Reinventing Partnering at Coyote Ridge

Winter 2011

How Washington State’s Department of Corrections made partnering work on a large design-build prison construction project

By Jerry Winkler, AIA, NCARB

Completed in 32 months, the $190 million Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Wash., spans 564,000 square feet and houses 2,048 new beds. It is the largest non-Department of Transportation design-build project the state has ever carried out. Those figures are more impressive given that it is also one of the most complex correctional facilities in the state, if not the country.

Designed for medium- and minimum-security inmates, Coyote Ridge contains four medium-security housing pods and four hybrid medium-security housing pods. The medium-security units feature the typical design with precast concrete walls and cells, plumbing and an automated electronic locking system. The hybrid units have concrete exterior walls with sheetrock interior walls and so-called dry rooms. Inmates carry keys to their own rooms and are free to move about within the confines of their units.

At the outset, this huge, complicated, costly and fast-tracked project looked like it might be trouble.

But it wasn’t.

“As I tell people, this was probably the most successful and enjoyable project I’ve ever been part of,” says Scott R. Frakes, who was the Coyote Ridge superintendent at the time.

The reason: an energized approach to the concept of partnering. Traditionally, partnering has been defined as a formal, organized method of establishing trust and open communications among the stakeholders on a project to facilitate the teamwork and cooperation necessary to complete a project on budget and on time.

The Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) had employed partnering consultants to establish these kinds of arrangements on projects in the past. Sometimes it worked well; sometimes it was challenging.

Given the aggressive goals of the Coyote Ridge project, partnering had to be successful.

“Partnering often doesn’t happen until communications start to break down on a project,” says Jack Olson, the DOC project director of capital programs at the time. “By then it is too late.” Frakes and Olson were determined to create processes upfront that would lead the project to success. The duo led the partnering effort at Coyote Ridge.

Establishing a Mindset for Teamwork

Olson didn’t wait for problems. In his first meeting with the architect and construction manager, Olson told them that partnering would be a critical part of the project, pointing out that it would be a mistake to wait for problems to emerge and then establish a working relationship.

Partnering became an integral part of the selection process. “When I hired my staff for the project, my No. 1 priority was to find team players,” he says.

Olson believes that teamwork grows through open communications, which allow people to get to know each other, eventually trusting that each has the best interests of the project in mind.

When a member of the newly formed team ticked off several reasons that a certain task couldn’t be accomplished, Olson had him replaced. “The only acceptable response to any problem is ‘How can we fix it?’” he says.

The architectural firm, Integrus Architecture (where I am president), and the Hunt/Lydig construction manager built their team through an affirmative search for team players with excellent communication skills. When the requests for bids went out, the need for open communication, cooperation and teamwork was emphasized.

Meetings of the Mind

A key part of building a spirit of cooperation and teamwork involved pulling the people on the project team out of their normal mindsets.

Architects, construction managers and subcontractors know that challenges are natural to projects — challenges about money, schedules, quality work, assigning responsibility and just about everything else that can go wrong on a job. The ultimate trouble, of course, is going to court over a conflict.

That’s the normal mindset of a project team, and the Integrus team set out to change it. Its goal, instead, was to build a team that could recognize, discuss and solve problems — before they had the potential to turn into disasters.

For that to happen, everyone from the owner to the smallest subcontractor had to trust everyone else on the team—trust them well enough to say in team meetings, “I can see a problem taking shape. I think I can solve it by doing X. What do you think?”

Frakes reasoned that people who do not know each other couldn’t trust each other, so he set out to introduce everyone. He started the first meeting of the entire team by asking personal, seemingly unimportant questions of everyone: What’s your favorite dessert? Do you like baseball or football or some other sport? What was your first car? What’s your pet peeve? Interesting answers would generate a few minutes of meaningful conversation.

Olson repeated the process at each meeting. Soon individuals on the project team would break into conversation spontaneously upon seeing one of their new friends. The cooperative imperative and the silly personal questions transformed a team of individual contractors into a group that enjoyed each other’s company.

Maintaining the Mindset

Of course, these efforts did not ensure that everything was absolutely perfect during the project. Once established, a spirit of cooperation and teamwork requires periodic maintenance.

In the early stages, for instance, one subcontractor told someone on the general contractor’s staff about a problem and asked for help. “That’s your problem, and you need to fix it,” the staffer retorted. A DOC staffer overheard the exchange and reported it to Olson, who ordered the general contractor to shut down the job immediately and assemble everyone for a meeting.

To kick the meeting off, Olson asked everyone a few questions: What’s your favorite television show? Who’s your favorite actor? Can you sing?

As people began to relax, Olson related the incident, emphasizing the staffer’s brusque statement.

“It is never your problem,” Olson explains. “It is always our problem. It is always how do we fix our problem? This has to be the way we work on this job.”

Then he sent everyone back to work.

Throughout the 32 months of design and construction, the team continued to foster and maintain cooperation, teamwork and open communications. In month 20, a budget review showed that a large sum of contingency funds remained available. It made a major change possible.

The original design called for seven housing units. The contingency funds would pay for another unit and the complete construction of the correctional industries programs within the existing building shell. But it wasn’t clear whether or not there was enough time left in the schedule to design the unit, procure the materials and do the work. The DOC would not extend the schedule. The state’s correctional system needed the new beds within the original schedule. Then the Hunt/Lydig team leaders said, “We think we can solve this problem.” Suddenly everyone was talking about ways around the time crunch.

The spirit of cooperation enabled the team to design, build and commission the extra housing unit and correctional industries space to the original design within the tight time frame. In the end, the team completed a larger project than was initially bid within the original budget and schedule.

“Everything about the Coyote Ridge project worked,” Olson says. “Can we replicate that? Every project is different, and it only takes one person to throw a monkey wrench into a system to wreck it. Can we replicate it? Maybe not, but certainly that’s the goal.”

Not every project will run as smoothly as Coyote Ridge. But no project would have to run as smoothly to dramatically improve the way most construction projects are executed.

Give it a try. Reinvent partnering on your next project.

Jerry Winkler, AIA, NCARB, is President of Integrus Architecture, P.S., and can be reached at (509) 838-8681 or