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Design

The Complete Guide to Design-Build

July 15, 2022

What's in this blog?

Today, design-build (DB) as a form of project procurement is more mainstream than people would like to believe. DB has been thriving over the last decade, with over 76% of owners reporting a better experience with the model. Owners are finally getting what they've always wanted from a construction project - delivery on time and within budget. 

However, DB is not without problems. This article dives into the world of design-build and its unique challenges. We discuss how to measure project success and ensure successful project delivery. Let's go!


Design-Build is a form of procurement where the owner hires a single entity to manage the design and construction of a project. DB was the only means of procurement available in the past where there was no distinction between an Architect and a Contractor. However, the increasing complexity of projects demanded specialization of functions and eventually gave way to DBB or design-bid-build.

In DBB, there is no overlap between design and construction. The Architects design the building before the contractors can bid for it. Owners then choose the most promising contractor based on their reputation. Well, usually the one with the lowest bid.

With DBB, owners suffered the most as it created more problems than it solved. 

  • designs often took longer than planned
  • project costs remained vague until the design was out for bidding
  • poor communication among owner, architect and contractor often led to cost and schedule overruns

Moreover, DBB led to a surge in litigations from owners because no one would take responsibility for any problem. 

With the advancements in technology and standards of construction practices today, DB has become an efficient and relevant model for project delivery. Some research indicates that nearly 50% of construction projects will be delivered under design-build this year.


Design-bid-build naturally creates silos between stakeholders, which leads to poor communication, lack of ownership and eventually a project riddled with problems. The more complex the project, the more the issues!

Design-build allows stakeholders to communicate from the start, increasing the speed of project delivery. The role of an architect or a contractor is often blurred as the scope overlaps. Moreover, contractors are more willing to collaborate because the earlier a problem is identified, the healthier the bottom line.

Owners, Architects and Contractors are moving towards design-build because profits, costs, schedules and problems are more predictable. It creates a win-win for everyone involved. While some Architects believe that DB restricts innovation, it actually improves it by introducing construction knowledge of a contractor early on. Owner's do not have to wait till the bid stage to realize that the design cannot be built!

So it's safe to say that design-build has positively impacted stakeholders, especially project owners. The growing popularity of this model has led to a competitive landscape today leaving owners with a unique challenge - choosing the right firm for the project.


One of the most significant advantages of using the DB model is that everything is measurable. How you measure project success might differ depending on whether you're an owner, contractor or architect. But, it's important to establish and monitor these parameters throughout the project. 

Time

Completing a project on schedule is a critical success factor in any project. The promise of speed is the biggest reason why owners choose DB over DBB. Hence, it's useful to track time overruns at every step of the design-construction process.

Cost

You should measure project costs right from the get-go. As soon as the design stage is complete, firms can start tracking cost overruns at every step because cost overruns in construction have a 'snowball' effect. It not only leads to a ballooning budget, but also affects the project timeline, quality and profitability.

Profitability

For the design team and the contractor, measuring profitability is a no-brainer. However, it can be crucial to owners as well. For example, the faster the project is completed, the faster it can be sold or rented out, ensuring a higher ROI. But, remember that profitability is a double edged sword. Never prioritize it over quality and functionality of the project!

Quality and Performance

Everything said and done, time or cost cannot override construction quality and performance. Owners must lay out their expectations on building performance and quality at project kickoff. Post-occupancy evaluations is still not very common. But conducting post-occupancy evaluations can help design-build firms to improve quality of future projects significantly. It's most rewarding when conducted on a periodic basis.


Despite their advantages over other procurement models, DB has its shortcoming. Many of the reasons for project failure are under the control of project stakeholders. Sometimes, they are well beyond anyone's control. Let's look at the most common reasons for project failure that can be remedied.

Vague project scope

Whenever you start a project, do you deliver much more work than planned? It's because of scope creep and why most DB projects fail. Scope creep refers to the uncontrolled changes to a project's scope. Like the name suggests, it "creeps" into a project and before you know it, a four-bedroom bungalow has evolved into multi-unit housing! Although some amount of scope creep is unavoidable, most of it can be avoided by planning for it from project conception.

Lack of participation from the project owner

Owners often don't realize how important they are to the success of a DB project. The weaker their participation, the higher the chances of project failure. Owners must frontload their efforts for project success. They should complete thorough site due diligence, develop a clear project brief, understand the project scope, monitor and approve all design changes. Moreover, the owner must have the ability to monitor and manage the project from start to finish.

Lack of collaboration between stakeholders

For design-build projects, stakeholders must achieve a high degree of cooperation and share a common goal. Strong collaboration, communication and mutual respect between client, contractor and designer is an important success factor. Lack of communication cause issues take longer to resolve, and projects to run over schedule. Lapse in communication often occurs when communication channels are not streamlined i.e., communication takes place across various channels like phone, email, WhatsApp, Slack etc. This not only creates confusion but is impossible to monitor.

Sacrificing design for profits

Contractors generally lead DB projects and hence, profits may be prioritized over design. This is more likely to occur when contractors are also project owners. We've covered this in the previous section but profits cannot be at the expense of quality design inputs. The Architect plays an important role of assuring functional design delivered within budget. So whenever profits are a concern, it's best to lay out expectations before the design phase begins.

Weak or incomplete due diligence

It's not uncommon for owners to skim through due diligence, deprioritizing things like environmental assessments, feasibility studies etc. Very often, incomplete due diligence leads to problems downstream and result in change orders. Change orders can be the bane of a DB project. If an issue is discovered pre-construction, resolving them can be very expensive. The only way to minimize change orders is to catch problems early and this can be done by carrying out detailed due diligence.

Inexperienced stakeholders

Due to the growing popularity of the design-build model, more architects and contractors continue to enter the market with no experience in DB practices. Or they do not have the expertise to deliver a specific project type. For owners, selecting an experienced entity becomes critical for project success. For firms trying out design-build for the first time, stick to projects with lower risks until a reliable delivery process is established.


Now that we know how projects can fail, we may already have some insights on how to improve the odds of success. However, we'd like to shed light on specific areas to improve in your design-construction process that'll have the most impact.

Use technology that supports collaboration.

In today's day and age, there is no excuse for lapses in communication. Most new technology that supports construction today, is developed for collaboration - from design to project management and beyond. A well known example is that of Google Docs, which make collaboration on documents faster and simpler. Tools like G-Docs even maintains a record of the document's change history, and this is a great asset when resolving disputes.

In the domain of BIM, tools like Revit and Archicad have made it tremendously easier to collaborate, albeit with some constraints. Our product, Snaptrude, was also built with collaboration at the heart of it. The entire team can design in real-time with clients from around the world!

The bottom-line is to invest in tools that supports collaboration across the design-construction journey. It can give firms a competitive edge and will make project owners very happy!

Use data to drive the project in the right direction.

We've already looked at the importance of a detailed scope and due diligence document. Along with the client brief, these are the foundation for design development. However, this alone does not guarantee project success. Once the design phase kicks off, numbers like costs and profits often takes a backseat as it can sometimes get in the way of producing good design. But this can create issues downstream.

Design teams must hence, put processes in place to periodically track and monitor critical parameters. This includes the ones we've already covered in earlier sections of this blog and any other key success factors. Periodic reviews to assess design direction in tandem with costs and other data points can help keep a check on the project health.

Snaptrude makes some of this easy for Architects and designers. It automatically calculates material quantities, areas and other data points saving time and effort. Architects can track this with a single click at any time to realign their design with project requirements.

Maintain a record of all communication.

The best way to avoid litigation is to document all communication between stakeholders. We looked at the importance of communication in the previous section and we cannot stress this enough. At Snaptrude, we've interviewed many veterans in the Construction Industry and they all believe in close collaboration with stakeholders from project start to finish. Once again, choosing the right channels of communication is very important. Limit communication channels to a few and ensure everyone sticks to them. Laying out a communication protocol during project start can be really helpful in streamlining things.

We hate to take Snaptrude's example again but it provides the most unique way of collaborating with teams and clients. It boasts a robust commenting system that is directly tied to the building model. So users can resolve design issues within the platform in a 3D environment. Since Snaptrude works on any device, all communication related to the design gets recorded in a single model, reducing the need for emails, WhatsApp, Slack and other tools.

Leave no stone unturned at the kickoff.

Successful DB projects need decisions to be front-loaded and the project kickoff is the best time to get everyone's input. Kickoff meetings allow project stakeholders to build relationships, resolve concerns and review documents collaboratively. It's the most likely the only opportunity for the entire team to get together and can get the project off to a great start.

The world of Building Information Modelling bought with it certain practices such as preparing a BEP or a BIM Execution Plan, which details how various stakeholders will share BIM data. The reason for a BEP is to bring everyone on the same page about the project BIM. For design-build projects, it's not a bad idea to have a similar execution plan laid out!

This will only provide a valuable list of protocols to be followed to ensure project success. Getting everyone to sign on this document will ensure that they understand and stick to these protocols.

This is the last section of this article. If you liked it, make sure to share it with your community! Thanks for sticking around and we hope we were able to provide value. If you have any feedback for us, please get in touch.

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