Commercial Project Delivery: Design-Build vs. Traditional Process

The creation of all great building projects involves two key factors: design and construction.   The people who provide these services to the owner of the project can either be independent parties, or part of the same entity.  In the first scenario, a design team, led by a licensed architect, operates separately from the construction team, led by a licensed contractor. This is typically referred to as traditional practice. The second scenario places the architect and contractor in one unified team, often referred to as design-build.  Though some elements of the process don’t differ between delivery methods, there are differences to the methods that may help an owner choose which process is more advantageous.

In the development of any new commercial building, many of the needs are the same:  land must be procured to support the needs of a new facility, the existing soils must be analyzed to determine condition of all subsurface materials, Civil Engineering services must be obtained to evaluate and design the site drainage, paving and utilities, a professional design firm must be hired (Who will additionally hire consulting structural, mechanical and electrical engineers)  to produce a set of documents showing compliance to all governing codes and requirements, and pricing must be obtained for the final construction of the facility in accordance with the documents provided by the professional of record.  Once a contract price is agreed upon, the construction of the project begins.  Designers review specific portions of construction to make sure that the design intent is being properly implemented.  The contractor must complete the work in the time and budget set forth in the contract.  Building officials will grant a certificate of occupancy to the owner once all requirements for health, safety, and welfare are met.  All of these major elements are common to both traditional and design-build delivery methods.

So, what are the differences?  In a broad sense, the traditional delivery method follows a sequence of project development through three main stages: design-bid-build.  The well-defined milestones of completing each phase allows for relatively little overlap between the design and building portions of the work.  The developer will normally end up having to manage several contracts throughout the process, including: the geo technical engineering services, civil engineering, Architectural Firm and finally, a general contractor. 

Step 1 – Design: In the traditional delivery method, once the lot is selected, the geo technical engineers must be hired for evaluation, while the owner decides and selects on an architectural firm as the professional of record. The design process is comprised of several levels (the conceptual phase, schematic phase, design development, and contract documents phase), each requiring the approval of the owner before proceeding to the next stage.  Early-on, meetings will be held with the design professional to establish the needs and functions of the building then the sizing will be determined,  and finally a high-level cost estimate needed by the lender to begin the process of obtaining a range for the loan.  In this method, the design process typically is an 8 month to 14-month process, during which the client meets to make selections, discuss building flow, finishes, elevations, etc.  The end deliverable is a set of documents to be bid. 

Step 2 – Bid: Upon completion of the contract documents, the owner can either select from a number of qualified construction firms, elect to negotiate with one contractor or bid the project publicly to any qualified firm.  Assuming the bids come in within the established project budget, the contractor is selected and the project will move into the construction phase.  If the pricing is above the established budget, a contractor may be selected or several contractors may participate in a value engineering process by offering changes to the original design attempting to save the money needed to meet the specified budget.  There are cases where the project pricing is not within the budget range and the owner decides to not move forward.  In such a case, the design professionals and engineers are paid for their services and owner retains all of the documents for his future use. 

Step 3 – Build:  Once the contract is awarded to a general contractor, the construction begins.  Designers and professionals of record approve submittals from the trades and vendors selected by the contractor to ensure products and services align with the contract documents and make field visits to ensure that financial draws requested by the contractor of the owner are approved.  Inevitably, issues arise on the job: contractors may have subcontractors that perform work beneath the quality specified or architects may have forgotten detailing in the documents which leads to poor building performance.  The goal is for the parties to work in the best interest of the client to remedy the situation.  Depending on the character of the various firms involved, issues can devolve into finger-pointing and blaming of other parties. Owners are sometimes left without an agent to help navigate adversarial relationships, costly change orders, or project delays.

The design-build process offers an alternative to the multiple contractual agreements an owner makes under traditional practice.  By having a single point of responsibility for design, quality, cost, and schedule adherence, owners hold one entity responsible: the design-builder.  The power of this singular responsibility is a motivator for the design-builder to execute the project with excellence.  Though the process walks through similar stages as the traditional approach, design does not proceed past certain milestones without the contractor providing an updated bid to the owner to ensure the design aligns with the client’s budget.  This can significantly reduce ‘sticker-shock’ that may happen during the bid phase of a traditional design-bid-build project and reduce the time and money it takes to value engineer a project after design is complete.  It is in the best interest for the design-build firm to come up with solutions, and not exert any effort looking for someone else to blame.  The collaborative nature of designers and builders being on the same team inherently allows for more course-correction along the project development, which results in greater satisfaction to the owner, architect, and contractor. 

Great buildings don’t just happen.  They are the result of good processes.  The delivery method an owner chooses to execute a project makes a difference in the process of moving from a concept to a realized project.  Above all, a project team should work together to propose solutions that work to the advantage of the owner.  Good architects and contractors can still attain this under traditional process, but the design-build approach benefits intrinsically from a collaborative nature.

– Written by our Operations Manager, Derek Hebert and Architect, Kevin Stewart

Derek Hebert and Kevin Stewart

Derek Hebert and Kevin Stewart