by Scott Smith, P.E.

There are many benefits of the Design/Build business process: single-source responsibility, performance guarantees, and efficiency, just to name a few. I believe this business process is clearly superior to the design-bid-build process, yet in many parts of the country, Design/Build is not the preferred method to complete a project. Why? And, more importantly, what can we do to change things?

The Problem of Procurement

Despite the obvious benefits of the Design/Build business process, it presents many challenges. The most significant challenge is procurement.

In the design-bid-build process, the most difficult step is selecting the engineering firm. Once the client has placed his trust in a firm, the act of procuring the project is quite straightforward. Select multiple competent contractors (and there are usually several to pick from), qualify the bids, and select the lowest qualified bid. This isn't too difficult, but bear in mind that we're talking about procurement, not execution.

Contrast this to procurement in the Design/Build setting. First, assuming that the client wishes, or is required to obtain multiple proposals, he or she needs to find several competent Design/Build contractors. In geographies where Design/Build isn't prevalent, this task is difficult or impossible.

After requesting proposals from the selected field of Design/Builders, the client is faced with reviewing proposals that most likely contain very different concepts, pricing, and outcomes. This is a difficult task, to say the least. In fact, the client may be taking a career risk in pursuing a non-standard project approach.

So, what can we do about the difficulty clients face in procuring a Design/Build project, while maintaining the value of the process, a value that many of us hold near and dear to our hearts? At the risk of offending some venerable members of the Design/Build community, I suggest that in an effort to compete with the design-bid-build business process, you give the client what they want: an easy method for procurement. Give them design-bid-build.

Technically, what we do is rather straightforward. We design, build, commission, and maintain systems. We like to provide all four facets, but many of us are willing to provide the first three, without a commitment for maintenance.

Despite the obvious benefits of the Design/Build business process, it presents many challenges. The most significant challenge is procurement.

If this is true, why not offer one of these facets, when we need to, when this will help satisfy the procurement requirements of the client? Many of us do this quite often, when we choose to bid construction services on a project someone else has designed. So, why not just offer engineering services when a client needs you to do this? There are many more reasons to "fit-in" to the client's procurement requirements by offering engineering services alone, than there are by offering construction services alone.

Offer construction alone, and you've already given up the opportunity to provide one of the facets of the project — the engineering. Offer engineering alone, and the opportunity to provide other facets still remains.

If you can't provide Design/Build services to a particular client, you can bring more value by providing the engineering than you can by providing the construction. Whenever you bring more value, not only are the margin opportunities higher, but you also elevate the importance of your firm in the eyes of the client.

If you provide stand-alone engineering services, you have a wonderful opportunity to work closely with the client, an opportunity to demonstrate your engineering prowess, practicality, sensibility, and all of those other wonderful traits that you have sharpened in your Design/Build worlds. If your client recognizes and appreciates these traits, he is likely to want you to construct the project, because you have just became a very safe choice in his eyes. In my experience, it's not uncommon for the client to award the construction project to the engineering firm (us) prior to the completion of final design documents.

It's noble to stick to your guns when it comes to principles such as character, integrity, and honesty. I used to believe that it was also noble to hold firm on the topic of Design/Build. Looking back, it wasn't noble. It was stubborn.

Another reason to give the client what he wants is to avoid the perception, or even reality, of inflexibility on our parts. Sure, we're passionate about the benefits of Design/Build, and we should attempt to convey this passion to our clients. But when they don't see it, or don't agree with the points we make, we're at a crossroads. We have the following, basic choices:

  • We can "stick to our guns," which is what many of us have done for years. Most of the time, this means walking away from the project. Many clients are not impressed with our resolve, but are often offended by our inflexibility. This jeopardizes future opportunities.

  • We can wait for the client to hire a design firm, and then bid the construction project. This approach may be OK, but the construction project is more of a commodity than the design project.

  • We can offer engineering services alone. This choice leaves the door open to secure the construction services, and in effect, secure our Design/Build project.

Lead With Design/Build

By no means am I suggesting that you lead with stand-alone engineering services. I continue to believe in the benefits of the Design/Build business model, and every time I meet a new client, I speak to them about these benefits. If it appears that they understand, accept and support what I am saying, that's great. We make a proposal, complete the project, and satisfy the client, just like always.

If, however, the client has a different opinion about how to successfully complete the project, I will make a reasonable effort to persuade him or her towards Design/Build. If this fails, I no longer choose to walk-away. I speak to him about engineering services.

If you choose to offer engineering services alone, there are several factors to consider, and hurdles to overcome.

First, as Design/Builders, we don't typically place onerous protectionary clauses on our drawings, because we don't need to. If someone else were to build the project we designed, we may feel the need to place such clauses on the drawings. Don't!

Simply provide a thorough, efficient and accurate design package, and let it stand on its own merits. Give the clients a design package that is founded in sound engineering principles, combined with the knowledge of how to build things, and skip the unnecessary boilerplate. Your clients will find this to be a refreshing change.

Second, if your company is structured to build all of the projects it designs, offering stand-alone engineering services may skew your resources. The solution is to offer stand-alone engineering services only on those projects where you think there is a reasonable chance to secure the construction (hopefully, before the project ever goes out to bid). If you're successful, your resources are back in balance.

Finally, if the drawings you prepare actually go out to bid, and your firm is one of the bidders, there is a bit of awkwardness. Your competitors will cry "unfair", but the last time I checked, we are not out to please our competitors.

If you secure the construction project, your client will hold you to a higher standard than they would hold any of the other competitors. In fact, they will hold you to a Design/Build standard.

You competitors are right: you do have an unfair advantage in that you know far more about the project than they do. Hopefully, this unfair advantage is sufficient to equalize the fact that you will be held to a higher standard.

Pitfalls to Avoid

In providing stand-alone engineering services, there are two very important pitfalls to avoid.

First, as Design/Builders, we typically have the luxury of a talented field staff that can make do with less than complete drawings. This won't work when you provide stand-alone engineering services (and frankly, I don't think it's appropriate in a Design/Build setting either). Remember, the bidders are likely to be your competitors, and they'll look for any opportunity to discredit your work. Don't give them that opportunity.

Second, never lose your Design/ Build values. Don't provide stand-alone engineering services so often that you end up essentially joining the consulting engineering community

I believe it's noble to stick to your guns when it comes to principles such as character, integrity, and honesty. These areas are non-negotiable. And because of my passion, I used to believe that it was also noble to hold firm on the topic of Design/Build. Looking back, it wasn't noble. It was stubborn.

Noble is providing the client with what he truly needs, in a way that he truly wants. As much as it may hurt, there is more than one way to do this correctly.

Scott Smith is vice president engineering at EMCOR Services, Trimech Corporation, of Pompton Plains, NJ. He has responsibility for the company's wide array of Design/Build projects. Scott can be reached at scott_smith@trimechcorp.com.