ConstructionPro Week, Volume: 4 - Issue: 22 - 06/05/2015

Are Owners Having It Both Ways with Design/Build?

By Bruce Jervis


Project owners, both public and private, have moved enthusiastically to the “design/build” method of procuring construction services. This is perceived as a faster, more efficient way to accomplish a construction project. And, by assigning some design responsibilities to the contractor, there is a reduction in claims arising out of construction details.


The operative phrase here is “some design responsibilities.” No project owner is going to turn a contractor loose to design a project from scratch. The contract will include design standards, parameters, concepts and typical sections. Sometimes the owner has practically designed the project, while insisting that the contractor has responsibility for the design.


On a recent federal project, one design requirement – no work outside a 60-foot construction corridor – conflicted with another requirement – a drainage system capable of handling a 100-year flood. The design parameters were impossible to meet and the contractor was not responsible for the resulting increased costs.


Are project owners trying to have it both ways, tightly controlling the design but tossing responsibility to the contractor when a problem arises? Your comments are welcomed.



Yes, owners do seem to sometimes usurp the design-builder's authority and then try to hold the design-builder liable for increased costs flowing from owner's decisions. Is the project you reference the subject of a case that was litigated? Thanks.
Posted by: Jeff Donofrio - Friday, June 05, 2015 9:37 AM

As a supplier, we are in favor of design build projects for the most part. We pride ourselves on our involvement thru this process and on the amount of time & money it saves. Engineers do engineering well but they struggle to write coherent material specs.
Posted by: BOB QUINLAN - Friday, June 05, 2015 10:48 AM

As a design engineer, design-build is the bane of the construction industry, Contractors typically do not know how to extract all the design requirements from an owner or may not be able to communicate them to us. This results in lengthy changes to a project that should be once and done. Contractor are typically in such a hurry that they try to bid dd sets and then wonder why they numbers don't match up when the final bids are turned in. Sorry but sometimes you cannot eliminate the design engineering and just go directly to construction.
Posted by: Peter Hilger - Friday, June 05, 2015 10:59 AM

It is a mixed bag and a field day for attorneys. When an owner makes a substantial input to the design and tosses the football to the contractor, and then the design fails to meet expectations, who then determines liablitty when the contractor states the risk up front? Perhaps that is why an expert is needed to sort out the facts.
Posted by: Paul Gogulski - Friday, June 05, 2015 11:00 AM

All these problems of the construction contractor failing to satisfy the Owner's project requirements and program (or brief) are addressed by the Architect's and Engineer's traditional role as an agent for the Owner. The Owner gives up that layer of service and support by buying "design-build."

Posted by: John Hooker, AIA - Friday, June 05, 2015 11:13 AM

In both a traditional contract and design-build many of the same problems exist in today's practices. Either way there is far too much not designed and CHECKED. Leaving design completion in the field. With design build many of these lack of good engineering problems are just hidden. Good Design-build contractors put the money in upfront or in other ways. It is a catch 22.
Posted by: Gordon H. Aronson, P.E. - Friday, June 05, 2015 11:23 AM

As a contractor, design-builds are usually a very risky endeavor. The owner design review team's expectations are often not met, as they are looking for a design that they would have come up with instead of checking the contractor's design against requirements set forth in the contract. This results in very lengthy design approval process that eats into the construction time. Either way, the contractor is left to finish up at the agreed completion date while eating up all the costs incurred in excess design and in speeding up the construction schedule.
Posted by: Martha Gonzalez - Friday, June 05, 2015 11:37 AM

As a professional engineer who does design build I take umbrage with the assertion that because I do design build that somehow I'm less qualified then other professional engineers. I would put projects I've worked on up against anyone's projects. Back to the question at hand I believe that the problem arises from poorly written RFP's. Owner fail to provide any guidelines on the most expensive parts of the project and fail to look at what is proposed on in the proposal. Then after the project is awarded they want something that is much more expensive and expect the contractor to cover it. If the owner would up front identify where the major expenses are on the project and provide a few simple guidelines most of the problems would disappear.
Posted by: Chris Chadwick - Friday, June 05, 2015 11:42 AM

As a contractor I have seen the good and bad with this approach and I question the savings and speed of delivery. It is all about the client and their treatment of the DB process. I have seen it abused and I have seen it work right. I have had a federal client hold me to a 16" thick pile of design criteria document that was gone through by an engineer and flagged with over a thousand "design issues" this is abuse of the system and a direct conflict with other criteria and the entire concept.
Posted by: Brian Midyett - Friday, June 05, 2015 11:49 AM

Despite the "one size fits all" tone of some comments, there is a different reality at play here. There are some owners who do design-build very well. There are also some contractors who do it well. On the flip side, however, there are both owners and contactors that do not do it well and need some serious help. So the real answer to the question is not a condemnation of either side, but simply yeas and no - many owners do try to work both sides of the fence, while many others do not. In many cases, both parties, owners and contractors, would benefit from some intensive design-build instruction.
Posted by: Kerry Stevenson - Friday, June 05, 2015 12:22 PM

Design-Build is not a new concept. It has been the primary delivery method in large complex power, process, and civil infrastructure projects for decades, commonly referred to as EPC (engineer, procure, construct).It is a mature process and for those projects it works well. It is still maturing in the general building marketplace. It does take knowledgeable owners and contractors with a common goal, whose interests are aligned. We all know that is not every owner and contractor.
Posted by: Todd Rowland - Friday, June 05, 2015 1:03 PM

I have been involved in Design-Build delivery systems since the mid 1970's. Most of our projects were for various corporate owners, including financial institutions. We based our project fees on a guaranteed cost established during the end of the DD stage, and rarely had any difficulty in delivering a great project, on time and within the budget. There usually were a few change orders along the way, but most of these were Owner driven. As an architect, I enjoyed working with the contractors during the construction documents and subsequent build out, where we controlled the costs much better than in the traditional Design-Bid -Build method. The guaranteed cost established early in the stage of the design documents allows clients to finance the project with a greater degree of certainty, and with a greater reliance on an agreed completion time. The secret to design-build is to involve the Owner as a part of the team and develop a trusting relationship among the team members in the earliest of stages.
Posted by: Thom Bohlen - Saturday, June 06, 2015 5:57 AM

I am a structural design engineer that supports several design-build contractors. As noted by others, successful projects are generally defined by a clear scope of work (RFP) at the beginning of the project and a trusting relationship between the design-build team (owner, contractor, architect and engineers). Each member of the team will contribute to the project in a different way and it is very important for the owner to be part of the team.
Posted by: Stephen Cooper - Monday, June 08, 2015 4:02 PM


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