December 201 6
Martin's Point Bridge, Falmouth-Portland, Maine
Is Design Build (DB) here to stay? In the construction industry, trends come and go. In 1992 F.H. "Bud" Griffis authored "ADR, TQM, Partnering and Other Management Fantasies" (reference 1). At that time Partnering was being hailed as the latest new solution in successful construction outcomes. Now DB is the trend.

This writer was involved with NYSDOT's first partnering project in the 1990's - the Oak Point Link project in the Harlem River with contractor John P. Picone. Partnering succeeded. Partnering was a success. However, Partnering failed for another DOT project in another state, perhaps because that project was already in trouble when Partnering was introduced; the winning bid was too low from day one. 

 Now, Partnering is relatively rare.

In contrast, Design Build seems to be gaining momentum and showing staying power. This writer is cautiously optimistic after having participated in several DB projects. After all, haven't they been using this technique in Europe for a long time?

Several Northeast States have embraced DB and agencies including the NYSDOT and VTrans, who are well "up the curve" with their experience. The Tappan Zee Bridge was a first bold move for a major bridge in New York with a $3+ billion bid and many complexities. NYSDOT has since bundled groups of smaller bridges for DB procurement and many of these are under construction. According to Robert Dennison, III, PE,  former Chief Engineer of NYSDOT, presently Senior Technical Advisor to VHB Engineering in New York:

" Design Build has become a critical delivery tool for public agencies like NYSDOT. The advantages of faster project delivery and more certain project cost appeal to policy makers and funders. The challenges we in the industry face when design engineers and contractors are working collaboratively require some attitude adjustments as we work together but the end product is worth it. "

Not all states have followed suit. Reasons include initial bad experience, political barriers (some public employee unions may oppose it) and lack of agency training/experience with the DB delivery method. Why is DB gaining in popularity? For owners:
  1. Cost - 6.1% lower according to the Design Build Institute of America (DBIA)
  2. Responsibility - single point leading an entire team (one contract)
  3. Risk - shifted to Design Builder
  4. Schedule - eliminating a step - faster project delivery (33.5% faster according to DBIA) due in part to faster construction
What is important for a design engineer?
  1. Schedule - It becomes compressed. The up-front design work has to proceed rapidly, so key design decisions must be made quickly. This requires judgement and experience - active involvement of senior engineers - as there is little time for rumination.
  2. Responsibility - it is key to define individual team member work scopes with precision to avoid misunderstandings in the midst of a fast track project.
  3. Risk - decision making is more heavily influenced by cost and schedule than for Design Bid Build: active involvement of experienced senior engineers is needed.
  4. Team and Communication - a good team is critical. Unfettered communication between team members is highly preferable. Skill sets should include "on the fly" group brainstorming, creativity, problem solving and leadership. Good ideas can come from everyone, including the owner.
For all the challenges, DB inherently makes the design engineer work more closely with the contractor.   Decisions are made collaboratively, which can be more gratifying for all. Arguably the DB environment is more amenable to constructible solutions and creativity.

According to the DBIA there were 140 completed transportation DB projects as of 2002. As of 2016 the number is over 1000.

It looks like Design Build is here to stay.

Reference 1 - Journal of Professional Issues, ASCE, October 1992
Reference 2 - DBIA Website including their 2016 publication "Design-Build Today, A Survey of State DOTs"

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About the Author

Ted is a founder and principal of Geo Design, Inc., a geotechnical and construction engineering firm with offices in Connecticut, Newark, Manhattan and Vermont. Born and raised in the Boston area, he earned his B.S degree in Civil Engineering at Northeastern University (1978) and his M.S. degree from MIT (1980). He is an ASCE Fellow, Past President the Connecticut Section of ASCE, Past President of ACEC Connecticut, and a member of The Moles. Ted currently serves the ACEC Metropolitan (NY) Region as a member of the Structural Codes Committee. Ted has been  published on numerous geotechnical topics including deep foundations, deep excavations, and ground densification by deep blasting. He is the geotechnical engineer-of-record for the recently completed Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge (I-95 over New Haven Harbor, CT), a $500+ million cable-stayed bridge founded on drilled shafts to depths of over 200 feet deep. Ted can be reached at 212.221.6651 ext. 901.