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Traditional procurement vs design & build: Which one is better?

What - in plain English - are traditional procurement and design & build, how do they work and which one is better for you? We go through the pros and cons of both systems...

18 January 2024
4 minutes read
Smiling male and female construction engineers in safety vests and hard hats discussing project details on a digital tablet at a construction site, with blueprints in hand and a crane in the background.

A question we are often asked is, “Which is better: traditional procurement or design & build?” This is not a question with a single answer, as it truly depends on your building project, and your specific goals and objectives.

If you have never carried out a construction project before, you may feel that deciding between traditional and design & build is a huge decision to make.

Do you start off by selecting an architect or do you hire a building contractor and trust them to deal with every aspect of the project? That’s the choice often referred to by professionals as traditional procurement vs design & build. But what does that mean for you? And which construction procurement strategy should you choose?

Hang in there – we’re going to explain the difference between traditional procurement and design & build so that you can compare their pros and cons, and find out which one is better for your project. By the end of this article, everything should feel a little more under your control. Let's get started...

Back view of a male and female construction professionals in safety gear observing an active building site, highlighting the collaboration and oversight in construction management.

Most commonly used procurement routes

The majority of construction projects are organised in one of two ways.

The first is often called “traditional procurement” or “traditional contract”.

Why? Because it has been used since the Victorian era. It goes like this: you hire someone to design your new housing estate or block of flats or extension or loft conversion or whatever it is (we strongly recommend that you opt for a fully qualified architect). Then once you have planning permission, you or your project manager (who could be your architect) put out an invitation to tender for a building contractor.

Firms then put in bids laying out their prices for the work you have specified and sometimes explaining their capacity and qualifications for your kind of project. You choose a contractor, and they start construction work to your architect’s specifications.

Alternatively, you can opt for what is known as “design & build”. At the very start, you hire a building contractor (possibly again by invitation to tender). Once you have hired them, it is the contractor’s responsibility to make everything happen from that moment until they hand over the keys at the end. Which might sound wonderful, a huge weight off your mind… but we’re pretty sure you know nothing is ever that simple. So let’s take a closer look at the decision you have to make.

If you take construction projects seriously, reach out to the author of this for no-obligation consultation.

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Match your priorities with your procurement route

What matters most to you as you look ahead to this project?

You’ll probably say that you want something beautiful, impeccably finished, completed ahead of schedule at a bargain price. In the real world, meanwhile, you have to decide which one or two of these factors matters most to you or your business.

So take a few seconds and write them down in order of their importance to you and your project. Keep an eye on that list as we explain the merits and drawbacks of the most commonly used procurement routes, traditional procurement vs design and build.

Flowchart diagram showing the traditional procurement process in construction with the employer at the top, followed by architects, main contractor, and branching out to surveyors, engineers, other consultants, and sub-contractors.

Traditional contract (aka design-bid-build or bid-build)

There are good reasons why this method has been popular for so long, but we are not going to pretend it is perfect for everyone all the time. Let’s get into the details.

When should you use the traditional procurement method for your project?

Think about your list of priorities again.

  • Is design near the top?
  • Do you have a strong sense of how your project should look and feel?
  • Are you hoping to collaborate with an architect so that they can capture your vision, to bring what you have been thinking about to life?
  • Does being able to feel in control of what’s being designed and built for you matter more to you than getting it finished as soon as possible?
  • Are you a person for whom details matter? 

Then the traditional method could be for you.

Advantages

  • You have a one-to-one relationship with the person or team doing the design. 
  • You retain control of the project.
  • You can select different professional consultants and other specialists if you are confident in doing so.
  • Using the tender process to pick your builders can allow you to either choose based on the lowest price or the best quality or the combination of both that fits your needs.
  • The brief for the building contractors will be much more specific, so their prices should be more closely based on the work that needs to be done – with design & build you have to make a commitment to your budget before you have a chance to get a good understanding of how the project is going to unfold. This is one reason why traditional procurement is the most common option for more complex projects. 

Disadvantages 

  • You may have to deal directly with more people (unless you hire your architect as project manager). 
  • You may have less certainty about cost: each stage of your project will produce separate bills, as opposed to being covered by one initial quote. 
  • Waiting until you have obtained planning permission before running the tender process can add weeks to the length of the project. 
Simplified flowchart diagram representing the design and build procurement method in construction, with the employer at the top and the Design & Build Contractor connected directly to multiple sub-contractors.

Design & build contract

Over recent years, design & build has become the main alternative to traditional procurement for developers and individuals commissioning construction projects. Let’s look at the pros and cons.

When should you use design & build for your project?

Take a look at your priority list.

  • Are the two top slots occupied by cost and timing?
  • And is your project a fairly simple one on a plot that is unlikely to have hidden surprises?

Then the characteristics of design and build procurement might suit your needs.

Advantages 

  • One company is taking all responsibility for delivering your project.
  • You should have greater certainty about how much you are going to spend – but don’t take that as meaning you’ll know exactly how much it will cost you from the start. In all construction projects, unexpected things can happen.  
  • Because your contractor can be planning the build at the same time as the design process is going on, and can get on-site as soon as planning permission and building regulations approval are granted, this method should be quicker.
  • Advocates of design & build claim that because building contractors are involved in the design, the project should have greater ‘buildability’. We’re not sure we agree with the idea that architects don’t take into account how practical their designs will be to build, but contractors will most likely ask for a design using as many standard, easy-to-assemble elements as possible. 

Disadvantages 

  • While you are handing over responsibility, you are also handing over control. If you are busy with other aspects of your life, you can have the nasty shock of checking up on your project at some point down the line and finding out that what is being built only bears a passing resemblance to what you wanted. 
  • Yes, contractors will often try to stick to their original quote – but they also have to make money. So if there are any delays or unexpected costs, the contractor has an incentive to cut quality either in the choice of materials or the amount of care and attention their team pays to your project.
  • Lack of flexibility and adaptability – you and the contractors are essentially agreeing the nature of the project at the start. It has less chance to evolve. And sometimes, of course, it will have to evolve – if the planning authority asks for significant changes, for instance. At this point, you can lose some of the advantages of design & build. 
  • The number of building contractors able to carry out full design & build is limited, so you will have fewer options, and might end up with a contractor you are not 100% happy with. 

If you take construction projects seriously, reach out to the author of this for no-obligation consultation.

LEARN MORE
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What is develop & construct?

At this point, you’re probably looking back at what you have just read and thinking, “Why can’t I have the advantages of both traditional procurement and design & bid and none of the disadvantages?” There are hybrid systems that promise that – but do they work?

With what is sometimes known as “develop & construct”, you hire an architect who will provide a design concept. Then, before your planning application, you commission a contractor to design and build based on that design.

The question is whether you trust the contractor’s designers not to turn your architect’s lovely vision into something rather less elegant and unique. Sometimes, the contractors will work with your original architects to develop the design, but again the relationship will be between the contractors and the architects, and the contractors will be making the decisions.

Two construction supervisors in high-visibility vests and safety helmets actively discussing over a chart, with the blurred background of a busy construction site.

Which procurement method should you choose?

It’s probably worth us saying once again that most of the time, there are trade-offs to be made. If, for instance, you want bespoke doors made by craftspeople, that will take longer than using mass-produced ones.

It follows that while you should expect your project to be completed within a reasonable timeframe barring unexpected developments, how long is reasonable depends on your specifications. The fastest build and the most meticulous and carefully crafted project are never going to be the same – you have to make a choice.

Do we have a preference? Absolutely, we think the traditional procurement route is usually better. But not always: if you reckon your project is going to cost less than £50,000 in total and will be fairly straightforward, then we recommend design & build.

For all other projects, we think you should be wary of design & build. Because if you are after a finished construction that you have pride in, or that will make you happy because it’s so beautifully designed, or you are hoping it will contribute to the prestige and reputation of your business, then the traditional procurement method is your better bet.

How Urbanist Architecture can help you 

Urbanist Architecture is a London-based RIBA chartered architecture and planning practice with offices in Greenwich and Belgravia. With a dedicated focus in proven design and planning strategies, and expertise in residential extensions, conversions and new build homes, we help homeowners, landowners and developers achieve ROI-focused results.

If you want to discuss your project with us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Ufuk Bahar, Founder and Managing Director of Urbanist Architecture
AUTHOR

Ufuk Bahar

Urbanist Architecture’s founder and managing director, Ufuk Bahar takes personal charge of some of our larger projects, focusing particularly on Green Belt developments, new-build flats and housing and high-end full refurbishments.

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