have a conversation with him about, one, getting some of his counsel, some of his sage advice, but also just perspective of what we’ve really seen, as far as both the industry and the organization, have gone through some really rapid evolution, and really starting to see what that might hold for us collectively as practitioners as we move into 2023. So Don, any advice that you can offer me as I go into this role?

Don Warren  01:29

Well, I can’t imagine chairing a group that’s over 7,000 members. Our first meeting– annual meeting, I understand we have 2,200. 29? Alright, 22. But we had 35 people in our first annual meeting in 1993. So it’s come a long way. And it’s something to be proud of. But Barbara Jackson coined the phrase Design-Build Done Right®. And I would just counsel you to just keep focused on that axiom. It’s one of the first things I use when I talk about design-build to an Owner that has not done it before. And I think it’s a– the organization’s to a point that is somewhat a series of 1% improvement – Kaizen, just to show how old I am. Secondly, I think keep your– keep your message to Owners that haven’t used design-build simple, though, the ol’ KISS theory. But I’ve always started out with quoting Design-Build Done Right®. But I also think the master builder concept with the symbol, the logo of DBIA is a pyramid. And with an owner that has never used it, design-build before, I’ll say, “Let me just ask you a question. Do you think they built the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramid with an architect in this corner? Insurance in that corner? Loggers over here? Contractor over here? Architects over here? I don’t think so. And that’s really what design-build is all about. It’s single source. It’s not a master builder, singular. It’s a master team, design-build builders working together.

Deb Sheehan  03:23

Absolutely. Recognizing some of the challenges today– so we’re probably going to be facing a recession. We’ve got severe volatility in the market right now, both on commodities, as well as even shortages in our workforce. How do those challenges today– how do they compare contrast? I’d just be interested to get your perspective of what you were facing 30 years ago?

Don Warren  03:46

Well, when we started the organization in ’93, from ’93, through 2000, were good years. The industry was growing. Everything was going well; design-build was growing, but 9/11 happened. And I know that when that happened, we were on course, at Suitt Construction, where I was president/CEO, to do 500 million in that year, and we were doing 200 million in ’93. And from that point on, for the next eight months, we didn’t sell any work. 2008-9, we all remember that was the Great Recession. And I just remember I started my own company in 2006, first three years, great. And $40 million of work signed up in the summer of 2008. And then the crash and all– none of those contracts got built. So that was a tough time for everybody, for the whole industry. But I think on the positive side, the design-build delivery method allows, in this environment we’re in now, to have your designers, all the critical path items, all the long lead or supply chain issues, switchgear, roofing material, structural, steel, decking, get that design real quick immediately all the identify– let your team identify what are– what are roadblocks, what are going to be our hurdles here if we don’t get this designed and purchased? And a good example, one of the projects that’s getting– was awarded last year ’22 was a job that I was involved with, with Pregis Films, a blown film plant. And we were putting 780 tons of steel in a 30,000-foot demo footprint. And it was obviously tall. But what we did was we designed and got preordered within four weeks of getting the job with a great company in Charlotte, SteelFab, and, and they delivered and that allowed us to build a facility and actually get it operational from the first day of design to operational in less than 10 months. And then a third-party process engineer that said that normally, his normal was 18 plus months from design to manufacturing sellable product. So there are still ways the design-build delivery allows us to influence and do design early quickly and get all this material on order even it is 26 months or 26 weeks or 10 months or whatever.

Deb Sheehan  06:43

I love that parallel that you brought, though is that, as daunting as some of the horizon looks with regard to some of the uncertainty. You’ve, you know, really restated that we’ve been here before we’ve been here before, we’ve met those challenges.

Don Warren  06:55

Yeah, this this industry is complex. Put it as a succinct word, but every day is different every day, every opportunity. And that’s what I think the design-builders in the DBIA, we all are, are problem solvers. Where we don’t react, we don’t go cry in the corner. We, we take action. And that’s the beauty of design-build.

Deb Sheehan  07:18

Yeah, everybody leans in at that point. Yes, absolutely. So as we kind of look at compare contrast between the industry and some of what you’ve seen over three decades there. Can you talk a little bit about what either you’re excited about that has evolved in DBIA over those same three decades? So as you’ve seen that evolution of the organization evolve, you talked a little bit about some of you know, what, you know, to be some of the gaps that you want to see addressed? Are there any other things that you’ve seen kind of really, as you kind of mile-mark the three decades that the organization has been in existence, that you’ve seen as some of the changes that have happened that have been really positive along the way?

Don Warren  07:57

Oh, it’s, you know, this is a highlight of my career. I’ve been doing this 40 plus years, just to be involved with the organization from the beginning. And as I was telling you earlier, I was the youngest then at 38 in 1993. I’m still the youngest, had to check Jim Gray out. He’s two years older than me so. But to go from 11% to 45%, to 47% by 2025. I mean, that’s just amazing. And I was with the students and young professionals, and I told them, they were talking about how to grow their chapters. And they were struggling because I asked them, I said, Are you are you talking to like – there was three people from Auburn – I know, Auburn University – and I said, Are you guys just talking to the construction people? Well, yeah. I said, Why don’t you talk to the civil engineers and mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and the architects? Because that’s design-build. That should change. And it’s like light bulbs came out. So that’s, I think, I’m excited with the students, the young professionals, I’m excited to see best practices being updated, because it is an evolution. The leadership, Lisa Washington and her staff, are just fantastic. I’ve been involved with the fellows last five years, and I’m leading the mentorship committee, and it’s just a great experience to see how we can develop and train and work with and support these younger– young professionals because they’re the future, and the future’s now. It’s growing every day.

Deb Sheehan  09:40

Absolutely. You know, you mentioned is we’ve kind of moved beyond being defined as alternative delivery and now much more mainstream at 45% of what the projects are today that are delivered via a design-build methodology. You know, I can’t help but think with the infrastructure bill that’s in front of us, do you have any – and I know none of us have a crystal ball – But do you have any forecasts of what you think might be in our future as far as design-build specifically in the U.S., and you know, that could be 23 year, could be out to 25 or 30?

Don Warren  10:12

Well, I think it’s an unlimited potential still. We’ve got that kind of brainpower and creativity and talent in DBIA and in this younger generation. So the opportunity is, as long as we have the– the leadership and the forum and the open mindedness to as an organization, I think there’s very few projects that I can think of that design-build isn’t the best way to do it. Unless you’ve got an Owner that really doesn’t know what they want, when they want it, how they want it. Because my theory is – it’s not a theory; it’s a fact – the best design build projects in my career have been the ones where I had an Owner or an Owner’s rep that had the authority to make decisions as the project went through design through preconstruction through construction. So I think DBIA is gonna be– it’s gonna be 60, 70, 80% when it’s all said and done, or it’s just gonna become the standard, which it is now.

Deb Sheehan  11:18

So my friend, last comment, and would really just love for you to be able to share maybe some congratulations to the DBIA organization on their 30th anniversary.

Don Warren  11:29

First of all, Deb, I’m just humbled to be a part of this organization still and just humbled to be part of the original founders. And it’s just so exciting to see what all has happened. And I can’t imagine how much more progress is going to be made. But I just think the DBIA staff, Lisa Washington – I was involved with bringing her on board many years ago, and she’s just done a wonderful job and all her staff is great. I congratulate all of them for the growth and the support of all the members and the organizations DBIA supports. And I know under the current and future leadership of DBIA, the organization is going to continue to thrive and prosper. So Happy Anniversary. Happy 30th anniversary to, to DBIA.

Deb Sheehan  12:22

I’d love to wish the DBIA organization a happy 30th anniversary. I am honored to be leading with you during that year. And as Don has said, it’s amazing because of that vision that started 30 years ago. We continue to thrive; we continue to push; we continue to advance the industry to perform to new levels of collaboration, really because of the fusion of the diversity of our membership. So lots to celebrate, gang, congratulations!