Falling into the design-build paradox

Posted in: Bridges, Construction, Highways, Infrastructure


In the search for success, we often repeat steps that worked in the past. The same is true for the pursuit and delivery of design-build projects. Rather than changing our process to accommodate each situation, we prefer to stay rooted in what we know. Leveraging “lessons learned” and best practices is a good idea, but these processes can lead to standardization – and standardization without understanding the greater context can stagnate innovation.

This is the Design-Build Paradox: relying on tried-and-true experience while also breaking from these methods to achieve superior results. However, using the same “proven” methods on each project instead of regarding these methods as flexible templates can hurt design-build projects and teams. If any of the following problems sound familiar, it might indicate that you are stuck in the Design-Build Paradox:

You keep solving the same problems

You’re working on a large highway bridge design-build project. From prior design-build experience, you know that your project will face staging, geotechnical and utility issues. Each are relatively easy fixes – the last design-build project you managed had the same problems. In fact, you’ve seen these same problems a few times before. Your past experience has provided you with a wealth of knowledge regarding typical design-build hiccups. You might joke, “same problems, different project!” before making the necessary corrections based on past fixes.

But this is the Design-Build Paradox. You’re only familiar with the solution because it’s already become an issue before. You’re locked into the same process that created the problem instead of anticipating and correcting it.

Innovation is off the shelf

As a seasoned design-build professional, it is easy to lean on innovations conceived during past projects. You search through previous Alternative Technical Concepts to see which are best suited for the new project’s framework. Although this is an effective practice to quickly introduce and amend ideas, you risk pulling innovation off the shelf entirely by relying on past experiences.

Stuck in the Design-Build Paradox, we sometimes forget that “one size fits all” solutions are incompatible with the delivery method. We think we understand the problem but then miss items that significantly change the solution. Similarly, we can have preconceived conceptions on solutions. Using a successful ATC and forcing it to fit within the new project’s parameters ignores nuances that must be addressed individually.

The limits remain unchallenged

If your project doesn’t include new ideas that make your designers and contractors do a double-take, then you likely aren’t pushing the limits. This is a sign of stagnation. Often, stagnation isn’t caused by something being wrong – it’s caused by being consistently right. This is a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, “good” is the enemy of “great.” To stay on top, particularly in the innovative and competitive design-build market, design-leaders must find and push the limits of what has and can be done. If you have a long, steady history with a certain aspect of projects, it can be difficult to break out of the Design-Build Paradox and see a pathway to something different.

Falling into the Design-Build Paradox is a common problem. Just remember that you’re not alone, and we’re here to help. Stay tuned as we explore solutions to break free of the Design-Build Paradox and rejuvenate your design-build projects.


Ben Dzioba

About the Author

Ben Dzioba, PE, PMP, DBIA is a licensed engineer, certified project management professional and design-build professional. He is on numerous national committees and a 2017 DBIA Transportation Leadership award recipient. He is also the past-president of the DBIA-Upper Midwest Region and one of Mead & Hunt’s design-build leaders. If you have questions about the design-build process and how to build both teams and projects, Ben has answers.

Read more posts by Ben Dzioba

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