As a COO of a professional consulting and design firm, I'm often intrigued by the decision-making process inherent in pursuing major design-build projects. COOs and senior managers are typically focused on ensuring that our operations remain stable and strong. We're constantly working to minimize risk as we keep our businesses moving forward and seek new opportunities for growth.

As an increasingly common project delivery method for public-sector clients, design-build challenges us to proceed cautiously while embracing an industry trend that can have a significant impact on our success. Dewberry's long-time presence in Virginia, a model for alternative delivery systems and enabling legislation, has provided us with the opportunity to embrace design-build delivery and take part in a number of landmark design-build projects, including new public buildings, highways, transit, and other municipal infrastructure. Our experience with design-build now spans several states, at all levels of government, on projects from $5 million to more than $1 billion in construction value. The lessons learned haven't always come easily, but over time, the key issues and considerations have become clearer:

Choose Your Partner Carefully:

This works both ways - design firms need to be selective in teaming up with contractors, and vice versa. Ultimately, the most important issue is trust. Is there a strong alignment of business cultures and values? Strategic alignments are certainly important, including market strength, geographic coverage, and experience with the type of project. But a trusted relationship, in which both the design firm and the contractor are reasonable, honest, open, and focused on mutual success, is clearly the most critical ingredient.

Are Your Best People Available, And Theirs as Well?

Design-build is a demanding route for project delivery, and the difference in winning and losing is directly linked to the collective talent of the team - the designer and the contractor - and their ability to develop unique solutions that save time and money. To be successful, the process requires top-notch professionals who bring a lot of skills and experience to the table: knowledge, creativity, vigilance, confidence, dedication and most importantly a highly competitive attitude. Design-build isn't for the timid. Making a go/no-go decision on design-build may come to the straightforward question: are the right people available?

The Partnership Must Work at Every Level:

The decision to pursue and complete a major design-build initiative requires a close-knit relationship between the design firm and the contractor. That has to happen on multiple levels, including the very top. It's important for all levels of management to stay in contact with one another and ensure that the relationship remains solid, open, and valued by both firms. Problems will happen on design-build delivery projects, and strong relationships will enable prompt actions and decisions to resolve them and keep the project moving.

Address Risk Allocation Fairly:

The allocation of risk must be addressed early and carefully. The designer should only assume risks that are customary and for what they can directly control. Likewise, the contractor makes a living managing construction risk and is best equipped to manage, mitigate, and build in appropriate contingencies. Part of the design-build process should include the full team openly identifying, quantifying, and managing schedule, cost, and other impactful risks. This means the design firms need to embrace design-build delivery fully once they're on board, commit to it, and recognize it as a team sport. In my experience, you'll likely have a productive and successful team if you walk into a meeting and you can't tell who is a designer and who is a contractor during the discussion.  And if the discussion is lively - then even better.

The partnership is one important part of the equation. In next week's blog, we'll address additional go/no-go considerations, including the cost to pursue and opportunities for creativity.