What is Design-Build Construction?

By Sean Canning

I wanted to make a quick video to explain what design-build construction is because we see a lot of contractors driving around with design-build signs on their trucks. Design-build is one of two types of project delivery vehicles.

The first is your traditional design-bid-build. And now we have this newer, more contemporary model of design-build.

So to understand design-build, I need to explain both of these.

Design-bid-build is what you would expect through the traditional process. You’re going to design a proposed addition or accessory dwelling unit or a proposed new home, whatever it is, a new school, doesn’t matter.

You’re going to design it. Then you’re going to send it out to bid. And then you’re going to select the winning bidder. You will probably go through a little bit of a negotiation with them, and then you’re going to build it.

So that is design-bid-build, three steps.

Now this brings us to design-build. What is design build?

Well, design-build is a more integrated project delivery vehicle. So that’s kind of a technical way to put it. But basically what it means is your contractor is working with your architect or your designer in certain cases.

So, how does this benefit the client? Because there is no bidding period in the design-build. We’re eliminating the bidding period. So we’re avoiding that competition or bid period which is supposed to drive costs down.

But what we see commonly is the lowest bidder would get selected in that process and then use change orders to increase the cost and make more profit on the project.

Well, design-build basically eliminates this. You have to trust your contractor. And the contractor is sitting across the table from the architect in the design process, and he’s commenting based on cost and constructibility. 

So if we’re proposing a very creative, balcony detail for example, the contractor may be across the conference table from us and they may be saying: "You know what? I think there’s a less expensive way we can achieve the same balcony".

And now that is taken into consideration and possibly it makes it into the final design.

Whereas, if you did not have that contractor meeting, we may have detailed a more complicated way to build the same thing. So constructibility is one of the key ways that a contractor is going to add value in a design build project vehicle delivery system.

So you’re trusting your contractor more. The contractor is sitting in on a series of design meetings and they’re helping influence the direction of the design based on constructibility and cost.

So we haven’t discussed the cost yet, but in a design build process, the contractor may say "You know what? I think that material is going to put us over budget. So here’s another material we could use". Or maybe "This material is going to put us over budget. Do you have another material that could work to get the same, sort of same feeling, but reduce the cost for the client?"

So that’s the way you’re going to reduce your costs in your design build process. Whereas, in the design-bid-build process, you’re trying to reduce costs through bidding. 

The other key difference here is in design-bid-build we’re not providing the contractors with our expected project budget. But in design-build, we are.

We’re saying, “Hey, we think this is a million dollar project. Let’s work this project and let’s reduce the scope of the project or increase the scope of the project, reduce the quality or increase the quality or increase the timeframe so that we can keep it within this constraint of a $1 million construction budget.” So that’s another key.

Now, one of the things that I see quite a bit {but I really think this is a little bit of a shame) is the main benefit of design-build is you have your homeowner or your client. And then the architect like myself is contracted directly though the owner. And so is the contractor. So we’re both contracted by the same person and we’re supposed to be working together.

But now what I see with the contractors who market themselves as design-build contractors is the client is up here. The contractor is below them contracted to the owner. And then the contractor is then outsourcing the design.

Now the problem with this is, the contractor is not incentivized to provide a better design. In fact, the contractor positions themselves between the designer or the architect and the homeowner. 

So you’re creating a separation, which makes it difficult for us to do our best work.

At Ten Seventy Architecture, we don’t work in that condition. But I know a lot of homeowners who do hire contractors, who market themselves as design-build firms.

Now, where does this come into an issue specifically with a construction project and a homeowner?

Well in the circumstance where, the architect and the contractor are hired independently by the owner. If an architect goes on the job site and they see a tile that was not specified, and says, “Hey, this is the wrong tile here. What’s going on?" And the contractor says "Oh, I thought that’s what we were planning" or "I made the decision" or "I got a sale on this tile. And I made the decision to install this before consenting the client, or before going back to the architect to make sure it was an acceptable substitution.”

If the architect is not contracted under the contractor, if the architect is contracted under the owner, the architect is working in the best interest of the owner.

So they’re going to say, “Well, I don’t think this is the proper material for this project and the owner did not agree on this. So we’re going to have to remove all of this material and install the material that was originally specified”. Which is the proper way that this should go. 

Of course, if the materials looks good and everything, and just kind of worked out, then you can say "Okay, you know, that seems fine".

But if it’s not a material that was acceptable, the architects and the owner would be in the right to say, we want this material to be removed. And the correct one installed.

Now however, if the designer is working under the contract of the general contractor, then the owner says, "You know, I don't think this is the right material".

And the contractor is going to say “Well, why don’t we go back to the designer and get their opinion? But that designer is contracted through the general contractor. So their opinion is going to be influenced by the contract that they have. So the designer may say “You know what? I think that material is acceptable. Let’s keep that”.

And then this puts the homeowner in a very difficult position. 

So just to summarize: You have two project delivery vehicles, you have your classic design-bid-build and you have the new contemporary design-build. Design-build is a stronger way to go. It’s a more streamlined delivery vehicle.

You’re eliminating all the time in the bidding stage. However, you do have to trust your contractor. The contractor you select has to be trusted to make decisions on cost and constructibility. And they have to have the time available and patience to sit in on these design meetings with the architect or the designer. 

So we recommend design-build. However, we also recommend that the architects and the contractor are independently contracted through the client. You don’t go with a design-build contractor who’s going to subcontract out the design, which is one of the most important parts of the entire project.

Featured Content