Complex Project Decisions Simplified with “Choosing by Advantage”

Four Public Institutions Pool Resources to Create Portland’s New Fourth & Montgomery Building
  • The new 175,000-sf, $111 million Fourth and Montgomery building in downtown Portland, Oregon, will be owned and occupied by the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Portland Community College’s Dental Sciences Programs, and Portland State University’s College of Education, and the Oregon Health & Science University | Portland State University School of Public Health.

    Rendering courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.

The new Fourth and Montgomery building, scheduled to open in January 2021 in downtown Portland, Oregon, is a remarkable example of how pooling financial, intellectual, and physical resources can allow public institutions to accomplish much more by working together than would be possible if attempted separately. The seven-story, $111 million building will be owned and occupied by The City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Portland Community College’s Dental Sciences Programs, and Portland State University’s (PSU) College of Education and the PSU | Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) PSU School of Public Health. To simplify the process of working with multiple stakeholders, the project team used an integrated project delivery planning tool called “Choosing by Advantages” (CBA) that helped them manage complex decisions and keep the project on schedule and within budget.

“Since all of these institutions wanted to add space in an already crowded downtown location, collaborating and collocating was a very resourceful way to alleviate funding constraints and leverage partner synergies,” says Laurie Canup, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal of Portland’s SRG Partnership, who designed the building. 

Although the collaboration made sense from a financial standpoint, it also intensified the challenge of getting multiple stakeholders to decide on design and construction plans, especially since the project team was told that any decision costing more than $25,000 needed unanimous consent by all of them. This was a daunting restriction since buildings of this size and complexity potentially could involve a lot of $25,000 decisions.

“It can be hard to get a decision from a single owner, so knowing that we had to get all four owners to agree unanimously made it clear that we needed a powerful planning tool,” says Jeff Slinger, senior project manager for Andersen Construction Company, also based in Portland. He adds that even though CBA is not yet widely used throughout the industry, for this project it was essential to keeping the stakeholders on track to make decisions and meet deadlines. 

“CBA is a great tool for complex decisions, because it ultimately takes all of the emotion out of the selected choice,” says Slinger. “It is a very intentional process that shows clients how the data supports the decision-making and allows them to see a graph of the various choices and why the final decision makes the most sense for the particular project.”

Canup adds that the final decision may not always be the most economical, but it will be the choice that brings the most value to the project.

“Unlike most planning tools, money is not considered in the CBA process until the very end,” says Canup. “Setting aside cost up front ensures that the first consideration is the project’s vision and mission. After defining the goals, then cost can be layered on to decide what needs to be eliminated due to budget constraints or enhanced if there is any buy-up ability.”

“Too often during decision-making we limit the discussion to just the decision itself and don’t think about the process behind the decision,” says Michael Mackin, who formerly served as the functional and space programmer for OHSU and participated in the CBA planning process for the Fourth & Montgomery project. “Using CBA helped put all of the stakeholders in a framework of collaborating and understanding different priorities from the point of view of the various groups involved in the project.”

To illustrate the seven-step CBA process, the project team compared it to the decision consumers could use to buy ice cream:

  • Step One: Identify Choices – There are many places to get ice cream, but in Portland the choices could be narrowed down to three options: McDonalds, Baskin-Robbins, or Salt and Straw, a high-end boutique ice cream chain.
  • Step Two: Define Factors – Brainstorming what is important in an ice cream cone could include factors such as taste, flavor availability, temperature, calories, how quickly you can get it, or the atmosphere of the shop serving the ice cream. 

“When defining the factors, it is very important to get everybody’s ideas,” says Slinger. “There are no bad ideas, since these will vary from person to person and project to project.”

Eventually, factors that offer no distinct advantage are taken out of consideration. In the example, temperature is removed as a factor because all ice cream is the same temperature.

  • Step Three: Measure Factors – Next the team needs to agree on what measurable data will be used to compare the factors. For example, how long it takes to get the ice cream could be measured with data such as the distance to the shop, how difficult is it to find parking, or the length of the lines in the shops.  
  • Step Four: Measure Advantages – The decision-makers also need to agree on how the advantages will be measured. For example, ice cream advantages could include the number of cone options, the variety of flavors offered, or the texture of the ice cream.

    Slinger explains that assigning specific measurements to the advantages is the best way to take the emotion out of decision-making. Even factors that may be subjective, such as how good the ice cream tastes, can be assigned forms of measurements that ultimately can be compared and graphed to help with the final decision.  

  • Step Five: Weigh Advantages – This step forces decisionmakers to assign a value to each advantage to determine the order of importance. The most important advantage is always assigned the highest number and then every other advantage is scaled down from there. These numbers will comprise the Y axis in the final graph.

    “Step five is a very interactive exercise, where the entire group of stakeholders needs to argue through all of the options until everyone agrees,” says Canup. “We emphasized that healthy conflict is necessary and encourages a lot of discussion about why the factors should be ranked higher or lower among the group.” 

  • Step Six: Consider the Budget – The project budget is not brought into the discussion until after all the factors and advantages have been decided. The cost of the factors will become the X axis of the final graph. 
  • Step Seven: Validate – With cost shown on the X axis and advantages on the Y axis, the final graph illustrates the value of each option. When the slope of the line is steep, that choice provides a lot of value for minimal cost difference. If the slope plateaus, that indicates a higher cost with hardly any noticeable advantage.

“For our project, getting the best value was critical, since all of the stakeholders are public entities. Looking at the resulting ice cream curve, we would have chosen Baskin Robbins, because it scored many more advantage points with a minimal cost difference from McDonalds,” says Slinger. “Other clients with more of an ability to buy up may have chosen Salt and Straw.”


Courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.


Canup adds that since working through the entire CBA process can be time-consuming, this planning tool is best reserved for larger decisions or when it is necessary to settle a difference of opinion between major stakeholders. For the Fourth & Montgomery building, three decisions that benefited from using CBA included determining the building’s massing, selecting the structural system, and deciding what type of mechanical system to install.


Building Massing Decision


To decide on the building massing, the stakeholders ultimately agreed that the most important advantage they wanted was securing ideal square footage for each program, followed closely by other desired advantages, such as adherence to construction schedule, energy efficiency, elevator location, and mechanical distribution. 



Courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.

“The decision to use an L Scheme was easy, because the CBA process made it clear that this offered the most advantage points at the lowest cost,” says Canup. “The massing discussion also convinced us that it would be best to put PSU’s College of Education on floors two and four rather than on contiguous floors. Normally this would have been met with a lot of resistance but because all the stakeholders had already bought into the data, this decision was accepted readily by leadership.”



Courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.


Structural Material Selection


Once the massing was determined, the team used the CBA process to evaluate whether to use steel, post-tensioned (PT) concrete, or cross laminated timber (CLT) for the structural material. CLT was a clear favorite of several stakeholders but not favored by the design and build team due to current code constraints and variances from the team’s initial design vision of a long-span flexible solution.


“We needed everyone to take the emotions out of this decision, since we had differing opinions,” says Slinger. “Ultimately, the data validated the decision to use PT concrete, and everyone agreed the decision made sense after looking at the data.” 


He adds that getting buy-in from the decision-makers is always more effective than just telling them what decision would be best.



Courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.



Courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.


Mechanical Systems Review


Initially the team compared three mechanical options: a radiant system with chilled beams, a hybrid hydronic DOAS system with sensible cooling terminals (hybrid VAV), and variable refrigerant flow. The CBA graph that resulted after comparing these options was not as steep as the ice cream example, so the choice was not quite as clear.


“When we overlaid the CBA graph with our cost module, we struggled with target budget alignment,” says Mackin. “But, when we considered the alignment with the stakeholders’ sustainability goals, it led us to realize that buying up for the mechanical system would be the best option, and the team decided to switch to a hybrid VAV system.”



Courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.



Courtesy of SRG Partnership, Inc., Portland, Ore.


“Looking back now, we should have started that mechanical conversations sooner, since the HVAC selection affected many design issues such as shaft size, floor-to-floor height, and daylight access,” he says. “Thankfully, the CBA process allowed all of the stakeholders to realize that even though we ended up with a more expensive mechanical system than originally envisioned, it was ultimately the right decision for the project and for the planet.”


By Amy Cammell

Project Data
Completion Date: 
August, 2020
Published 9-2-2020