Design-build has gained a strong foothold as a U.S. construction delivery method over the past decade. But with the domestic market’s downturn in 2001, accelerated by the 9/11 terror attacks, design-build’s meteoric rise has leveled off.

Revenue for the Top 100 Design-Build Firms dropped 12.2% overall in 2003, to $48.57 billion from $55.29 billion in 2002. Domestic design-build revenue fell even faster last year, 21.1%, to $32.51 billion from $41.23 billion in 2002. But a 14.2% hike in firms’ international revenue last year may offer solace.

Some of this revenue fall-off may be attributed to the absence of some major players from the Top 100 list. Earth Tech, Long Beach, Calif., did not participate in the survey this year after ranking 11th on last year’s list. J.A. Jones Inc., Charlotte, N.C., is in bankruptcy after ranking seventeenth last year. Those two firms accounted for about $1.9 billion in design-build revenue in 2002.

Design-build boosters claim the decline is due to a leveling off of explosive growth beginning in the 1990s. W. Lee Evey, appointed last month as president of the Design-Build Institute of America, Washington, D.C., sees no drop-off in interest. "Now, we’re entering a period of good, solid, steady growth," he says.

But some practitioners are less enthusiastic. "There now seems to be no consistent trend for project delivery models, unlike in the past few years," says Richard Haller, president of Walbridge Aldinger. "It now depends upon customers– whether they want to go with design-build, construction management at-risk, or some other method." He believes that clients are becoming more analytical in choosing project delivery.

Others say clients were slower to commit to design-build projects in last year’s uncertain economy, but are coming around now. "Business right now is very, very good," says Robert Clark, CEO of Clayco Construction Co. "We had an off year last year when work got pushed back. Now, we are doing last year’s jobs as well as this year’s jobs."

Clayco recently began design-build construction on Citigroup’s "Hercules" project, a series of three, 175,000-sq-ft processing and call centers in Boise, Louisville, Ky., and Greensboro, N.C. "We were awarded the job in early March and broke ground on March 15," says Clark. "We’re on schedule to be completely enclosed and in the dry just 115 days after contract award."

But Clark admits that design-build firms are finding more competition from contractors following the market. "There is a difference between true design-build firms and contractors that morph into design-build firms when customers ask them to," he says. "Many contractors aren’t familiar with the design process and this eliminates most of the value of design-build." This can leave a bad impression, Clark adds.

Design-build executives also rail against the continuing impression that the delivery method is just for simple projects. "We had some fairly complex jobs at the Pentagon and I think our use of design-build punctured some of those myths," says Evey, who was project manager on the massive Pentagon renovation project that, after 9/11, turned into an emergency reconstruction.


Evey contends that DBIA’s design-build designation program, begun several years ago, provides clients and practitioners with more guidance on who can best implement a successful design-build project. He says having DBIA-designated professionals on staff will factor more in winning qualifications-based awards.

Some practitioners see more clients seeking out qualified design-build firms. "There seems to be more emphasis on quality-based selection rather than simple commodity bidding recently," says David S. Crawford, president of Sundt Construction and current DBIA chairman. "We’re seeing qualifications-based selection being chosen over value-based selection on a four-to-one basis."

Clark agrees. "In the past six months, most of our work has been won on qualifications, not price," he says.

Thomas J. O’Neill, chairman and CEO of Parsons Brinckerhoff, is bullish on design-build’s future. "We are looking at upwards of 50 design-build opportunities," a record number, he points out.