Leading the Charge

In today's market, many electrical contractors choose design-build as their project delivery method, and they have solid reasons for doing so.

“Essentially you separate yourself from your competition,” said Jim Mackey, president of Evergreen Power Systems, Seattle. “Professionally, it's more satisfying because as an electrical contractor, you have another aspect to your business. It gives you an avenue to expand your capabilities and do interesting things, beyond installing light fixtures, switches and outlets.”

Jeffrey Withers of California-based Collins Electrical Co. likes it for what it is not: a competitive bid format.

“When we go out and bid projects that someone else has designed, we're betting that we're going to have a better number than the other contractors,” he said. “It's risky though because everyone's computerized now and we're all using the same estimating equipment. On design-build you're brought in at the beginning. It's pretty much assured to be your project unless they don't build it.”

Lewis Weinstock, president of Linear Electric Co. Inc., Rockaway, N.J., prefers the design-build method because he has the sole responsibility of providing what the owners want.

“The flexibility is great,” Weinstock said. “The downside is that I'm responsible if I don't put in what the owner wants. You have more overall control and responsibility that goes with the control. It's a double-edged sword, but I like it. I think it's a better way to do business.”

The Design-Build Institute of America considers design-build as an integrated project-delivery method.

“We go into partnership with a contractor, an architect and other subcontractors, start out with a concept, assign values and a budget,” said Withers.

The process involves a number of phases. First, a budget is established based on a basic conceptual design. That design may allow for certain construction functions to begin, such as site work or utilities.

“When we have completed 50 percent of the design drawings, we value that and make changes, then do [all the] design and assign a value to that,” said Withers. “We go forward to 50 percent of the construction drawings that allow for construction to begin on the underground and the ground floor-the site development. That process continues until we are doing 100 hundred percent of the construction drawings. The final valuation is based on them. That's design-build. It's a team effort.”

Since the electrical contractor has increased responsibility with this delivery method, it is crucial to identify and design what the customer needs.

“You have to listen carefully to everyone who is involved. Building the job is the easiest part,” said Weinstock.

In today's construction marketplace, there are different types of design-build projects. The level of responsibility and control for electrical contractors can vary depending on how much is design-build.

Value engineering

Value engineering, a practice that can apply on many projects, has elements of design-build.

“A general contractor will have a set of drawings done by an engineer but the job is over-budget. The contractor comes to the electrical contractor and explains the problem. If the electrical contractor can change the design to help the owner attain his budget, it's called value engineering. That's a fashion of design-build,” said Weinstock.

Multiple prime contractors

Another variation on the design-build method is being used for some school district projects. For example, a district, serving as the school owner, contracts with multiple prime contractors, and with an electrical contractor, who submits a description of the job and the bid to the district. The bid is paid by the district, i.e., the owner. However, to handle the actual construction of the project, the district hires a construction management company to act as the general contractor. The multiple prime contractors work with the general contractor to complete the project.


Design-assist is a version of design-build that is usually divided into two phases: preconstruction and construction. It starts when the owner hires a design team of architects, engineers and consultants to draw up the base design. The owner enters into an agreement with a general contractor or construction manager who work on a fee basis to help with design, valuation and construction. The contractor or manager then enters into agreements with major subcontractors.

“Some owners like design-assist because, when the engineers work for them, they have more control over the design,” said Withers. “The method can also have pitfalls. On one project we worked on, the engineer was weak and slowed down the process.”


With actual design-build, a project begins when an owner either requests design-build proposals from two or three design-build teams. The teams consist of a combination of architects, engineers, designers, suppliers, electrical contractors, and other subcontractors, etc. The owner then evaluates the proposals, selects one and begins the design process. Some electrical contractors take charge before the job even starts.

“We stay abreast of what's going on in planning and zoning. We stay connected to developers in the area. A lot of companies who have upcoming projects will also send out an extensive pre-qualification questionnaire,” said Withers. “Often, as soon as we hear of a project, we go straight to the developer and say that we're doing two or three of the same type of projects. We get our name in front of them. Then we do a full-blown PowerPoint presentation. We point out our experience.”

Electrical contractors that go after design-build work usually have either an engineering wing, a liaison with an engineer or an engineering firm with design-build experience.

“We are a special case among contractors because we have qualified design professional engineers in-house,” said John Pertgen, technical services manager, HMT, Cicero, N.Y. “Our primary focus is in the maintenance and testing of electrical equipment, so we have a roster of customers and while performing maintenance on a substation, we often uncover a component that's beginning to fail or approaching the end of its design life.”

HMT also sells its design-build capabilities to new customers.

“Companies contact us to design engineering specifications for jobs that would typically go out for competitive bid. In those instances, we often offer and convince the customer to instead pursue a design-build package,” Pertgen said.

Electrical contractors as general contractor

For a limited number of projects, electrical contractors can also act as general contractors.

“We have done it but it's rare,” said Withers. “On one occasion the electrical was the largest portion of the job and we hired concrete and steel people and brought them under our wing and put the whole project together. Out of 100 projects, maybe one or two are like that.”

Whatever the level, working in design-build has advantages for the electrical contractor.

“We choose design-build,” said Pertgen. “It's a way for us to turn our expertise into additional profits.” EC

CASEY, author of "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors" and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks.com.



About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks...

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