Design-Build’s Image Crisis

Posted on May 16, 2012


Like many other machinations of industry, design-build (DB) has evolved. What was once a new idea and an exciting concept, is not so novel anymore, especially with groups touting Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). IPD is the new kid in school everyone wants to befriend. Part of being new is the excitement.

The other part of being new is trying to define an identity. And codification is still needed for IPD; it has no industry standard.

But back to design-build for now. Design-build suffers from three ailments. First, some project delivery models like IPD adopted some benefits of design-build (like shared risk-reward), muddying up terminology and confusing the distinctions between delivery methods.  Second, design-build continued to evolve over the years to mean different things to different people so that today, 30+ years later, owners still question:  what do I get?  Third, when design-build was new on the scene, much like IPD is now, architects and contractors sold it to clients regardless of whether they knew what they were doing. Some teams did it well, but many disappointed clients in unforgivable ways, giving design-build a bad name.

Case in point:  say you were visiting New York City for the first time. You and your family decide to go to a highly recommended restaurant. The bus system is scary, the subway intimidating. You decide to take a taxi. You’ve never taken a taxi before. You watch how a local does it and manage to successfully hail a taxi. Your family piles into the back seat and you give the driver his marching orders. The car smells, the interior is beat up and dirty and the driver…well he’s another story. But you’re strapped in and the meter is already running. The driver is all over the place, gesturing to pedestrians and yelling, texting, weaving in and out of traffic with sudden fits and starts. You fear for your life multiple times but expect it will get better. You arrive and can’t wait to pay the guy and praise God for somehow delivering you safely to your destination. You think to yourself, “I’ll never take a taxi again.”

Although exaggerated, this is an illustration of some hospitals’ general experience with design-build.

But here is the fallacy:  not all taxi drivers are the same, and therefore not all rides are the same. Most taxi rides are not life-threatening experiences. But to someone who has been burned once with a new experience, he may never go back. He can’t risk the chance of a second failure, or an experience worse than the first time.

In the decades since, design-build has been perfected by integrated (single company) teams that shoulder more risk for owners than in the past. Technology now delivers for design-build more coordination, better information and improved communication to what was already the most collaborative project delivery method.

It is not uncommon to hear that those who have tried design-build unsuccessfully can’t believe why others would do it. For those who design and build for a living, they can’t figure out why more hospitals don’t try it. And for those who have done design-build successfully, they can’t understand how anyone would ever go back after trying it.

Design-build is like this. Time will tell if IPD follows a similar path.