Design-build (D-B) through's a culture change that can bring the best of both worlds together: engineering expertise and construction management.

Let's face it, the best engineering expertise isn't always found under the same roof as the best construction services. A solid engineering firm can provide engineering and technical solutions, but it is not necessarily a solid construction company, too.

Why try to be all things to all people anyway? Is it possible? My suggestion is to focus on what your firm does best. Besides, in good times and bad times, it is very difficult to hire all the right people. It's a nice thought, but is it actually possible?

The better solution, in my opinion, is to join forces through a partnership. Think about it. When the demands of your business is nationwide, it is easier to find qualified, local construction companies at the project locations than to bring in your own contractors from out of state. After all, local construction companies have a vested interest in doing business in their community, and their portion of the work is the largest piece of the project.

Needed: More Specific Specs

Keep in mind, though, that it usually is a culture change for all the participants when they join forces to provide a single-source solution. The key phrase is "single-source solution." Often, the engineer will forget that the contractor is a teammate in this venture. Instead of drawing upon the wealth of information that the construction firm brings to the project, the engineer proceeds as if he/she is still in the consulting business.

The documents reflect this void with terms such as "as needed," "per code," and "etc." D-B requires the engineer to be more specific and to do so early in the design process. Catch-all phrases serve no purpose in the single-source business. D-B engineers need to state the facts and not hide behind a couple of volumes of specifications.

Another issue that engineers need to be more aware of is project cost. It is imperative that the budget be monitored and measured all the way through the job. For design-builders, the cost is set early on. To commit to a price, the design must work at that point in time.

Engineers can sometimes keep designing after all parties have agreed upon the price. This is where the construction partner comes in. It's no secret, either: construction people focus on cost and schedule. They assume the engineering works, and it is their job to build it on schedule and in budget. For the D-B engineer, the partner has to be that little voice in one's head reminding not to add cost to a project that already works (on paper).

The culture change doesn't stop at the engineer's doorstep. When discussing D-B with potential general contractors, I'm surprised how difficult it is for a construction company to see that not all engineering firms are "cut from the same cloth." Many firms are really management firms and not necessarily "just an engineering firm." It is very difficult for these construction companies to get pass the term "engineering firm."

Design firms that focus on the design-bid-build and construction management business are probably very capable at what they do, but it is a different business than the D-B process. For the builders, partnering with the correct type of design firm is essential to the success of the project. Recognizing and accepting these design professionals can be very difficult in the beginning of a D-B project.

Building Confidence

To date, it appears the building industry is struggling to embrace the design firms that are geared to this fast-track process. The construction company's project manager, job foreman, estimator, and labor force often lack the confidence that this particular company-partner is going to do anything different than the traditional design houses.

It will probably take time and a couple of jobs to work out the kinks in the partnership, but both partners need to stick with it. Doing just one project together will never prove to be the panacea for this type of engineering and construction process. D-B partnering is a culture change for all parties, but - like it or not - it is already proving to be the process of choice in the coming years.ES