The construction industry is no stranger to the benefits of design-build delivery. It's well known that design-build can streamline budgets and schedules, provide single-source accountability with minimal change orders and, ultimately, deliver a high-value product for the owner when compared to traditional delivery methods.

While it's true that not all projects are a perfect fit for 100% design-build delivery, it's also true that design-build is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Bridging design-build, in which the owner engages design professionals to do some preliminary design, has been the most common compromise between traditional delivery and 100% design-build. While guaranteeing certain design aspects of a project, this approach loses much of the value of the design-build process by limiting the creativity of the design-build team and the efficiencies gained through early collaboration between design and construction.


For example, without a fully integrated approach, many of the advantages of building information modeling are lost. The use of a single model that can evolve from concept, through design, into construction and then into operations can unlock more opportunities for modular construction, which greatly improves the productivity, cost and timeliness of the project.

The smart compromise is to use an often overlooked hybrid approach that incorporates design-build specialty subcontractors within the framework of a traditional project delivery approach.

Selective use of key design-build trades, particularly for systems that can be specified in performance terms, can provide many of the benefits of design-build delivery without relinquishing much of the control preferred by other stakeholders. Design-build is well suited to mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, which receive the most benefit because they have a single source of accountability for scope and performance.

After all, these are the systems over which many conflicts and change orders arise.

Allaying Fears

Systems that are difficult to define in performance terms, such as the aesthetics of a building, can be defined through a traditional working relationship between the owner and the architect. This arrangement allays the fear that is typically associated with 100% design-build: when the owner has limited involvement in design and general contractors make design decisions outside of their expertise or based on cost alone.

A recent example of a successful use of the hybrid design-build approach is the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, in Washington, D.C.

The project originally was procured via a traditional plan-and-spec delivery system. After completing the design phase and putting the project out for bid, however, the pricing came in significantly over budget. A much-needed redesign ensued. After the second design came in over budget, Clark Construction came on board to value-engineer the project. As part of their strategy, Clark engaged Southland Industries, my company, to join as a design-build mechanical partner. The resulting mechanical design not only significantly reduced mechanical costs, but also kept overall team costs low, enabling delivery of a superior building and an entire project under budget.

Similarly, Kaiser Downey Hospital, Downey, Calif., initially was procured via a plan-and-spec delivery system, but delays and cost overruns caused Kaiser to consider other options. With only six months to redo the entire proposal, Kaiser and my firm agreed to a design-build approach for the mechanical systems. Up-front coordination between the engineering and detailing achieved huge savings on the schedule and budget and greatly reduced jobsite complications.

The project was completed a full five months early, coming in under the adjusted budget forecast for the design-build of the mechanical systems for the hospital and central plant.

When faced with complex design challenges and tight budgets, owners should consider engaging design-build specialty-trade partners that work well with architects and general contractors. Even if the project is not 100% design-build, hybrid strategies will help meet project objectives the first time and, in the long run, avoid costly redesigns and change orders. 

Ted Lynch, Ph.D., is the chief executive of Southland Industries, a national mechanical engineering firm. He can be reached at