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Contractors are killing design and build - is it for the best?

The death of design and build is upon us. The future is a return to the client sponsored engineer's design.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

Good news for consultants? Perhaps it is. But before any consultant starts celebrating his return to the top table as the holder of client relationships we should be clear that this change is very much contractor driven.

We've seen it on the Crossrail project, and now we are starting to see it on the M25 widening project. Contractors are making it increasingly clear that they are just not interested in taking on design and build jobs.

The reason, of course, comes down to risk management. With so much work around right now, contractors are less and less interested in taking on large amounts of risk. And even if they did want to, clients couldn't afford to pay the price that they would charge for the privilege.

So as workload booms across the
UKwe are very much in an era of contractor power. Sensible clients work to the contractors' rules, reduce their risks and get their input to designs as early as possible.

And it can't really be a bad thing. As Crossrail boss Doug Oakervee points out this week, the proper management of risk is the key to successful delivery of civil engineering projects. First clearly identifying the risks then allocating them to those best placed to handle them.

Gone are the days of clients offloading their problems onto the supply chain. Gone are the days of simply imposing contracts and battering down the price.

In Oakervee's case he even opted to pull a group of major contractors together to ask how they wanted to work.

And he structured his project around the feedback he got – a decision that came with major repercussions for design procurement and funding.

Modern public infrastructure project delivery requires something much more sophisticated than we have traditionally seen. It requires the whole delivery team to pull in the same direction and actively work to assist everyone around them.

And on that basis design and build mega projects such as the M25 widening are perhaps start to look somewhat dated.

On the other hand there are still three rather large contracting consortia battling it out for the M25 widening job – contractors who have clearly studied the risks.

And it is also true that, as former Highways Agency procurement director Steve Rowsell says this week, there is huge scope for negotiation even after the concession is signed.

Perhaps it is procurement fashion, but if a move away from design and build really does enable the industry to more reliably deliver clients' projects, then it surely cannot be a bad thing. We'll see.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor.

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