Whitepaper: 02.15.2019

Design-Build: The Owner’s Role in Successful Outcomes

by Jim Mynott, McCarthy Senior Vice President Integrated Design Delivery

“Faster,” “cheaper” and with “less finger pointing” are the buzzwords surrounding the implementation of design-build. Couple these with the false perception that owners can wash their hands once the team is selected, sit back and watch the project come to realization and there is a recipe for headaches.

Role of Owner in Construction Management

In order for an owner to get the best result, with excellence in execution and exceeding expectations of the design, their role is as important as the design-builder. This article highlights six areas where an owner’s involvement is critical to ensuring their delight with the end result.

In a prior Insights That Build feature article, we discussed the owner’s role in a design-build project, primarily from the perspective of pre-solicitation/solicitation (RFP) leading to team selection. Once a team is selected, the owner’s role takes on a different dynamic. This dynamic may include the broad range of decisions regarding design to dealing with contractual, scope and financial issues on a project. It is this phase — the Post Selection and Pre-Shovel Phase — where we see the greatest opportunity for the team to have a successful outcome for the project. From our experience, the following areas should be considered as part of this recipe for success:

Validating the Project Scope

Also known as design validation, the project team, including the owner and major stakeholders, should be prepared to validate the proposal documents to ensure the requirements of the RFP have been addressed. Rarely do the teams have the time or funds to complete the design during the proposal phase. The design validation phase should be a top-down/bottom-up review to ensure all parties agree to the design solution before additional design efforts take place. The Owner should secure the services of a peer reviewer(s) in order to have additional focus on the technical solutions brought forth by the design-builder, thus ensuring early that the requirements of the RFP have been met. Validation meetings should include all parties (including design-build subcontractors) to ensure the review of the design is thorough. We suggest this phase be a contractual obligation and a required “sign off” before proceeding into formal design development.

This design validation phase may reveal inconsistencies within the RFP or design solution. To the extent required, the resubmission of “annotated” or “conformed” documents should be made and a conforming change order or “Zero Dollar Change Order” should be issued in order to codify the conformed document package. This will lead to better performance down the road and better alignment as to the scope of the project at the start of design.

The Role of BIM

It’s rare to be involved in any project, especially a design-build project, which does not utilize Building Information Modeling (BIM) in the delivery of the design for the project. We recommend that owners secure a BIM specification that is incorporated by the design-build team with the proposal.

From our experience, BIM in design-build delivery is a key contributing factor in how we manage our design to the scope and quality required by the RFP. We will typically align our team (architect, consultants and subcontractors) with a project BIM Execution Plan and a Level of Detail Matrix (LOD) matrix leading to the production of permitting and plans. With an active management approach including technical and field experienced individuals, we can monitor our progress and validate the design, commence design reviews and engage the owner well before we ever hit the print button. 

Another unique attribute of the design-build process is that it allows for the integration of a higher LOD for many of the design-build subcontractors much earlier in the design phase. This allows the design-builder to begin systems coordination much earlier, resulting in permitted documents that are typically more developed in terms of content and coordination. Owners can benefit when they describe the intended use of the completed BIM. Facilities management will directly benefit with a defined Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie) standard. These types of requirements are owner-directed at the initiation of the BIM process.

Managing Multiple Design Packages/Agency Reviews

Another direct benefit of design-build is the use of incremental design tracks and design packages. Months can be shaved off of the project schedule when the team gets creative with the design schedule. Multiple design tracks can also introduce additional challenges in maintaining the design packages that reflect the required needs for permitting the project with high confidence. While there is no one way to manage multiple packages, the following general ideas have been successfully employed by us on a number of our projects:

  • Development and approval of a narrative basis of design (BOD) package. This can be used to clearly describe the systems and document the owner’s requirements. This package also supports an early peer review and statement of code provisions and fire life safety approaches. A well thought out BOD will weave the requirements of the RFP and required references into one cohesive document. Plan for the BOD to be used often and amended as the team prepares the packages for submittal and approval. Owners must be prepared to review, approve and understand the BOD for their projects, thereby allowing the design-builder to rely and build on this information early in the design phase.
  • Preparation of a controlling document set. This controlling document can be used early with the owner and plan check agency to describe the project graphically and discuss phases, design packages and limits to the work within the submissions. Owners need to be prepared to sign off and approve preliminary design content during the development of these packages. An experienced design-builder will make this process transparent. Submitting an early design control package gives the plan check agency a better sense of the overall final design and higher confidence in phased approvals. Depending on the local jurisdiction, the controlling document set may be an early approval package used for development or related land use approvals.
  • Managing multiple packages. Managing multiple packages will also require an extensive approach to resolving plan check comments that may have an effect on more than one package. Creating a drawing log and revision history matrix can help identify changes to approved documents and whether those require resubmission to the plan check agency. In most cases, simply reviewing comment responses with previously approved packages will suffice. Changes regarding structural systems or life safety systems should be documented and changes reviewed with the approving agency. This will help maintain a solid field set of documents for inspection purpose

Managing the Client Interfaces (user group, systems and owner furnished items)

While design-build supports faster schedules and multiple packaging of the design content, a distinct challenge for an owner is making decisions much sooner in the project design phase. Understanding limitations that the owner may have in terms of equipment selections is a key factor in the RFP Phase and owners should have a strategy on how to administrate the technology and equipment interfaces for the design-build team. Some techniques that we have used and can provide the best result for the owner include:

  • We typically suggest the owner hire an equipment planner and technology supplier to represent the owner’s best interest (peer review) in the selection of equipment.
  • Communicate during the RFP phase any intention for delayed equipment selections. Describing delayed selections and including “placeholder” equipment in the planning phase allows the design-build team to engineer the support systems for the equipment and seek approvals.
  • Develop of a Systems Integration Log relating responsibilities to each party for the design of the supporting systems, and procurement, delivery, installation, start-up and maintenance of the equipment. In many cases, the design-build team will require design solutions from the owner’s technology vendor and technology systems integrator(s) that can directly affect design elements. Owners need to bring forth the technology integrator at the start of the design process. In today’s technology-driven environment, having a solid approach to building systems integration will help mitigate future scope gaps.

Managing user group interfaces can also result in additional challenges for both the design team and owner. Having a mutual agreement to user group interface and plan for management of potential scope development is crucial. BIM can be used to show room layouts, perspectives and elevations. By modeling and working directly with the user groups the design-builder can integrate final comments quickly and seamlessly. Owner representatives need to provide the environment for this to occur with appropriate flexibility for the team to make decisions and report back. In many situations, this critical phase can be extended with re-reviews that delay progress and add time to the design schedule, notwithstanding additional fees for design or construction.

Scheduling of Design

Scheduling of design efforts has been primarily a function of the designers working to a design “major milestone.” Typically, “Design Development” or progressive CD document delivery milestones are the norm. While design milestones are needed in order to fulfill contract requirements, we have found the use of pull plans that utilize building subsystems and related systems “interim milestones” lead to better discipline for the team.

A few of the interim design milestones we strive to schedule to include:

The role of the design-builder should be to work with the owner in order to flush out the appropriate decision points and milestones for the project. These milestones, along with any packaging approach should be used to set the design schedule, content for deliverables, and focus the team on decision making and reliable commitments. Owners must recognize that design milestones are mutual commitment points for the entire team. Post milestone changes become problematic and very costly in terms of time and redesign fees and/or construction.

Cost Management

There are a number of project delivery strategies that can be employed by the owner. Administrating costs is fundamentally different in public versus private institutions. These may include open book approaches, lump sum approaches, and various combinations within that spectrum.

From the owner’s perspective, managing cost in design-build delivery starts well before the RFP is issued to competing teams. Having an understanding of cost from a historical perspective for similar project types is paramount. This includes understanding local factors such as trade familiarities, local and/or regional resources, and local and/or regional escalation factors, which are all keys to aligning the proposed project program to a budget that fits the owner’s proforma. In many cases, we see the RFP representing the scope for the project to be completed within a Maximum Allowable Contract (MAC). It’s important to understand that aligning the MAC and the project will provide the best result in terms of competing teams focused on a solution and not cutting or modifying the scope in order to meet the overall target price. We would also recommend that owners employ a peer review cost firm to provide an independent “pre-RFP” budget review in order to help the alignment of scope and cost. A strong suggestion would be to look to prequalified teams for initial indications of cost and scope alignment as part of any proposal response period.

Internally, the design-builder is balancing many cost factors as part of the proposal and bid effort. In most cases, the design is not complete; therefore, certain cost estimates may be more of budgets and/or take-off combined with past cost history in order to arrive at a bid. It is recommended that the design-builder partner with design-build subcontractors as part of the team to develop pricing structures and strategies that reflect the scope within these trade packages.

In target based design build delivery, where the design is a function of the budget, the design-builder can take a very proactive role in helping the owner shape the project scope from the onset of design. In this delivery model, the owner receives the benefit of continuous cost and design input/response. The design-builder can set the budgets and functionally support the project program development from the start of programming. In some cases, owners have contractually committed to the budget in the agreement with design-builder.


The design-build delivery process can provide advantages to owners in terms of cost and schedule. In addition, the process results in design excellence that can exceed the expectations of the project. For most owners, many decisions need to be made much earlier in the project. Focusing efforts on the post award, pre-shovel phase is time consuming but results in a higher level of design confidence for the design-builder and an overall better result. The six areas above are the key owner actions needed for a successful outcome for the entire team, with a design solution that exhibits excellence in execution.

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