In the last two decades, the Idaho State Legislature has authorized design-build contracting for many different types of public projects. It appears that the Legislature will continue this trend for highway projects. In February, a House committee voted to print a bill that would allow the Idaho Transportation Department (IDT) to award design-build contracts for highway projects. A similar measure nearly became law last year.

For the most part, the Legislature’s acceptance of the design-build process is good thing. Several years ago, I worked for a commercial contractor. In 2001, I visited our largest project at that time -- a $500 M design-build facility in California. When I asked the project lead whether he liked design-build projects, he was quick to praise the process. He believed that design-build projects equated to fast results, decreased change orders, and less litigation. To him, it was a no-brainer. Many of my colleagues agree.

Since then, I have been involved with several design-build and design-bid-build projects. Although some design-build projects have been successful, that’s not always the case. The moment an owner enters into a design-build contract, it loses something that can be very important to a successful construction project: control. This lack of control – which is caused in large part by undefined design requirements – can lead to significant cost overruns and delays.

To avoid such results, owners should focus on two important actions: careful planning and diligent execution. On the topic of planning, design-build owners should spend significant time defining the project requirements. The design-build contract documents must include, among other things, detailed project design criteria, program requirements, performance specifications, and deliverables. Absent such defined requirements, design-builders are free to run wild.

Professional execution of the plan is equally important. Owners must prudently monitor the design-builder’s work. Too often, owners in design-build projects overlook this task, believing that such role is limited in design-build projects. In fact, the opposite is true. Because the design-builder has more flexibility in design-build projects, owners must arduously monitor the budget and schedule.

Design-build projects present many benefits. IDT, however, should know that it will not be less work for them. The key is for IDT to clearly define the project programs and performance requirements before the contracts are signed, and to monitor the design-builder’s compliance with these requirements throughout the project.