November 15, 2001

Delivering the goods in a tight economy

  • Selecting the best project delivery method can save time and money
    LMN Architects


    As the economy tightens, the owner’s successful search for the proper project delivery method may well mark the “go” or “no go” decision for the project itself.

    In a robust economy, the margins of project success are sufficiently broad for any of several project delivery methods to be equally appropriate. But in the climate within which the region and nation currently struggle, each project variable must be parsed in such a way to capitalize on every penny of a project’s budget, and the selection of the most appropriate project delivery method can have significant impact on time, money, or both.

    A variety of project delivery methods has always existed for private sector clients who can chose at will their process of selecting architects, engineers, contractors, or a combination thereof.

    With this flexibility in process comes the ability to negotiate between the owner, the design team and the contractor various project features and configurations as the design process itself unfolds. This flexible process can also include at any point along the way the negotiation of changes in materials and building systems that in turn may influence time and constructability.

    Everett Arena: A design-build approach

    The concept model of the Everett Arena and Special Events Center as submitted in a recent design-build competition by the team of PCL Construction, LMN Architects and PBK Architects was selected by the Everett Public Facilities District as the preferred solution.
    The photo of the model, from the corner of Hewitt and Oakes avenues, illustrates the innovative cable-supported roof structures which reduced the overall project cost enough to add a second ice sheet for community use.

    Compare the foregoing to the process typically imposed on public sector work. Government-executed projects routinely require the competitive selection of the design team, their development and preparation of the project documents without contractor input, and the entrusting of the project for construction to the low-bid contractor. This contractor can, if so inclined, subject the project to significant cost and budget stress through a construction phase environment characterized by an excessive number of claims and change orders.

    It is no wonder then that the search is on in all quarters to develop project delivery methods that embody the best features of the private sector process with the agency-required competitive bid requirements of the public sector process. This has not been easy, but there are increasingly positive signs that progress is being made in incorporating delivery method improvements in the execution of both private and public sector work.

    A quick summary of the major project delivery approaches will reveal how they and their process hybrids are achieving this.


    In this approach, the owner sequentially selects a design team that develops the project solution and prepares the necessary documents from which the project can be bid and subsequently built.

    During the design and documentation process, the owner meets often with the team to insure the input of requirements even as they may evolve during the process and to incorporate all project refinements right up to the time of bid.

    The owner, with the design team’s assistance, puts the project out to bid to eligible contractors. The low-bid general contractor is awarded the construction contract and is singularly responsible for the delivery of the work, despite the fact that large portions of the work may be sub-contracted to others.

    The sequential phases of this process are relatively simple, easily understood, and as the low-bid process suggests, result in the lowest cost on the day of bid. But the process itself can create an adversarial environment, promote change order cost increases and potentially result in high cost at the end of construction. Some of these disadvantages can be mitigated if the owner has the ability to pre-qualify contractors before bidding.


    When an owner seeks “single point” responsibility for both design and construction, writing one contract with a design/build entity is attractive as it avoids coordinating (or as likely, mediating) the activities of designers and contractors.

    The owner typically selects the design/build entity on the basis of a statement of design and technical performance requirements. Usually several design/build entities are invited to competitively propose design solutions and cost proposals that respond to the performance criteria.

    The entity and solution selected becomes the basis for the preparation of construction documents and all handoffs between design and construction become internal to the design/build team.

    This approach is most appropriate in situations where the owner is able to pre-specify detailed requirements, is reasonably certain of what the marketplace will supply, and has confidence in a single entity’s ability to both design and construct the project in the owner’s best interest.

    As a practical matter, the single option open to the owner is to select the preferred solution from those submitted, as there is little opportunity for the owner to influence the design evolution of the project beyond the initial promulgation of the performance criteria.

    Construction management

    If the foregoing two approaches represent opposite ends of the delivery spectrum, the family of approaches employing some form of construction management may be thought of as representing the middle of the delivery spectrum.

    The design team and the construction manager (CM) are each selected by the owner in separate processes. During design, the CM typically acts as an advisor to the owner, working with the design team and providing advice on construction technology, constructability, scheduling, construction markets and costs. The CM may also assist in identifying the early purchase of long-lead items, contract packaging, and coordination of traditional bidding and negotiations.

    During completion of design and through construction, the CM typically is assigned one of two roles: 1) The CM continues in an advisory role, managing the construction contract(s) for the owner but assuming no financial responsibility for the work; or 2) The CM assumes financial responsibility for the delivery of the project, effectively becoming the general contractor even though most/all of the work will be executed by subcontractors who have competitively bid for the work but are under the CM’s control. This model is often referred to as GC/CM as the contracting entity is functioning as both general contractor and construction manager.

    It is easy to see that the CM model (in one variation or another) is capable of providing the owner greater assurance of project cost control (as does the design/build approach) while still preserving the ability of the owner to interact with the design team in refining and shaping the solution and meeting government imposed low-bid requirements (both as embodied in the design/bid/build approach).

    The foregoing descriptions represent only a broad outline of the major distinctions of project delivery methods. Increasingly within each are hybrid features that ever more closely attempt to tailor delivery methods to the needs of the owner. These include team responsibilities to finance, commission, operate, or even own some or all of a project.

    In the design/build approach, in order to mitigate the limited owner interaction with the design teams, process facilitators are experimenting with proprietary meetings between the owner and each of the design teams during the competitive design phase. But as promising as this step may be, the jury is still out regarding its true effectiveness because the competitive environment itself fosters a suspected lack of team candor and owner confidentiality in the exchange of information.

    Even with the most progressive process modifications, no single approach will be correct for every owner or project every time. However, continued refinement and adjustment of each of them has the promise of creating a more precise fit between the owner’s expectations and the project delivery method’s ability to meet them.

    Change is occurring rapidly, and there are distinct trade-offs between the various approaches, which in turn are requiring a higher degree of knowledge and sophistication on the part of the owner to make good decisions in this regard.

    More than ever, it is critical for the owner to conduct detailed research to select the delivery process that has the greatest probability of attaining a project which is particularly marked by innovative design, efficient construction, and financial success.

    Judsen Marquardt, FAIA, a partner at LMN Architects in Seattle, can be reached at

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