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Key Considerations in Writing a Design-Build RFP

I’ve participated on both sides of Design-Build Requests for Proposal (RFP) — as an author and as a designer. A well-written RFP is not only the start of a project, but the foundation of its success. On the other hand, a poorly written RFP has the unintended effect of polarizing the owner and builder and creating an environment where failure may be the outcome. As an author, I know I will never prepare a perfect RFP. As a designer, I will always be able to find flaws in any RFP. But, experience has taught me that the best design-build RFPs are clear and concise with a focus on what’s really important. In its simplest form, the RFP accurately conveys the owner’s true expectations, which allows the builder to do what he does best. Successful design-build projects focus on trust, diligence, and communication.

Performance vs. Prescription: Trust is a Must

Design-build is the priceline.com of construction. Let’s say your objective is to get from Los Angeles to New York. In the design-build world, this model is known as a performance specification. You identify the required objective and leave the method up to the provider. However, as you peer out the window of the Greyhound on your way to New York, you realize that there were criteria you failed to mention that were important, like the amount of travel time and some measure of comfort. The next time you travel, you vow to specify the airport, airline, exact seat location, and even the exact aircraft that you know has the best safety record. The explicit details, instructions, and criteria needed for your NEXT trip formulate a prescriptive specification. With prescriptive specifications, you have a good idea of what you are going to get, and how much it is going to cost, but you’ve left out any room for innovation in performance, quality, or price.

Design-build RFPs predominantly use performance specifications. Why? Performance specifications encourage innovation and value. Unfortunately, innovation and value have different meanings to each of us depending on our personal motives and beliefs. A well-written RFP will strive to give the builder a true understanding of the important goals and objectives of the project without prescribing the exact means and methods to achieve them. The builder is able to balance innovation, value, and quality within the constraints of the project budget. To the extent that the owner and builder develop and gain trust (a mutual understanding of what the true project goals are), project success will correspondingly follow. Design-build works best when expectations between the owner and the builder are understood and in alignment. Not surprisingly, the best projects I have worked on have been repeat projects between the same owner and builder, where mutual understanding of success and trust has been well established.

How do you build Trust?

As with any complex endeavor, the effort put into the preparation of a design-build RFP will be directly reflected in the quality of the completed project. Collaboration with the owner is vital; we listen, ask questions, provide guidance, and sometimes we challenge. We strive to extract the real project criteria and put them into the RFP. If there are no surprises, changes, or unnecessarily odd requirements, builders can feel the owner trusts them to get on with what they do best.

It seems intuitive that the more accurate the information furnished in an RFP, the more trust is built, and the less likely we are to have problems down the road. It’s particularly helpful when the information is current and directly relevant to the project. For projects involving buildings or other structures, I often see outdated topographic survey maps included in the RFP; it is also pretty common to see geotechnical reports for “nearby” facilities rather than the project site itself. Builders get frustrated when the site is not as indicated in the documents requiring sudden stops and effort to change schedules and designs to accommodate the new information, and an initial trust between the owner and builder is lost at the outset of the project.

A well-written RFP requires an initial investment of time and money to ensure that it is properly tailored for the project, and an initial trust relationship is established that is a foundation for the entire project. Neglecting the initial investment can end up costing more once construction is underway.

The RFP is the foundation of the Trust

Language in a design-build RFPs must be clear, concise, enforceable, and reflect the true objectives of the project. The best RFPs use simple, short sentences and focus on the meat of the matter. A well-written RFP makes maximum use of performance rather than prescriptive requirements, gives the builder a clear understanding of what is really important to the owner, and becomes the foundation for building a trust relationship and a successful project.

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