6 Tips for Implementing an Effective Design-Build Process

The right mindset — and the right partners — are key.

Design-bid-build is slowly making way for design-build, a project delivery method that allows projects to happen faster and often saves money in the process. Under design-build, the designer and contractor form one team and work together under one contract with the owner. The setup forces close collaboration and can reduce change orders. But it takes some getting used to, and there’s a learning curve.

General contractor/construction manager Hensel Phelps recently won the Design-Build Institute of America’s project of the year award for the Mesa Court student housing expansion at the University of California, Irvine. The company’s director of design services, Greg Gidez, DBIA, AIA, shared his advice on making design-build projects more effective.

Adopt a collaborative mindset

“Contractors have to make the mental shift from a hard-bid mentality to a collaborative, integrated environment,” said Gidez. “That can be hard for contractors because they are used to bidding low and then clawing their way back into profitability.” Instead of finding fault or pointing fingers to place blame — typical in many hard-bid projects — contractors have to be willing to adopt an integrated, team-oriented approach.

Every member of the team needs that collaborative mindset, Gidez added.

Learn about design-build best practices

“You can’t just show up and say ‘We know how to do construction and we know how to do design, therefore we can do design-build.’ You have to be educated in design-build best practices,” said Gidez.

One of those best practices includes integration of the specialty trades up front, early in the design process, instead of after the design is mostly completed.

Pick team members for their qualifications

“You want to pick the best team and empower them; you don’t want to pick the low price and hope that you’ve got a good team. It makes all the sense in the world, but it’s amazing how many people miss that,” said Gidez.

“It’s an open process and everybody understands what’s happening. That leads to the ability to build trust, and when you have trust, you can get amazing things done.”

Greg Gidez, DIBA, AIA, Director of Design Services

Respect your partners’ expertise

Gidez said many designers don’t like design-build projects; they feel that builders “stomp all over the design” because they’re concerned only about the lowest cost and fastest schedule. In design-build projects, builders need to respect and understand the design work and let the designers do what they do best.

Contractors need similar respect from designers. “You want a designer who respects budget and can design to budget and works with the builder to achieve a realistic schedule.”

All team members need to understand that they must represent the owner and the owner’s best interest in bringing the most appropriate and innovative design to the project.

Work with an open book contract

In a hard-bid situation, the contractor tells the owner, “Here’s my number.” In an open book contract, the contractor will say, “Here is where the costs are, here’s where we’re struggling to make it work and here’s where we are okay.”

“It’s an open process and everybody understands what’s happening,” said Gidez. “That leads to the ability to build trust, and when you have trust, you can get amazing things done.”

Get owners to share a clear project vision

Owners who can clearly express what they want — and design-build teams who truly understand and articulate that vision — are more likely to achieve the project goal.

Gidez recalled working on a humanities building for the University of California, Irvine, which wanted a “Janus-faced” building. (In the humanities world, that’s two contrasting faces.) The team designed the side of the building facing the campus to be conservative and to match the university’s existing architecture. The public-facing side was more whimsical. It was exactly what the owner had hoped for.

Design-build is relationship-based rather than transaction-based, Gidez added, and it doesn’t work if you don’t get in the right mindset. “But if you have the mental shift, it is absolutely a pleasure because you’re working together collaboratively rather than fighting and defending your turf.”

He said he encountered one problem after putting one of his managers on a design-build job: “They like it so much that they never want to go back to a traditional hard-bid job.”


Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

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