Editorial: Use caution on Design-Build

The Lawrence City Commission should not move fully away from a bid process for new city projects, including the construction of a new police headquarters.

History shows that putting a project out for bids can save the city millions on construction projects.

Historically, city projects have used a Design-Bid-Build method in which the city hires an architect to come up with a design and then takes bids on construction of the project. City staff have recommended a new ordinance giving the city broad latitude in choosing what process to use. That would include the Design-Build method, in which a designer and contractor team are selected at the beginning and a price agreed upon without seeking bids.

The city previously has tried to build projects without going through the traditional bid process. In 2013, the city planned to use a no-bid process for construction of the recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. But residents protested the lack of a bid process and the city reverted to a Design-Bid-Build process. That was the right call — under Design-Build, the construction was estimated at $18 million to $20 million. But once bids were received, none was more than $13.5 million, and the winning bid was $10.5 million.

City staff members, including City Manager Tom Markus, support Design-Build, saying it allows for more collaboration among the city, the architects and the builders to ensure the project comes out the way everybody expected.

But what happens when the architect and builders overestimate the cost of a project as happened in the Rock Chalk Park recreation center construction? How can the city protect itself from overpaying on a Design-Build project?

The city has used mixed approaches before in which an architect and builder are contracted to build a new site, but subcontractors bid on aspects of the project. The Lawrence Public Library was built using such an approach.

It’s appropriate for the city to have flexibility in how it approaches future construction projects. Different projects require different methods. But using a Design-Build process that takes bidding out of the equation goes too far and likely would cost the city money unnecessarily.