When a client goes forward with design-build (D-B), they do so for any number of reasons. Whatever the reason(s), the decision is based on trust and a belief in professional ethics. Successful D-B firms establish their business and business reputation based on this trust. While building projects can vary relative to the end product and/or goal, the client and the D-B firm mutually share the success of the project.

This partnership doesn’t start and stop just between the customer and the D-B firm. Working toward and sharing in the project’s accomplishments needs to be appreciated and enjoyed by all the trade contractors associated with the job. Partnering cannot be a one-way street.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Over the years, I have had the benefit of partnering that could be catalogued into the popular phrase, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” With each D-B experience, you come away with a better appreciation of those who exemplify trust and professional ethics. At the same time, you come across those trade contractors who struggle with this concept after years of “plan and spec” mentality where the low bid got the job. Fortunately, we have only had one experience that you could classify within “the ugly” category, and we were able to successfully complete the work in spite of a very questionable trade contractor who had been recommended by the client. The lesson learned was that the customer is not always right!

Starting with “the bad” and not dwelling on the negatives, I have found that some trade contractors really are challenged to embrace the D-B process. These firms can be very good at what they do but are not used to being treated as an equal on the project. For years they have provided contractor services as a follower rather than a partner. The same can be said for how design engineers have treated these contractors during that time. As a result, there is an inherent caution on the part of most contractors. At the same time, there can be skepticism on the part of the design engineer towards these firms if he or she is new to the D-B partnering concept.

The Groan Phase

When beginning a project where the contractors have not worked with the D-B firm in such an arrangement, our company classifies this as a “Groan Phase.” This is the initial period where the contractors raise the “red flags” signifying potential problems ahead. It is this point in time when they highlight issues and concerns so that they can point out “I told you so” later on in the job. The Groan Phase is that point in time where the contractors are still skeptical of the partnering process.

Working through this initial period, we are continuously requesting and implementing the contractor’s input. As mutual trust evolves, we have been able to leave the Groan Phase and move on with the project and the partnering effort.

This metamorphosis is a culture change for everyone, and yet, it has been our experience that the client will be the first to see the partnering process take hold. We believe this appreciation for teamwork is because they have less “history” with the building process than the engineer or contractor.

As a result, there is little to no skepticism on their part. In fact it is encouraging and rewarding to observe a customer embrace the D-B approach early in the job because you begin to see the owner acknowledging that they had made the right decision when they chose the D-B process and are positive of the project outcome. This experience reinforces the commitment, benefits, and expectations of the partnership and begins to be contagious with the other team members.

Moving on to “the good” D-B experience, we have found that using the same contractors on a second or third project enhances the process and helps us to move out of the Groan Phase sooner. This ongoing business relationship, built on trust, positive attitude, and engineering and construction experience, all contribute to the success of partnering. We may never eliminate the Groan Phase, but partnering is a culture change whose time has come. ES