There was a time when advocates were proclaiming that design-build would become the predominant project delivery method for most major projects in the U.S. That has not come to pass. But design-build has matured to become a major presence in many markets and that presence is growing.

There still are skeptics. “Smaller public agencies are scared to let go of control at 20% design, so they try to hold on through 80% design. And if they demand that, that’s not true design-build,” says Steve Margaroni, vice president of construction management services at Psomas.

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  • However, there are indications that design-build continues to make inroads in the public sector. “In our owners’ survey, 37% of the public owners responding said they plan to use design-build on at least one of their projects in the next year,” says Chuck Dahill, PinnacleOne’s CEO. He agrees that many public owners still are wary of alternate project delivery. But they continue to be dissatisfied with design-bid-build and are interested in what design-build has to offer.

    For some owners, control over the basic design is critical, but they still are interested in design-build for the speed and efficiency of the design-build process. This has brought about variations in design-build. “When we were doing the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, we used something we call design-bridge-build,” says Ken Johnson, vice president of Hunt Construction Group.

    “In that situation, the owner hired its own architect to take the design through DD level documents,” he says. “Then we came in to take over with our own architect to complete the project with the owner’s architect to serve as a consultant. Ironically, the owner’s architect was HOK’s SVE group, while Hunt’s architect was HOK Architects. “It was a sort of softer, gentler design-build,” he says. Hunt also is doing the Phoenix Cardinals football stadium and, in a joint ventures with Clark Construction, the Washington Nationals baseball stadium and Chicago’s McCormick Place expansion, all on a modified design-build basis.

    One difficulty in using design-build at this time is that the volatility of prices has made giving a guaranteed maximum price risky. “In cases where the owner wants a GMP early, we use a type of design assist, where we bring in the subs early to work with the architect so each sub can develop its own GMP,” says Johnson. “Once the guarantee is made, we go into traditional design-build.”

    One area of concern among design-build firms is the increasing willingness of some owners to put design-build packages out to bid, rather than offering a negotiated or qualifications-based package. “We are still bidding lump-sum design-build jobs, but we are being more selective,” says Steve Canney, vice president and director of EPC/design-build operations in Black & Veatch’s water group. But he notes that the volume of work available allows firms to be somewhat selective on what they bid.

    Some see public owners learning that hard-bid design-build is a recipe for disaster. “As the public sector moves more into design-build, they are recognizing that the simplistic method of putting out a conceptual design and letting it out for bid is a prescription for problems,” says Alfred K. Potter II, senior vice president of Gilbane Building Co. He says that the more sophisticated owners work with design-build teams to get the best price without risking the project.

    An example of this more measured approach was the renovation of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Health Research Center. Gilbane and architect CUH2A were selected based on qualifications and fees, says Potter. The GMP wasn’t issued until the project was fully scoped out.

    In some markets, the technology required may dictate the project delivery. “I’m starting to see the newer water treatment process manufacturers providing a more integrated package, often with proprietary technology,” says Canney. “Where an agency opts for one of these technologies, you have to design and construct on a specific footprint around the process, sort of like building a powerplant,” he says. This may lead to agencies being forced to let projects on a design-build basis to allow the designer and contractor to work with the manufacturers from the start, he says.