These randomly scheduled missives will opine on a variety of topics, mostly intended to be germane to design, construction, capital program management, and other related issues.

Notes from the Road
January 2010
Design/Builders, Show Us Your softer Side

Whenever trade professionals talk about Design/Build, there is often an emphasis on the ‘hard’ facts: accrued savings to the Owner, shorter project delivery time, reduced errors and omissions, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. (Seinfeld spelling: Yada)

Look, for example, at what the State of Ohio says on its DOT web site:

Design Build, typically faster than the traditional design-bid-build process, combines the design and construction of a project into one contract. The designing firm and construction contractor become a team, working concurrently on the design and construction phases of a project, expediting delivery.

The time savings in design build projects is realized by eliminating the lead time necessary to contract a designer, and then accept bids from contractors to build the design. Projects move from design to construction much faster through the use of the single design build contract.

Additionally, because the designer and contractor work in tandem, the contractor's changes can be incorporated into the design phase, eliminating the need for costly and time consuming changes during construction. This benefit also allows the department to estimate project cost early in the project development process, allowing for more effective budget planning.

Often overlooked, unfortunately, in this conversation are the issues that relate to the expectations and relationship experiences of the participants in this little recurring Passion play.

Looking at the occasional stereotypical behavior of all parties in this business can lead to a more positive experience and outcome. The point? Reduce the bad; increase the good.


Architects: Uneasy

architectsMany Architects enter the Design/Build arena with great trepidation. With a typical background of working for Owners on conventional Design/Bid/Build or perhaps a variety of negotiated price projects, working for the ‘Devil’ Contractor is, if nothing else, uncomfortable. Architects see themselves as ‘holistic’, expertly exercising the fundamental principles of balanced architecture. Too often, they see Contractors as willing to sacrifice all to increase profit, reduce cost, and simplify construction, utterly destroying their delicately balanced vision of the world.

Further unsettling the nervous Architect is their separation from the patronage of the Owner. Most take great pride and pleasure in being the Owner’s alter ego/surrogate/advocate. In their view, a close business, perhaps personal relationship, is diminished by the interjection of the Contractor’s influence.

Contractors: Focused

contractorThe typical Contractor is very goal-oriented. They play fullback: ball placed in their hands, intent on scoring and winning. Razzle-dazzle or deception are rarely considered in the play book. The old saw of “You can have ‘Good’, ‘Cheap’ or ‘Quick’, pick two” is not funny. They want all three.

No-nonsense Contractors routinely perceive Architects as unrealistic advocates of style over substance, and lacking in the ‘realities’ of how ‘things get built’. Some see Design/Build as retribution for Architects’ failings in the conventional build environment, and are glad to take charge of the process.

Owners: Naïve

ownerRemember, we’re talking stereotypes here. Unless the Owner is from a large capital-intensive organization, they will have only built a few buildings in their career. For those who have an extensive portfolio, conventional procurement is more likely. Design/Build is often an consequence of advise to simplify accountability, contain cost and ‘guarantee’ results. (See above) The prospect of buying a building with a single contract is enticing.

It can be disappointing, however, when the final product doesn’t meet the expectations outlined at the outset. Many Owners don’t have the means to monitor developments during the process and correct misunderstandings before they are irreversible.

Too much emphasis on the dark side? OK, let’s look ahead.

Design/Build is hardly new, and isn’t likely to diminish. If you’re inclined to pine for bygone times, “Get over it”. In any event, all participants might benefit from wise and somber coaching.


Unless they are willing to step up and take the business and financial risk of Contracting, they must adjust to working collaboratively as an adjunct to the Contractor. This means setting aside the old prejudices and often acknowledging that entrenched self-images may not be accurate.

It also means seeing the less-than-obvious advantages to the arrangement. For example, compared to Design/Bid/Build, there’s actually less work that needs to be done to fulfill the standard contract. Also, the process of building system selection may be simplified by Contractors who have access to prevailing costs and subcontractor availability not well known by many Architects. Sometimes, too, management of a ‘difficult’ Owner is made less stressful by virtue of the Contractor acting as liaison.


For Contractors, Design/Build contracts are the reward for the preconception that their practical business savvy serves the Owners interest well. The addition of design services to the package provides full ‘in-house’ vertical integration of the concept to delivery process; and the business development, marketing potential is unmistakable.

Still, Contractors would be wise to acknowledge the assets of a well trained, sensitive Architect. They can usually add ‘sizzle’ to the Contractor’s ‘sauce’.

The A/C team

teamworkSuccessful Design/Build Contracting teammates have overcome their innate suspicion of one another. How this happens varies, but it’s not uncommon for the comfort to settle in over a number of successful projects. With the passage of time and solid mentoring, each side comes to recognize the common goal of client satisfaction, and find ways to draw upon each other’s characteristic strengths.

Another sports analogy: In 2004 on the way to their unexpected Olympics Gold medal, the Argentina Basketball team defeated the vaunted USA men’s team. One of the Argentineans wryly remarked that “Basketball is, after all, a team sport”; implying that the US had failed to recognize this nuance. A good Design/Build team has most definitely adopted this Argentine mentality, and plays it successfully. Productive sports teams usually have good coaches. Invariably, someone plays this role in Design/Build as well.


Wise Owners realize that Design/Build is not the panacea espoused by many. The principal difficulty to be overcome is the loss of the Architect as ‘Owners Rep’, particularly during the construction phase of a project. The three legged stability of Owner/Architect/Contractor has been sacrificed for a presumably more predictable, cost effective outcome covered by a simplified two-party contracting arrangement.

Kernels of Advice:

Since the Owner is the solicitor, much of the advice is directed there. The Owner should consider retaining an independent consultant to act as their advocate. The best consultants in this role will have a productive track record of Design/Build projects, so they coach/cajole/direct the various players away from their stereotypes with the credibility of experience.

That consultant could:

  • Produce or manage the creation of the scoping documents which enhance the understandings of all parties.
  • Write the Design/Build contract, utilizing available templates modified to the specifics of the project.
  • Review and comment on the submissions of the Design/Build Contractor.
    Oversee Construction operations, representing the long-term interests of the Owner.
Another thing: the Owner should hold a healthy project contingency. Design/Build contracts are notoriously filled with ‘Grey Areas’. With a contractual stipulation of periodic Design submissions to the Owner, document reviews will typically identify scope and/or quality misunderstandings. When the contract doesn’t support the inevitably desired building upgrades, the Owner has little choice but to enhance the budget and add whatever is wanted. Design/Build is not perfect, and an even-tempered acceptance of these shortcomings will go a long way to building confidence in the process.

teamworkIn conclusion

While it’s true that volumes can (and should) be written about the technical and contractual aspects of Design/Build, it should also be acknowledged that underlying all are the idiosyncrasies of human nature.

A good foundation for creating a successful business arrangement is appreciation for each member’s inherit strengths and weaknesses. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.

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Missed earlier newsletters? Find them here:
November 2009 “What the Facilities?”
September 2009 “Why Do Architects Make Good Owner’s Reps?”

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