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—  9 min read

Design-Bid-Build Project Delivery: What It Is & When to Choose It


Last Updated Dec 1, 2023

Design-Big-Build method illustrated by collage of 3 sequential construction site photos

The Design-Bid-Build (DBB) Construction Delivery Method is considered the traditional organizational structure for construction builds. It has remained popular because it's simple, and owners often feel it can help maintain lower project costs than other methods.

Delivery methods determine the roles and responsibilities of the project stakeholders during the different phases of construction. In design-bid-build, construction progresses in three distinct phases that follow one another, just as the name suggests. In this article, we’ll take a look at how design-bid-build compares to the other emerging construction project delivery methods, and how owners can help determine which project delivery method is best for them.

Table of contents

The Design-Bid-Build Process

The owner of a design-bid-build project benefits from a one-thing-at-a-time approach, focusing first on the design of the future build, then on finding the right builder for the job, then bringing the physical project to life. Here are the three phases of the design-bid-build process.

1. Design

In the first phase of design-bid-build, the owner has an idea of the project and contracts a design team that includes architects and engineers to help conceptualize the entire project. The owner and designer will determine a project's structure and features, the scope of the project the owner will bid and the primary criteria that define a successful outcome. 

The design team will build a timeline and preliminary budget and tweak the designs to fit the owner's needs and expectations. During the design phase, the architects and engineers turn an owner's idea into a final concept for a new project.

2. Bid

The owner then puts the project up for contractor bids and chooses the optimal construction team. On public projects, the invitation to bid extends to any qualifying contractor registered to work on government projects. For private projects, the owner decides whether to swing the doors open for anyone to bid or limit bids to a few known contractors.

The bid package will include all the details the bidders will need to determine their costs, including construction specifications, project requirements, the project delivery method the owner has chosen, and any bonding or insurance requirements that apply.

Bidding contractors will supply information about their companies, credentials, and track records to convince the owner the contractor can pull off the project.

Contractors will use the bidding phase to research materials and labor costs, equipment needs, project the overhead costs they'll incur, and solicit subcontractor bids to help determine project costs.

The bidding process is highly competitive: The owner will likely choose a lower-cost bid for project construction. However, a contractor's experience and reputation may also play a large part in the decision process. Competitive bidding is the reason owners generally believe that DBB will deliver their projects at the lowest possible price.

3. Build

Finally, the owner contracts a general contractor to complete the build. The contractor executes the build, overseeing day-to-day site activities and hiring and overseeing subcontractors.

During construction, the owner will remain in close contact with the contractor. The contractor will create a change order for any design changes needed during construction. An owner who receives a change order may consult with the design team, go over any costs involved in the change, and approve the change.

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Potential Risks with Design-Bid-Build

While the DBB process is fairly straightforward, it still isn't easy — it can involve some risks for the project owner. Some of the risks involved in design-bid-build are:

  • The DBB project owner puts a lot of time and money into the design phase. Although the designer offers a preliminary budget, the owner doesn't know the true costs until the contractor delivers a firm budget during the bidding and contracting phases.
  • Costs are subject to change throughout the build. Contractors are not involved during the design phase and cannot give recommendations or alter plans until after bidding. As changes become necessary during construction, the owner may be on the hook for additional costs. Delays that result from complications on the project could also increase costs.
  • Design-bid-build could take longer overall since project phases do not overlap. The design is fully complete before bidding and construction start.

Despite the risks, many owners still prefer DBB to any other delivery method because it's simple and may deliver the project at a lower cost. Owners also enjoy more control over the process than they may get with other project delivery methods.

DBB is best suited to shorter-term, straightforward projects that aren't likely to require many design changes.

What Can an Owner, Contractor, and/or Sub Expect With DBB?

One of the primary issues with a design-bid-build project is the lack of collaboration between contractors and designers. Since an owner doesn't hire a contractor until after the design is complete, the contractor doesn't get to weigh in until after the contractor has signed on to the job.

Designers are experts in their own field, but don't have the same experiences of bringing an idea into physical reality as builders — so designs often contain errors, omissions, or points the contractor needs clarification on. Integrated project delivery methods allow contractors to point out the missing pieces during design so that the team can optimize the plan for better quality, price, or timing as needed.

While DBB doesn't benefit from early contractor input, stakeholders on a DBB project can benefit a great deal from clear, consistent, and organized communication surrounding all aspects of the project's progression. Contracts should contain change management protocols. Further, the contractor should maintain open books for the owner to check the current schedule, budget adhesion, and any expected delays. Open communication can go a long way to avoiding or minimizing disputes on a project.

Design-Build vs. Design-Bid-Build

The design-bid-build project delivery method is often compared and contrasted with design-build. While both DB and DBB are old and well-known project delivery methods, their approaches to the relationships between stakeholders, the input each has on construction, and the risks they take on in a project are quite different.

What is Design-Build?

Unlike Design-Bid-Build, Design-Build (DB) is a more collaborative approach to building. An owner using the design-build construction delivery method enters into a single contract with the design team (architects and engineers) and the contractor.

The most prominent difference between design-build and design-bid-build processes is the level of interaction between contractors and designers. Contractors on design-build are involved in the process from the outset and can consult or suggest changes to project designs very early in the process.

The opportunity for early input means the owner benefits from the contractor's building experience. It can alter plans to make them more buildable, optimize construction timing, or change construction materials or finishes to meet the owner's budget better.

Because the contractor is on board early, construction on a design-build project can benefit from significantly compressed timelines. As soon as a portion of design is complete, it can be released for construction, so building is happening simultaneously with design.

On long, involved projects, the opportunity for concurrent building and design can save months or years off a project's schedule.

The level of collaboration between contractor, designer, and builder can potentially lead to a more efficient, optimized, and quality final project. However, it can also lead to more risk for the design-build, who is bidding on an as-yet-designed project.

Is Design-Build or Design-Bid-Build Better for My Project?

When beginning a project, owners ask themselves, “Which project delivery method is best for my project?” 

There are no definite and final answers to this question – the method each owner chooses depends on comfort level with risk, timeline requirements, and project complexity. Here are some factors to consider when choosing between design-build and design-bid-build delivery methods:

  • Time: Some owners are more comfortable with longer timelines than others. If a project needs to be up and running before the next school year starts, the compressed schedule made possible by DBB may offer the best chances of doing that. Alternatively, on very, very long infrastructure projects, a DBB project delivery method may be the key to reducing project timelines from decades down to years.
  • Complexity: Owners enjoy DBB because it is simple – the owner tackles design first, then moves on to construction. When a project is straightforward, like an added lane on a highway, DBB works beautifully to get the job done. However, when projects get complex, like building an additional lane on a busy highway that extends through multiple cities, the project may benefit from more eyes, expertise, and options. That's where design-build excels.
  • Risk tolerance: Finally, owner expertise and level of risk tolerance could indicate which project delivery method is best. Design-bid-build projects leave much of the risk and responsibility to the owner. The owner comes up with the design and hires a contractor to build it. Any unexpected elements or changes tend to fall to the owner to pay for. Conversely, design-build takes owner input and risk down a notch, assigning both to the design-build team.

Learn more about project delivery methods: 6 Construction Project Delivery Methods Compared

Examples of Design-Bid-Build Projects

The Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) used the DBB project delivery method to improve a bridge at the Wenatchee River crossing. The bridge was originally constructed to have one westbound and two eastbound lanes. The project team widened the bridge to allow for five lanes, plus room for a median and shoulders on either side.

The Michelle and Barack Obama Sports Complex (formerly called the Rancho Cienega Sportsplex) in Los Angeles was delivered by design team Studio Pali Fekete Architects and general contractor Pinner Construction in 2022. It's a 49,000-square-foot sports facility that was built to replace the existing center.

Idaho's Eagle Wastewater Treatment Plant facility expansion built two new aerated lagoon cells and two new settling lagoon cells that will provide 19 million gallons of additional volume to treat water.

How Does Design-Bid-Build Stack Up?

No two construction projects are alike. Owner preferences and abilities, locales, and project times may impact the top priorities for the project delivery teams that work on them. The emergence of new project delivery methods makes it easier for each team to devise an organizational plan that works for each project.

Design-bid-build may remain the best choice for price-conscious clients who are willing to wait for the sequential delivery of project phases. It is still the standard choice for many local public projects.



Written by

Kristen Frisa

14 articles

Kristen Frisa is a freelance writer specializing in finance and construction technology. She has helped numerous companies to provide value to their readers and establish their expertise in their industries. Kristen holds a degree in philosophy and history and a post-graduate certificate in journalism. She lives in Ontario, Canada.

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Alex Six

Alex Six is a Mid-Market & Majors Civil & Infrastructure Overlay Account Executive for Procore. Alex has a long background in the construction industry beginning with an internship with one of the biggest contractors in the world, and expanding across projects with teams as small as 4 people and as large as multi-billion dollar budgets with large teams and disciplines. His resume includes Caltrans highways & bridges, Metro light rail & underground, as well as airport runways and utilities.

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