CHS Field, the new, city-owned St. Paul Saints ballpark now being built in the Lowertown neighborhood, is already 60 percent complete as builders race to a March 11 deadline using a process that shortened their schedule and made changes possible on the fly.

The ballpark was opened for a hard-hat tour this week by the Upper Midwest regional chapter of the Design-Build Institute of America, which represents contractors who can provide both the architecture and construction functions for building projects. One such firm is Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos., which last year beat out a pair of competitors to land the construction contract for the $63 million, 7,000-seat stadium.

The tour was conducted by Logan Gerken, Ryan's director of architecture, and Paul Johnson of NTH Inc., a commercial real estate brokerage and construction management firm serving as the city of St. Paul's owner representative on the project.

As he led a group of construction industry pros through the partly completed stadium, Johnson touted the advantages of the "design-build" construction model, which he said is particularly suited for projects that face tight deadlines and sometimes need changes to stay on schedule and under budget.

One such design-build change at the ballpark was the relocation of the Saints' offices to the lower, service level of the structure.

"At one time, the Saints had their offices on the second floor above the ticket building, but then we had some budget issues, and we had to do a little 'V.E.' [value engineering]," Johnson said. "We had some unused 'entombed' space down on the service level, and we thought, why not save the costs of all that structure, all that steel, all that exterior skin, and put them in there?"

There was "some heartburn" over the change because team executives were excited about having views over the field. "But I think we succeeded in turning that new space into something special," Johnson said.

The design-build process is a variation on the traditional "design-bid-build" that had been the industry norm for many decades. Under the system, for example, time can be saved by allowing the contractor to begin excavation on a project while architects are still working on the rest of the plans.

Meanwhile, the close coordination between the in-house designers and the construction crews can make cost-saving value engineering moves, such as the relocation of the Saints' offices, much more feasible than if they needed to be bid out separately.

"For this project, we had a very tight budget and a very tight schedule, and in cases like that, it really helps to be able to overlap design and construction," Johnson said. "You don't have to wait until construction documents are complete before you send them out to the contractor and say, 'O.K. guys, price this.'"

The streamlined process came in very handy in last year when soil contamination at the ballpark site was worse than previously thought, a development that added $8.8 million to the project's cost.

"We were forced to retool a little bit and make adjustments on the fly," Johnson said. "And because the architect and the contractor work so closely together, we knew immediately where we could trim costs."

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.