Why Basis of Design Is Critical for Design-Build Projects

design basis
Ted Bumgardner

Design-Build has become a very popular project delivery method for both the private and public sectors within the construction industry. As a modernized take on the “master builder” model that has served mankind for millennia, the contract creates a single entity that is responsible for the work on the project and with which the owner communicates.

Like every project delivery system, there are risk trade-offs. Owners who don’t fully understand the benefits and limitations of Design-Build could find themselves with a distressed project, subject to unexpected claims and litigation.

One concept that Owners often miss when getting involved in Design-Build is that if the contract fails to clearly articulate something that the Owner wants or needs, the Owner may be required to pay extra for it. This baffles even sophisticated Owners who enter into Design-Build agreements thinking that they won’t have change orders with this delivery method.

Owners may also discover that Design-Build contracts are much harder to unwind if the contractor fails to perform and if it becomes necessary to terminate the contractor. In the event of termination for failure to perform, who owns the design? Will the Owner be able to engage another architect to take over when the design concept was the basis of discretionary approval by the planning department? Or, does the non-performing contractor and his architect “own” the design? Having clarity over these issues is essential.


Design-Build can be a wonderful delivery method under the right conditions and with the right programming and Basis of Design (BOD) going in. The goal of the BOD is to concisely capture the owner’s requirements and vision into technical terms and design parameters the design-builder can work within.

Creating a quality Basis of Design greatly improves the communication and collaboration between the owner and builder, increasing the chances of success for the project. It does this by:

  • Communicating the owner’s vision of the project.
  • Ensuring the design-builder knows the project constraints to work within and where they can be creative.
  • Providing the criteria for owner and design-builder to resolve change order entitlement issues.
  • Serving as a key benchmark for proper evaluation and quick resolution if a dispute occurs.

In short, the Owner only needs to document in the BOD those things that are important to the Owner, because if it’s not articulated in the BOD, it’s left up to the contractor.


The most effective approach to a successful Design-Build project is for the Owner to directly hire the design consultants, building commissioning agent, and construction manager to perform programming and document a comprehensive BOD. This preliminary design work can include conceptual floor plans and elevations as well as performance-based project specifications. This approach secures for the Owner those things that the Owner cares most about—functionality, life-cycle considerations, and ownership of the design. It leaves to the design-build contractor those things that the construction team is best at—the selection of structural systems, construction details, and constructability.

By utilizing their experience and expertise, the programming team can help create a basis that is specific to the owner’s goals and feasible for the design-builder to construct within the contract’s budget. They can also provide a review of the design-builder’s final design to ensure that the Owner’s objectives have been met.

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