Design-Build: Heaven or Hell

During a presentation at the CNA-Schinnerer 44th Annual Meeting of Invited Attorneys this June, they said industry forecasters predict that the design-build method will overtake the traditional method within the next decade.

The general contractor has traditionally been the lead agency with whom the owner contracted, putting the architectural firm in a subordinate position to the contractor. However, many architectural and engineering firms are looking for ways to assume that lead role either as the prime contractor or in a partnership with the contractor.

According to Quatman and Sell, the subordinate role of architect to contractor carries several drawbacks common to other subcontractors. These include diminished contact with the owner, payment and contractual issues, and most disturbing to architects, loss of control and ownership of project designs.

Until 1978, the AIA barred members from participating in design-build projects and actually considered it a violation of their ethics and code of conduct. Pressure from members and a growing demand from owners for the design-build method prompted the AIA to repeal that rule.

However, according to a 2003 AIA survey, only 20 percent of AIA member firms reported offering design-build services. That meant that 80 percent weren’t offering design-build either as the lead agency or as a subcontractor.

The subject of design-build is so intense that an institute has been established to promote its use. The Design-Build Institute of America is a membership organization founded in 1993 to advocate single source project delivery within the design and construction community.

“The design-build method of project delivery embraces architecture/ engineering and construction services under a single contract, thereby re-integrating the roles of designer and constructor,” its Web site tells visitors. “DBIA members include practitioners from all project phases, plus public- and private-sector project owners.”

The DBIA exists to lead the expansion of design-build across all industries and markets. The spiritual premise of design-build is to return to the time honored past when the master builder had complete accountability for the entire design and construction process.

The DBIA web site provides a thorough background on the design-build concept, which they date back to ancient Greek days when master builders “accepted full responsibility for integrating conceptual design with functional performance.” The design-build process offers reassurance that the design and construction industries can deliver comprehensive services.

That observation points out one of the major challenges for the owner using the standard “design-bid-build” method of construction. Often times, the two most important members of the project –- the architectural team and the construction team — aren’t working with each other toward a common goal, and in too many cases end up working at odds with each other.

The owner who is not accustomed to working these projects can get caught in the middle of the fray and can end up being the biggest loser. There are a number of ways this can happen…

In simplest terms, architectural firms can sometimes design projects that are too complicated or impossible for contractors to build, due to unforeseen sight conditions, within an owner’s budget constraints. Essentially, form overshadows substance. However, this is often not discovered until the job is bid out or underway. Then the owner is in a position of having to value engineer the project to get it to fit the budget.

It’s not always the designer’s fault. Sometimes in spite of their best estimates, the construction cost depends on the market, which can change quickly and unpredictably. But either way, the onus is on the owner to make the hard decisions.

Sometimes the winning contractor has bitten off more than he can chew, but it isn’t discovered until after the contract is signed. While the designer can assist in making the contractor stick to the plan, it is still the owner who is in the unenviable position of either having to try and justify costly change orders or value engineer the project to death. Careful review of contractor qualifications and references prior to hiring, and not being focused only on the “low bid” can avoid this problem.

In the final analysis, the owner must decide which form of construction is best for the project. In arriving at the answer, there are several questions the owner can answer that will lead to the right decision:

· Does the owner have a qualified project manager on staff to closely oversee the entire process from design to bidding to construction. If so, then design-build might be advisable. But this is very time consuming so that project manager will be spending a lot of time on it, especially if it is a large or complicated project.

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