Design-Build Construction: How It Works, Advantages, and Considerations

The traditional construction process is highly linear. The client hires an architect to design the project, who then creates a set of plans and specifications and sends them out to contractors for bidding. 

The chosen contractor then builds the project according to these plans, and any changes or issues that arise go through multiple levels of approval from the architect and client. 

The result? Delays, cost overruns, and communication breakdowns.

Enter design-build construction — a method that streamlines the process by combining design and construction into one entity. In this blog, we’ll explore the concept of design-build construction, how it works, its advantages, and when to adopt it for your construction project.

What is design-build?

Design-build is a project delivery method in which one entity — the design-build firm — enters a single contract with the project owner to provide both design and construction services. The owner works with a single point of contact throughout the project, rather than managing multiple contracts and parties. 

The design-build team is responsible for the project from conception to completion, including designing, engineering, and construction. 

As a result, the team can address and resolve any changes or issues quickly, without having to go through multiple levels of approval. This integrated approach allows for greater collaboration, communication, and efficiency.

Design-build vs. design-bid-build

Design-bid-build is the traditional method of construction, where the design and construction phases are separate. It involves separate contracts and multiple stakeholders, including the:

  • Owner
  • Architect
  • Engineer
  • Contractor
  • Subcontractors
  • Suppliers

Each party is responsible for its specific role in the project, and there is limited collaboration between them. Any changes or issues that arise must undergo multiple levels of approval, leading to potential delays, increased costs, and more complex construction project management processes.

In contrast, the design-build method eliminates the traditional silos and streamlines the process by combining design and construction into one contract. The culture of collaboration and transparency in design-build translates to better problem-solving, resulting in more efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Key players in a design-build project

A design-build approach reduces the number of separate stakeholders involved by combining multiple key players into one central design-build team. 

  • Owner: The entity or organization that initiates and funds the construction project. They work with the design-build team to define their goals, budget, and timeline for the project.
  • Architects and engineers: The professionals responsible for designing the project, from creating plans and specifications to ensuring compliance with building codes and regulations. In a design-build project, they work closely with the contractor to ensure the design is feasible and cost-effective.
  • Subcontractors and specialists: These are the experts hired by the design-build team to carry out specific tasks or provide specialized services, such as plumbing, electrical work, or HVAC installation. They work under the direction of the design-build team.

How the design-build process works

While the design-build approach looks fairly similar to traditional construction, it’s significantly more streamlined and collaborative. By combining multiple stakeholders into single entities, it distills the process down to four core stages:

Project conception and feasibility

The initial steps in the design-build process are crucial for setting a solid foundation for the project. It begins with project conception, where the owner communicates their vision, needs, and objectives. They collaborate closely with the design-build team to refine the project scope and ensure that it aligns with their goals and budget.

An essential part of this early stage is conducting a feasibility study. This study assesses the project’s viability from various angles, including economic, technical, legal, and operational aspects. 

It helps identify potential challenges and opportunities and provides a comprehensive understanding of the practicality of the project. The outcomes of this study guide decision-making processes and ensure that the project is:

  1. Realistic
  2. Achievable
  3. Financially sound

Assessing site conditions is another pivotal step in the initial phase of the design-build process. This involves a thorough examination of the physical site where the construction will take place, including analyzing the:

  • Topography
  • Soil conditions
  • Existing structures
  • Access to utilities
  • Local regulations

Understanding these site-specific conditions is critical for design and construction planning, as it influences decisions on design adjustments, construction methods, budget considerations, and project timelines. With these findings, the team can mitigate risks and plan for contingencies, ensuring a smoother project execution.

Selecting the design-build team

After establishing project feasibility and gaining owner approval, the next step is selecting the design-build team to turn the vision into reality. The success of a design-build project relies heavily on the expertise and experience of the team members. 

When choosing a design-build team, consider the following criteria: 

  • Design and construction expertise: Look for a team with diverse skills and expertise to cover all aspects of the project, from design to construction. They should have knowledge of the latest design trends, building materials, and construction techniques.
  • Past performance: Evaluate the team’s past projects to determine their level of experience, quality of work, and ability to meet project goals and timelines. Review references, portfolios, and client testimonials.
  • Team dynamics: A successful design-build team consists of members who can collaborate effectively, communicate openly, and work towards a common goal. Consider the team’s chemistry and how well they work together.
  • Project management approach: The design-build team should have a proven project management approach that ensures efficient coordination, communication, and problem-solving throughout the project’s lifespan. 

While 100% perfection is not always possible, the chosen design-build team can significantly impact the success of your project. 

Collaborative design and pre-construction

During this phase, the design-build team works closely together to develop a detailed design that meets the owner’s vision and requirements. 

The architects and engineers provide technical expertise to design a functional, aesthetically pleasing, and cost-effective project, while the contractor offers valuable insight into constructability, materials, and costs. 

To create a comprehensive plan, they consider:

  • Building codes
  • Zoning regulations
  • Sustainability goals
  • Construction methods
  • Budget and timeline expectations

This early collaboration allows the team to identify potential issues and conflicts before construction begins, minimizing delays and change orders. 

Moving on to the pre-construction phase, the design-build team finalizes the design, prepares detailed drawings and specifications, and obtains necessary permits. Tools like ActiveDraft further streamline this process with real-time construction drawing collaboration software that ensures everyone is operating with the most up-to-date information. 

Active construction and project closeout

The construction phase is where all the planning, collaboration, and coordination come to fruition. The design-build team works together to execute the project efficiently, following the pre-established plan, budget, and schedule. Effective building project management software is key here to keep all teams and tasks on schedule.

Throughout the construction process, the team remains in constant communication, addressing unforeseen challenges and making necessary adjustments. This open communication allows for quick decision-making, minimizes delays, and ensures the project stays on track.

As construction nears completion, the team conducts final inspections and quality control checks to ensure the project meets all specifications and requirements. That way, they can make necessary adjustments or final touches before officially handing over the project to the owner.

Upon completion, the design-build team presents the owner with a project closeout package, including all necessary documentation, such as warranties, operation manuals, and final permit approvals. The project team also conducts a final walkthrough with the owner to address any questions or concerns. 

Advantages of design-build

According to the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), design-build use has grown rapidly and now accounts for nearly half of U.S. projects, with a projected spending growth of 22.5% by 2026. This popularity is due to the numerous advantages of design-build over traditional construction project delivery methods.

Reduced time between design and construction phases

In a traditional approach, the design and construction phases are sequential, often resulting in a significant amount of time between them. With design-build, these phases overlap, allowing for a more streamlined process. 

The design and construction teams work together from the beginning, ensuring that construction can begin as soon as all stakeholders approve the design. So it’s no surprise that these projects have a 102% faster delivery speed than traditional design-bid-build projects.

Enhanced collaboration and communication

Collaboration and communication are the building blocks of design-build. From initial concept to project completion, the design-build team works together as one entity, fostering a collaborative and transparent environment. 

This streamlined approach minimizes the misunderstandings, delays, and errors that often occur when multiple parties are involved in a complex project.

Improved risk management

With a single point of responsibility, there are fewer uncertainties related to contracts and fewer disputes over design and construction issues. In addition, it eliminates the need for extensive claims and change orders, saving time and money. 

The design-build approach also allows for early identification and mitigation of potential risks, reducing the likelihood of costly delays and problems during construction.

Increased transparency

Unlike traditional construction project delivery methods, design-build encourages increased transparency across all key players. With everyone working together as one team, there is no hidden agenda or unshared information. 

The owner can access the entire team and communicate with them directly, ensuring adherence to their vision and requirements. Stakeholders can seamlessly communicate changes or updates, eliminating surprises and misunderstandings.

Considerations and drawbacks for design-build

Despite its advantages, design-build may not be the right approach for every project. Below are some factors you should consider when deciding between traditional and design-build methods.

Limited design flexibility

Once construction starts, significant changes to the design can be disruptive and expensive. Since the design and construction phases overlap in design-build, any major design changes can impact the construction timeline and budget. 

Unlike traditional delivery methods, where changes in design are common and expected, design-build requires a more solidified design before construction begins.

Less owner control

As the design-build team manages much of the project development internally, owners may feel that they have less direct oversight of the design process. 

While the owner is still heavily involved in the decision-making, they may not have as much control over each individual aspect of the project. This can be a drawback for owners who prefer to have more hands-on involvement.

Collaboration tools like ActiveDraft can help here by giving project owners real-time access to all construction documents, blueprints, and plans.

Potential for higher initial costs

Since there is no competitive bidding process in design-build, owners may not have access to different contractor bids, potentially leading to higher initial costs. That means the owner must place significant trust in the design-build team to provide an accurate and fair cost estimate. 

However, the team can mitigate this by conducting value engineering during the design phase and finding cost-saving solutions without compromising the project’s quality.

When is design-build right for you?

While every project has its unique requirements and considerations, design-build is typically ideal in the following situations:

  • Projects with complex designs or tight deadlines: By overlapping the design and construction phases, design-build can help expedite project delivery without compromising quality.
  • When budget certainty and collaboration are priorities: Design-build fosters transparency and collaboration, resulting in fewer disputes and delays. This can lead to more budget certainty for the owner.
  • Projects with a clearly defined scope: Since changes in design can be more disruptive and costly with design-build, it’s best suited for projects with a well-defined scope and minimal changes expected during construction.
  • Owners who prefer a more hands-off approach: Design-build allows owners to be involved in the decision-making process, but it may not require as much hands-on involvement compared to other project delivery methods.

Facilitate your design-build workflows seamlessly with ActiveDraft

The benefits of design-build project delivery are well-documented. From faster project delivery to improved collaboration and risk management, design-build offers a streamlined and efficient approach to construction projects. However, managing a design-build project can be challenging without the right tools. 

ActiveDraft is a browser-based platform that simplifies document collaboration and communication, ensuring swift, accurate execution across your project lifecycle. With real-time PDF markups, version control, and customizable workflows, ActiveDraft helps your design-build team collaborate seamlessly and efficiently.  

Check out ActiveDraft today and experience the power of streamlined design-build document collaboration!


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