Design-Build: Heaven or Hell

Use the compound modifier “design-build” in the company of those who have used it, and you’ll probably get an equal dose of horror and success stories.

The design-build construction delivery method is a process that can offer flexibility and cost savings for owners, architects, design consultants, and general contractors.

However, like any other project, it can lead to cost overruns, unsatisfactory results and major headaches if not managed properly. A parks and recreation practitioner looking to build a facility should know the pros and cons of design-build and decide if it’s a good fit for the project.

Bid & Build

In a standard Design-Bid-Build project, the owner issues a Request for Proposals (RFP) to hire an architectural design firm that employs the appropriate architects, engineers and consultants. The owner works with the design firm to produce a set of construction documents, which are then used to bid out the project to general contractors.

The design firm can be the owners’ representative to ensure that the contractor carries out the project according to the plans. The degree to which this service is provided varies with the negotiated contract between owner and design firm. The quality, experience and integrity of the design firm also influence the effectiveness of contract management.

Predictably, the more services the firm renders, the higher the cost. It can range from occasional site visits or inspections at certain points in the project, to a predetermined inspection schedule, unannounced visits, certification of payment requests and authentication of change orders.

In the standard Design-Bid-Build process, the owner deals separately with the architect and contractor, and may even have to deal with other specialty contractors outside the two main contracts. It can become a very time consuming and complicated process for the owner to manage.

In a perfect world, the three parties (owner, architect, contractor) work as a cohesive team through the construction phase, communicating on a daily basis, meeting at least weekly to anticipate upcoming problems and work them out. Realistically, it doesn’t always work out that way.

In a Design-Build project, the owner prepares an RFP that goes out to general contractors, who are expected to either provide design services in-house if they have them, or more commonly to sub-contract with a design firm. During the review of proposals, the owner will evaluate the general contractor and all sub-contractors, including the design element.

Once the owner has made a decision, only one contract is executed, with the general contractor, who is held responsible for all aspects of the project. The owner only has to directly communicate with the general contractor’s representative on the job, generally referenced as a superintendent.

There should be daily communication between the owner’s representative and the superintendent on all aspects of the job. If the superintendent isn’t meeting the owner’s needs, the owner has the option of going directly to the contractor for satisfaction.

What it Takes

While the difference between standard and design-build contracts appears simple, the implications are vast. Actually, the concept of design-build is relatively new in the modern construction industry. Until the 1970s it was used mostly in agricultural and utilitarian structures, such as pre-engineered buildings. Even today, it is not recognized as an accepted method of construction in some states.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Web site goes into great detail on the different acceptance levels among the 50 states.

In a written report, the site states that, “The design-build approach to project design and construction has been embraced in certain states and regions throughout the country, while in other areas state legislatures have been slow to enact legislation that would pave the way for its useā€¦”

The report cites several potential reasons for this reluctance, including culture, tradition, labor union participation, legal systems and interest group strength. However, there is also strong evidence that design-build is entering its heyday.

According to attorney and licensed architect G. William Quatman, Esq., and architect/design-build expert Martin Sell, the design-build method currently has 40 percent of the U.S. construction market.

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