Construction Management in the Design-Build Process

Anthony Thompson
CEO, Kwame Building Group, Inc.

Over the past two decades, design-build has moved from alternative to mainstream as a preferred project delivery system. Today, nearly half of American construction dollars – an estimated $1.2 trillion in 2018-2021 – is being spent on design-build projects, according to the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA). 

Design-build promises a quality project at a lower cost and in a shorter time frame than traditional design-bid-build. But design-build project delivery also eliminates the Owner’s contractual relationships with the architects and engineers, who now report to the design-build team. 

So what happens when the Owner loses the independent representation and advocacy of the designers? Who ensures that critical program requirements are met? An independent construction management firm, serving as the Owner’s Representative or Agent, can help the Owner save money and ensure success on design-build projects.

 

WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL DESIGN-BUILD PROJECT?

Evaluating design-build proposals and projects can be challenging and complicated for even a sophisticated Owner. Three attributes emerge among the least successful design-build projects, according to DBIA: 

  • Lack of experience with design-build or project management in general
  • Poor communication between the owner and builder
  • Understaffing or turnover within the owner’s, designer’s or builder’s organization. 

Construction management firms like Kwame Building Group help Owners bypass those challenges and issues. We provide Owners with critical and unique services on both design-build and design-bid-build projects, from evaluation of the design-build proposals through project construction and the final punch list. We supplement the Owner’s own staff, offering a depth and breadth of expertise and experience that few in-house construction departments can provide.

 

DESIGN-BUILD VS. DESIGN-BID-BUILD

The design-build (DB) process begins, as does traditional design-bid-build (DBB), with the Owner identifying basic needs and requirements in order to develop a Request for Proposal. The degree of specificity at this stage ranges from identifying square feet, site location, and material specifications for an architectural project to establishing performance criteria such as throughput or production requirements for engineered construction. This process generally takes design to a 5% to 10% completion, and essentially mirrors the program development of a traditional DBB project. Proponents of DB believe that taking design development past 35% completion significantly reduces a primary benefit of the design-build process – innovation and value engineering in the design-build proposals themselves.

For design-build projects, the Owner also must define the project technical scope, level of quality, and risk allocation to be shared with the design builder. Which brings us to evaluation of those proposals. 

Owners evaluating design-build proposals typically proceed with a scoring matrix that ascribes specific weights to the design, price and methodology aspects of the proposal, and a methodology by which an overall score representing the “best value” can be assigned to each proposal. In public procurement systems, this scoring process is described in the Request for Proposal. 

As mentioned earlier, even a sophisticated Owner can be challenged by this complex design-build evaluation process. Unlike the DBB process, which focuses only on low price, the Owner must evaluate both the cost and the technical proposals. This can be difficult when several Owner representatives are involved in the more subjective design-build selection process, and particularly when more than one proposal is within the budget. 

 

BENEFITS OF INDEPENDENT CONSTRUCTION MANAGEMENT IN DESIGN-BUILD

How can a construction manager (CM) benefit an Owner on a design-build project? That depends directly on the CM’s experience. When considering a CM firm as the Owner’s Representative or Agent on a design-build project, look for specific design experience and expertise within the construction management firm and its key managers, in addition to traditional construction management skills.

Our home state of Missouri was the first to statutorily define construction management services. In addition to traditional scheduling and coordination, our role includes critical and diverse duties in the planning and design phases – assisting the Owner and designer in planning, reviewing plans and specifications, determining construction feasibility, providing budget estimates, and allocating the work in packages to facilitate bidding and award procedures. 

Of course, the CM also must have proven experience in the traditional CM duties of cost estimating, budget controls, scheduling, organizational management, quality assurance and a commitment to meeting the expectations of the Owner.

 

CONSTRUCTION MANAGER’S ROLE IN DESIGN BUILD

Standard form contracts may not adequately address the role of CM as the Owner’s Representative or Agent on a design-build project. The following are key aspects to consider and include.

Pre-Design Phase

Unlike with a DBB project, in which the pre-bid planning representative is the engineer, the designer typically is not on-board during the initial planning of a design-build project. The CM brings the expertise and Owner advocacy needed during this early and critical pre-design phase.

Pre-design services provided by a CM help the Owner prepare the “program” for the project (such as general requirements and preliminary alternatives). At this stage, the CM can provide input on contract decisions, helping the Owner decide whether or not the DB approach is suitable for the project. The CM also establishes budgets and time schedules, and can help the Owner qualify and select designers, design builders and other consultants. 

Design Phase

The design phase of a design-build project is similar to that of a DBB project, except that in a DB project, the designer of record has a direct contractual relationship with the contractor, not the Owner. Although this does not eliminate the designer’s professional obligation to the project, the Owner no longer has the designer as its advocate. 

Thus, the need for a construction manager, independent of the contractor, is even greater on a design-build project. The CM serves a critical role for the Owner by providing an objective evaluation of design builder alternatives and verifying conformance with contract requirements. 

One integral part of the CM’s services on a design-build project includes the independent documentation of communications between the Owner and the designer. The CM also may perform some or all of the following:

  • Monitor the design process
  • Verify design conformity to the Owner’s program
  • Manage design schedule and cost
  • Update the project schedule and budget as the design progresses
  • Perform value engineering or value analysis of the design
  • Review the design for constructability
  • Maintain quality assurance and quality control of the construction documents.

Value Engineering

Individual design-build teams typically perform value engineering during their proposal preparation, as part of their competitive efforts to win the project. During proposal review, the CM provides an independent and objective evaluation of which alternatives can be most easily constructed, and any shortcomings that may be involved. 

Construction Phase

During the construction phase of a design-build project, the CM’s most important service is to ascertain and ensure that work is being performed in conformance with contractual documents. This can be a daunting task for an Owner, even one with a dedicated internal team. 

The CM accomplishes this goal by developing and implementing a construction or management plan, specific to the project. The CM’s construction quality manager performs this work during both the pre-construction and construction phases of a design-build project, handling tasks that typically would be provided by an architect. These include:

  • Review and certify contractor payments
  • Prepare and/or review change orders or construction change directives
  • Inspect for substantial and final completion
  • Authorize minor changes that do not affect the contract time or price

Other key roles provided by a CM may include public relations, environmental monitoring, project schedule and budget monitoring, project accounting and document control.

 

CONCLUSION

Given the popularity of the design-build project delivery method, it makes sense that Owners are hiring construction management firms to serve as their Owner’s Representative or Agent – independent of the design builder – to help plan and manage their projects.

Under a design-build agreement, the Owner must be able to judge and substantiate whether or not the work of the design builder work conforms with the construction documents and contract. Given the differences in the designers’ roles and contractual responsibilities on a design-build project, the services provided by a qualified construction management firm can be even more important to the Owner than on a design-bid-build project. 

 

Anthony (Tony) Thompson is the CEO of Kwame Building Group, Inc., a program and construction management firm he founded in St. Louis in 1991.

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