Warren Michelsen

Before sending soldiers into battle, a general marshals his top advisers, and together they devise a plan for victory. The same strategy lies behind the design-build delivery method of construction.

Like the military, design-build is based on the concept of one leader, backed by a team of experts, who develop a master blueprint for a project and then work together to make it reality.

The leader is usually a firm or a contractor/architect team that specializes in design-build. The design-builder contracts with the owner to provide all the architectural, engineering, and construction services on a project. Together, the owner and the design-builder agree on a maximum cost and establish a timeline for completion.

Design-build is an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional design-bid-build method, which by definition separates the key players in the construction process. Also, the design-bid-build bidding process focuses primarily on low cost, rather than delivering the best building in the fastest time.

In design-build, the process is streamlined because there’s just one bid, one contract, and one design-builder who oversees everything, all the time. Having one key decision maker also helps provide clear, accurate communications throughout the process, aiding the prevention of costly mix-ups and mistakes. In short, the power of one also reduces risk for others.

Those benefits are behind the rise of design-build. In 1985, just 5 percent of commercial construction projects employed the design-build method. By 2005, that number had risen to 40 percent. By 2015, design-build will capture 50 percent of the domestic, nonresidential construction market, according to forecasts from the Design-Build Institute of America.

“Because of the benefits owners receive from design-build, the market is moving away from the traditional process of design-bid-build, in which the owner usually contracts with two entities whose relationship could become adversarial, to a process in which the owner only has one point of contact,” said Martin Sell, American Institute of Architects, inThe Architect’s Guide to Design-Build Services.

This trend will mean more business opportunities for contractors and subcontractors with build-design knowledge and experience.


The design-build method is based on the principle that a single source is the best source. According to the American Institute of Architects, this single point of responsibility offers numerous benefits, including better management of project costs, scheduling and quality.

The focus on quality starts at the beginning of the process. In the design-build delivery method, the owner has the option to choose the design-build contractor through a request for qualifications rather than the traditional request for proposal (RFP). The design-builder, in turn, usually selects contractors and subcontractors based on expertise, rather than lowest cost.

Once assembled, the project team works together during the design stage to select the best materials, equipment, and systems for the project. This unified strategy produces more accurate cost estimates upfront, reducing the risk of unanticipated overruns and expensive change orders.

Once the design documents are drafted, the design-builder is responsible for verifying their quality and accuracy. This protects contractors from bearing the cost of unbudgeted mid-construction changes.

If any alterations become necessary, they can be made more quickly and effectively because of the integrated team. The design-builder approves and communicates every decision to the contractors and subcontractors directly, rather than through a fragmented chain of command.

Recently, Peppermill Casino in Reno, Nev., saw the benefits of design-build’s teamwork in action. Months into the project, Peppermill Casino and its design-build team realized the cost would be several million over budget. The team had to act fast to save the project.

Simply cutting corners couldn’t cover that kind of deficit. Fortunately, all the strategic project partners were at the table, ready to apply their collective expertise to find a solution.

The answer centered on HVAC. In the initial designs, the owner planned to go with a custom air handler and a separate set of controls - an unnecessary and costly design decision for that particular building. The team of experts presented better options, including an innovative solution - a factory-mounted and commissioned control system along with cataloged air handlers - that put Peppermill Casino back on budget.


Time is money when it comes to construction, and the design-build method delivers on both. It speeds time to completion by allowing the construction and design phases to overlap. Important steps - such as materials and equipment procurement and initial construction work - can begin as the design phase is finalized, rather than after all bids are in and approved.

This time-saving factor has fueled the boom in design-build construction. Along with commercial owners, governmental agencies are increasingly harnessing the benefits of design-build.

Faced with small budgets and short schedules on some public projects, lawmakers at the local, state, and federal level have recognized the shortcomings of the design-bid-build process. They have passed a wave of legislation authorizing the use of design-build for projects ranging from highways to schools.

During the past six years, state and city lawmakers in 45 states have passed more than 300 laws authorizing their agencies to take advantage of the design-build process.

For example, California legislators voted in 2006 to use the design-build method to help relieve some of the state’s legendary traffic congestion, by widening Interstate 405.

“The design-build process saves time and money by allowing us to use one bidding process and one team to handle both the design and the construction,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Design-build is also estimated to speed up the building process by a third.”

One reason is the cohesion of the design-build team. Working closely together, the project partners can make key decisions more quickly and execute them more effectively, often increasing savings to the owner. Brighton School District in Colorado reaped those benefits recently when it needed to update its HVAC system.

Design-build contractor Heating and Plumbing Engineers Inc. worked with longtime partner Siczak Engineering to deliver fast-track results. In just two months, the project progressed from preliminary budget to final pricing and award of the contract. That process could have taken twice as long under the design-bid-build system.


Assembling a strong team is the key to success for design-builders. These are some qualifications to consider when selecting contractors and subcontractors:

Design-build experience.The most effective design-build partners have experience with the process. When you find strategic partners who work well with your organization, hang on to them.

Glowing recommendations.Check out the credentials and job histories of those who want to join your team. Ask people you trust for recommendations.

Expertise in the field.Building a bridge, building a factory, and building a college laboratory each requires distinct skill sets. Look for partners who are experts in their specialties, whether it’s HVAC or sheet metal.

Publication date:01/14/2008