by Jay Connolly
Design-build is the fastest-growing method for construction project delivery in the U.S., and Connolly Brothers Inc. has selectively employed this method on many projects since before the term was widely used. We have done so due to design-build’s efficiencies of cost and time, and because it can be a more collaborative approach that provides the client with a single point of responsibility. Each of these benefits is worthy of an article unto itself, but our purpose here is not to extol the virtues of design-build but rather to debunk some misconceptions that tend to circulate about this method.
Myth #1: The method does not allow for creativity in design.
Because design-build projects generally operate within a fixed budget, some restrictions are a given. The architect may know, for example, that polished granite surfaces are not in the budget and plan accordingly. This doesn’t mean they must abandon creativity in design. As Adam Richardson, author of Innovation X, notes in a Harvard Business Review article, limitations can actually assist in the creative process. Constraints may focus the architect on what is important to the project, providing clarity of purpose. On projects where function is prioritized over aesthetics, the architect must still deliver a pleasing space via creative use of materials that fit within the budget.
On a recent corporate headquarters for HighRes BioSolutions, for example, we delivered a structure that was functional, within budget, and stylish by using exposed structural elements as accent points and polished concrete in lieu of tile, to name a few cost-effective creative design elements. As this project demonstrated, there is more than one way to achieve a vision, and design-build outcomes are only as limited as the designer’s imagination.
Myth #2: The method lacks checks and balances.
To ensure checks and balances on a design-build project, the team must operate with complete transparency throughout the process. We begin with frank discussions leading to the development of a crystal-clear budget. Once established, it is in the design-builder’s interest to prevent costly “scope creep” unless additions are specifically requested by the client. Another check is tied to the design-build firm’s reputation. Callbacks for inferior work cost the design-build firm money, but more importantly, create unsatisfied clients – so it is not only for the client’s benefit, but for ours, to address issues early on. With this shared goal in mind, we work with an open book and an eye on serving everyone’s long-term interests.
Another potential check for a design-build project is to work with an owner’s representative, as we recently did in completing a corporate headquarters for the Japan-based Harmonic Drive. The representative not only reviewed our work, but also served, informally, as an international “process translator,” bridging any potential geographic or cultural gaps and keeping all parties aligned.
Myth #3: There is greater risk of non-competitive pricing on project components.
Adopting the convenience and efficiencies of design-build does not mean a client must cede knowledge of project details and pricing. Again, the answer is transparency. At Connolly, we share all bids we receive with the client and then offer our recommendation. Usually, we suggest the lowest qualified bid. If not, we have a good reason (e.g., discomfort with an inexpensive subcontractor’s service).
Ultimately, not all design-build firms are created equal. It remains important to evaluate a construction team on its reputation and merits, whether that team uses a design-build or traditional approach (or both, as we do at Connolly, depending on client preferences). Design-build does not make sense for every project, but it does make sense for many projects, so do not allow the oft-repeated myths above to distract you from considering, and potentially embracing, this increasingly popular approach.
Learn more about Connolly’s approach to design-build at https://connollybrothers.com/2020/10/connollys-design-build-approach-responsibility-efficiency-and-integrity/.
Jay Connolly is president of Connolly Brothers Inc., a construction management firm serving commercial, industrial, and institutional clients throughout New England since 1880.