Project Delivery Methods – A Brief Description

By Greg Offner

Embarking on a construction project many agencies and jurisdictions must make a choice regarding the method by which the project is designed and constructed. Back in “the day” you hired an Architect on a handshake and they designed and oversaw the construction of your building. Not today. There are so many types of delivery methods, and various methods of securing services, it’s easier counting sheep!

The decision, if you have one, has become more difficult in recent years as several “alternative delivery methods” have been created to address weaknesses in the traditional design-bid-build delivery method. Delivery options that have gained in popularity include Triple P, aka, Public Private Partnerships where the jurisdiction becomes a player in the planning, design and construction The Dominion of Canada likes doing business this way. Here in the States, Mexico and the Caribbean, the use of at-risk construction management, single prime contractors, and design-build delivery methods are more common than the multi-Prime delivery methods mandated by legislation in States like PA and NY.

There are Contractor and Industry associations and lobbyists for every type of delivery method. Proponents of alternative methods promise improvements over the once traditional multi-Prime system in terms of cost, project control and reduction in disputes. The increased number of alternatives offers the Owner or developer more flexibility to choose an appropriate and effective system for its project. Here at CN, we sleep well at night because we know great firms deliver great projects regardless of the delivery method. You’ll find these firms advertised here!

Traditional Design-Bid-Build – Single Prime

The traditional design-bid-build system remains the most popular delivery method for both public and private construction projects. The Owner engages a designer to prepare the design of the complete facility, including construction drawings, specifications and contract packages. Once completed, the design package is presented to interested general contractors (GC), who prepare bids for the work, and execute contracts with subcontractors to construct various specialty items. In many cases, the contractor submitting the lowest responsive bid is selected to perform the construction. This contractor is then responsible for constructing the facility in accordance with the design. The designer typically maintains limited oversight of the work and responds to questions about the design on behalf of the Owner. The designer or Program Manager may also assist the Owner in administering the construction contract, including determination of project progress, for interim payments made to the contractor.

This contracting system offers the advantage of being widely applicable, well understood, and with well-established and clearly defined roles for the parties involved. It is the most common approach for public Owners having to comply with state procurement statutes. Furthermore, it offers the Owner a significant amount of control over the end product, particularly since the facility’s features are fully determined and specified prior to selection of the contractor. However, many construction Owners have experienced a variety of frustrations using this system, leading to the development of other methods.

While the most common approach to bidding a project in building construction is for general contractors to submit a sealed lump-sum bid, many variations in contractor procurement exist in the traditional system.

Traditional Design, Bid, Build Multiple-Prime Contracting

Another procurement method, as mentioned used in The State of Maryland, is multiple prime contracting, in which the Owner holds separate contracts with contractors of various disciplines, such as general construction, structural, mechanical, and electrical. In this system, the Owner, or its Program Manager, manages the overall schedule and budget during the entire construction phase.

This system, which many Owners are required to use, gained favor in part as another method of “fast-tracking” construction. Work in each construction discipline is bid separately, allowing the flexibility of awarding construction contracts on the first portions of the project as soon as the respective aspect of design is completed. This fast-track approach appears to be a highly desirable feature of this method of procurement in cases where time of performance is a critical element. Furthermore, the system allows the Owner to have more control over the project schedule, since the Owner sets the schedule for bidding individual portions of the work. For example, if an initial phase of construction (such as foundation construction) is delayed, the Owner may reduce liability for delays by postponing the bidding of follow-on work. Another advantage of this system is that the Owner can realize savings by directly procuring major material items, such as structural steel or major mechanical equipment, avoiding contractor mark-ups.

However, the very nature of this system causes its primary disadvantages. First, the final cost of the project is not known until the final prime contract is procured. In addition, there have been numerous cases where this method did not work well due to the absence of overall authority and coordination once construction is underway. The problems primarily arise from lack of coordination and contractor delay issues. While the general construction prime contractor is often given contractual responsibility to coordinate the work among trades, including schedule, this contractor lacks the contractual authority to dictate the schedule of another contractor.

At-Risk Construction Management

This delivery system is similar in many ways to the traditional Design-Bid-Build system, in that the CM acts as a general contractor during construction. That is, the CM holds the risk of subcontracting the construction work to trade contractors and guaranteeing completion of the project for a fixed, negotiated price following completion of the design. However, in this scenario, the CM-at-Risk also provides advisory professional management assistance to the owner prior to construction, offering schedule, budget and constructability advice during the project planning phase. Thus, instead of a traditional general contractor, the owner deals with a hybrid construction manager/general contractor. In addition to providing the owner with the benefit of pre-construction services which may result in advantageous changes to the project, the CM-at-Risk scenario offers the opportunity to begin construction prior to completion of the design. The CM can bid and subcontract portions of the work at any time, often while design of unrelated portions is still not complete. In this circumstance, the CM and owner negotiate a guaranteed maximum price (GMP) based on a partially completed design, which includes the CM’s estimate of the cost for the remaining design features. Furthermore, CM may allow performance specifications or reduced specifications to be used, since the CM’s input can lead to early agreement on preferred materials, equipment types and other project features.

The primary disadvantages cited in the CM-At-Risk system involve the contractual relationship among designer, CM and owner once construction begins. Once construction is underway, the CM converts from a professional advisory role of the construction manager to the contractual role of the general contractor. At that time, tensions over construction quality, the completeness of the design, and impacts to schedule and budget can arise. Interests and stake holding can become similar to the traditional design-bid-build system, and adversarial relationships may result. While the fixed GMP is supposed to address the remaining unfinished aspects of the design, this can in fact increase disputes over assumptions of what remaining design features could have been anticipated at the time of the negotiated bid.


The design-build (D-B) project delivery system has a primary benefit, that is the simplicity of having one party responsible for the development of the entire project. While the other systems often give rise to disputes among various project participants—with the Owner acting as referee (or party ultimately to blame)—in D/B many of these disputes become internal D-B team issues which do not affect the Owner. Under this system, the Owner contracts with a D-B team, which is often a joint venture of a general contractor and a designer. Since GC’s are comfortable in the role of risking corporate capital in performing projects, they usually are the lead members of this sort of team. However formulated, the D/B team performs the complete design of the facility, usually based on a preliminary scope and schematic design presented by the Owner as a bridging document.

At some point early in the process, the D/B team will usually negotiate a firm, fixed price to complete the design and construction of the facility. Once underway, the D/B team is then responsible for construction of the project, and for all coordination between design and construction. Since the construction team is working together from the outset, D/B offers the opportunity to save time and money. However, the advantages of the system are offset by a significant loss of control and involvement by the Owner and stakeholders. Accordingly, it is difficult for the Owner to verify that it is receiving the best value for its money, without a great deal of confidence in the D/B team. The primary caution for an Owner considering D/B is that it considers the level of involvement it requires for a successful project. First, the Owner needs to recognize the effort and completeness that must be behind its initial scope/preliminary design which forms the basis of its contract with the design-builder. Often, the Owner will require needs additional consultants to help it develop its scope or preliminary design, in the role of a traditional design firm.

Public-Private Partnerships

Back in the 1990’s the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania used “County Initiatives” where the Counties competed against each other to plan, design and construct State Facilities the County would lease back to the State. While many of these projects were correctional facilities, other types of public buildings were also developed in this manner. Canada does most of its infrastructure in a similar manner, mostly highways and bridges but many buildings as well.

With the above in mind, it appears that a P3 delivery may be best suited to conventional projects for which project requirements are clearly defined and for which expertise is widely available, but the roadblocks may be Permitting and Public Sentiment, you know, NIMBY’s. The County would sell its own Bonds on the open market to finance land acquisition, infrastructure improvements as well as the design and the construction. The benefit to a P3 delivery method is jobs are created starting day one for their County residents.


What keeps me up at night is with all these delivery methods, people still haven’t figured out all methods can work well when the participants are the best experts in their industry! Pre-Qualification, particularly in today’s economy will help keep you from tossing and turning at night. Since the Owner selects their team prior to award, seeking only those firms with design expertise, financial capability, construction experience, and experience in delivering the type of building will help you sleep tight, every night.

Greg Offner is a Criminal Justice Consultant serving the Planning, Design and Construction Community, a valued member of the CN Editorial Advisory Board, and a regular contributor to Correctional News.  

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Correctional News.