Our modern society depends on large, complex civil engineering projects like bridges, skyscrapers and mass transit systems. It takes more than just engineering and construction expertise to build our cities and public infrastructure—it takes effective project management and collaboration. Moving a project from rough concept to completion requires careful planning, cooperative problem solving, and a willingness to adjust based on new data. In the fast-paced engineering and construction industry, these needs often lead owners to choose an alternative project procurement and delivery method known as design-build.
Over the past 15 years, I have been privileged to work on ten large design-build civil engineering projects for GeoEngineers and other engineering consulting firms, and I’ve had a firsthand view of what makes these projects successful and what can make then less successful. If you or your firm are thinking about chasing design-build projects, here are four tips on how to approach the often-intimidating world of design-build project procurement and delivery.
1. Prioritize the Owner’s Needs Above Your Own
Like almost all other project types, the basis of successful design-build project procurement is understanding the owner’s specific needs and concerns. To stand out in a competitive contracting environment, design-build teams must not only understand an owner’s needs and limitations, but also act to protect the owner from themselves and other teams that might be looking to take advantage. For example, sometimes RFPs are written unclearly or contain mistakes or loopholes that could ultimately cost the owner money or complicate the project. While a team could tuck that loophole into their back pocket and save it for a change order later, I suggest you take every opportunity to point out potential issues to the owner as early as possible so that they can amend the contract documents and to get the product they want. Showing the owner you have their back is one of the quickest ways to build trust.
2. Build Trust
By treating owners with integrity and respect, design-build teams can lay the foundation for a relationship built on trust and fairness that will pay off in the long-term. This is particularly important in design-build projects, where the project team often acts on behalf of the owner without day-to-day collaboration.
It is equally important to build trust with the other firms on the design-build team. There is inherently more risk in the delivery of large design-build projects, and unexpected challenges are inevitable. When they come up, shared trust can keep the finger-pointing and complaints that “this isn’t my problem” at bay while everyone works together on a solution. Get together in person for planning meetings, if possible, and spend a little extra time getting to know your teammates. Sometimes you might need help from a teaming partner on a problem, and sometimes they’ll need you. In general, if we can truly work as a team and trust each other as individuals then everyone will still come out on top and with strengthened relationships to boot.
3. Integrate your Teams
There should be regular communication between the design and estimating teams during the procurement phase. If designers are not clearly explaining the approach that they have drawn up, estimators can mistakenly assign incorrect cost estimates to those ideas. I’ve seen very clever ideas be quickly rejected simply because they were not well understood or communicated, leading to a cost estimate that was incorrectly assessed as too high. The reverse can also be true, and design teams can sometimes become infatuated with unrealistically expensive designs or construction processes unless they clearly communicate with estimators. Integrating design and estimating personnel early in the process can lead to quicker and better-informed design decisions while reducing the risk of costly backtracking. At the same time, building trust through teamwork will lay the groundwork for a resilient team once the project has been won.
4. Think Outside the Box
We all know the phrase “thinking outside the box.” It is overused in engineering marketing materials to the point of cliché—but the principle is still sound. Rather than claim to be out-the-box thinkers, demonstrate it! When pursuing a design-build project, it is natural to see the initial RFP documents as non-negotiable project criteria. Often, that perspective is far too limiting and rigid. Many owners are open to negotiation and even alternative project concepts if the design-team can demonstrate the value of their approach.
In every design-build pursuit I’ve been part of, the RFPs and guidance documents ultimately had some flexibility, as long as the owner’s interest is always prioritized. For example, I was part of a design-build team that proposed a radically different route and alignment for a stream crossing project. By thinking outside the specifications of the RFP, our team was able to reroute the stream to take advantage of an existing bridge while avoiding an expensive road cut. That kind of bold conceptual rethinking has often been at the heart of GeoEngineers’ most successful design-build projects. When a design-build team is successful in each of the areas above, magic can truly happen. I can’t emphasize enough the feeling of excitement when gathering around a whiteboard to brainstorm solutions to an interesting problem with other experts you trust. Unique solutions develop extremely quickly when a team works well together and clearly understands their goals. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy the design-build process so much. The challenges can seem daunting, but with careful team management, open communication, and fair contracting practices, design-build work can be some of the most rewarding in our industry.