Analysis

What makes a good design and build contractor?

D&B specialists offer a single point of contact and time and cost benefits

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Of the various procurement routes used by the construction industry, design and build (D&B) is steadily becoming one of the most advocated methodologies worldwide. One reason is the programme efficiency that this route offers to developers who have become more cautious over spending and more demanding with delivery times.

In fact, D&B’s proven advantages include having a single point of contact and accountability, a guaranteed start to finish continuity, time and cost benefits, and better collaboration when it comes to value engineering and buildability issues.

But despite many clients having witnessed these benefits, this procurement route is still relatively uncommon in the Middle East, says Emma Woods, associate director at Faithful+Gould.

“One of the reasons why design and build hasn’t caught on faster here is because of inexperience and the lack of education about what it entails and what is required. There is a perception that quality is compromised by contractors who are only interested in maximising their margins, and naturally commercial developers of premium products tend to be wary of this risk.”

With D&B projects demanding that the main contractor be able to handle a high level of coordination between teams, among other skills, to ensure a project’s success, having a seasoned professional on-board becomes a crucial factor.

When appointing a D&B contractor, there are certain criteria and fields of expertise a client should look out for.

Michael Byron, resident director, UAE at SSH says that before entering to into a contractual relationship with a contractor in a D&B scenario, it’s important to check if they have the relevant experience and can demonstrate a thorough understanding of the field. This means that they should be able to effectively manage a design and have a strong knowledge of the process of doing so.

“The early stages of the D&B process are about adapting the design and method of construction to the supply chain. In order to do this successfully, the contractor and his team need to understand the client’s requirement, and that’s the key to delivering it successfully.

“The challenge while choosing a contractor is finding one that is fully equipped to adapt their methodology to the client’s requirements rather than forcing their own supply chain onto the project’s design. Therefore, they must have a high degree of flexibility. In fact, the design bit truly comes into play when the contractor has to actually find ways to achieve a technical design that suits the client’s brief and the ultimate goal.”

Woods agrees that employers should look for a contractor who has a proven track record of delivering high-quality products on a relatively fast-track basis. This also requires the contractor to have a team of experienced staff who can integrate well with the employer’s team from the outset, thereby bringing to the table the benefits of their expertise in making projects inherently more buildable within a streamlined programme.

Another factor a client must consider is that not many D&B contractors have in-house design expertise, says Anil Menon, director at CKR Consulting Engineers.

“While many of them do hire staff with design experience, it does not always compensate as a solution, because design culture and expertise is built over the years. As a result, many D&B contractors hire traditional design firms to work on the design. That is something that a client needs to be aware of, because strong integration and a shared vision is essential for the successful delivery of a project. Additionally, the D&B contractor would also need to be aware of integrating the requirement of different consultants, client and operator during the various design phases.”

Given the many qualities that a client must look for in a contractor, the question is whether there are enough experienced design and build professionals in the Middle East. The trio say that while there isn’t a dearth of talent, it is a work in progress as this methodology is relatively new to the region.

In fact, Byron believes the region is in the midst of a transition.

“The number of contractors who are experienced in this area of expertise is increasing constantly, and the quality of work is also improving along the way, so it’s definitely an ongoing process. I would say that as it evolves, the quality of delivery will continue to improve, choices will get better, and in time to come it will become more accepted, which is ultimately beneficial for the industry.

“So I don’t see it as a lack of experienced professionals, I see it as being in the midst of a transition. I’m sure time will reveal a more refined approach to the process, and more abled contractors as well.”

Menon adds that while contractors here are capable of building great projects, egos need to be left behind if the design and build model is to catch on.

“Dubai has seen some of the best built projects in the world, but despite this, the design and build model is not widely used. You have grade A contractors and grade A designers and consultants here. All you need is a one team spirit, an understanding of each other’s strengths and an integrated process to pull off a successful D&B contract.”

There are other means by which D&B contractors and consultants can enhance their skills as well.

Byron says one way of bringing a team up to speed with new D&B practices is by conducting regular training programmes for staff. Additionally, he believes that the industry can benefit from having an accepted structure that D&B contractors and clients can work with.

“Having a framework could provide a benchmark and ensure consistency in the approach that is taken across the region. If guidelines are given by the various GCC governments, contractors, clients and designers could work within them, plus it would provide more consistency. It would also allow training to take place in a more focused way, which would ultimately keep things progressing.”

In Menon’s view, while D&B contractors may not be able to build a full-fledged design team, they can consider outsourcing to a design firm or alternatively buying out a flourishing practice. But as the market supply of good design firms who are willing to participate in D&B contracts is high, integration with these firms is key.

“Skill sets and training will directly relate to understanding the design process well and will also reduce the designer’s oversight during supervision to a minimum. For example, on-site meetings can be reduced, the shop drawing process can be nearly eliminated, and the material submittals and procurement can be done well in advance. All of this will have a direct impact on time and help with cost savings as well.”

Naturally, there will be certain challenges while trying to bridge the gaps in the industry. Some of the issues Menon sees the industry facing are improving competitive bidding, client interaction and bettering the project journey in terms of collaboration.

One of the roadblocks Byron sees is the fact that contracting is a very tight industry at the moment.

“It’s no secret that contractors are working on very tight margins, and this in itself is a challenge as it doesn’t necessarily promote an evolution in the methodology. However, as we move towards Expo 2020 and Qatar 2022, a large volume of contracting work is coming into the system. This presents a challenge in the supply chain and ultimately in the cost involved. At the same time, I think it presents an opportunity to embrace D&B while working on these projects for these events.”

Though clients are now more aware of the benefits of D&B over traditional procurement, they must trust the contractor enough to completely transfer the design responsibility to them, says Woods. In fact, she thinks the transfer of design responsibility is the main hurdle to cross in order for clients to move away from the deeply imbedded traditional procurement routes.

Despite the current difficulties design and build faces, it definitely has a promising future in the Middle East. Sharing his concluding thoughts, Menon reiterates Byron’s views about Expo 2020 and Qatar 2022 presenting ideal opportunities for D&B. He also stands firm on his stance that having the right team in place can go a long way.

“Any project requires the right people and the right attitude. If the spirit of collaboration is embraced and each party appreciates each other’s contribution, the D&B contract can definitely become more popular and the choice model for clients.”

Byron shares this optimism and sees the contracting industry becoming more sophisticated in the years ahead. Furthermore, markets in the region, especially the UAE, have also matured, and this eventually will lead to their embracing the D&B methodology even more.

However, Woods is a little more cautious.

“Historically, design and build was used on infrastructure projects with a lot of repetition, where the aesthetics took a back seat to the functionality of the development. Although we are now seeing an increased number of complicated and architecturally-led developments being procured successfully through design and build, whether we will witness this growth in the Middle East is yet to be seen. I think we are a long way off from design and build being the procurement route of choice by the majority of developers,” she concludes.

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