From Bid/Build to Design/Build

Many landscape installation contractors have had to shift from bid/build to design/build over the past few years. That’s easier said than done—especially if you fail to recognize how different the two business models are.

The bid/build approach presents several challenges for contractors, not the least of which is the concept that the lowest bidder wins. Winning a bid/build project isn’t all roses, either, explains Town & Gardens president Don Sussman. (Town & Gardens was acquired by Ultimate Services earlier this year.)

“When the focus is on the bidding, the bid package controls the project,” Sussman points out. “Furthermore, a bid package is usually several hundred pages long and created by individuals or groups, some not even directly involved with the actual design or construction.” The results, Sussman adds, can be both unrealistic and dangerous for the landscape contractor and the property owner.

  • The entire relationship between the parties involved becomes sidelined. There is little investment in how the parties will work together.
  • The bid/build contractor is at the mercy of the general contractor’s schedule. This affords little or no control over how a company can manage what’s in its project pipeline.
  • When the general contractor takes over a project, the landscape architect may lose control of the actual construction. If that happens, neither the original design nor the project the property owner had in mind is fully realized.

Developers are among the biggest players driving the bid/build market. “They need to get their prices going in,” Sussman says, “and they don’t take into account potential change orders down the road.”

Keep in mind that there is definitely a place for bid/build—some bid/build projects can actually be quite rewarding. For example, Sussman’s company initially made a name for itself by installing a rooftop garden for Donald Trump, a bid/build project at the time.

The design/build alternative

Unlike bid/build, when the general contractor presents the landscape contractor with “done-deal” specifications, the property owner comes in with a set of “desires” and “wants” when in a design/build situation.

“We sit down with clients and discuss what they want to accomplish, take a look at the site’s attributes and constraints, and then talk budget,” Sussman explains. “Usually, the client’s budget comes into the discussion shortly after we talk about how we can help. We don’t want to waste anyone’s time if numbers and expectations aren’t close.

“With bid/build, the landscape contractor is considered to be just another number. With design/build, the property owner usually does an ample amount of due diligence before contacting a landscape firm. The property owner will invest some upfront time looking at the landscape contractor, the type of people the contractor employs, and the kinds of projects it has previously constructed.

“Then there’s the issue of scheduling,” Sussman continues. “You can space out design/build projects and control work flow using price incentives with the property owner. You can say, for example, ‘If you want the project built this spring it will cost you $15 compared to $12.50 if we build it in the summer.’ This is a huge benefit for any landscape firm that struggles to keep employees on the payroll. We have 50 full-time staff here, and it would be difficult to maintain this number if we were a bid/build contractor.”

What isn’t difficult to maintain is expertise and reputation. Over the years Town & Gardens has worked on numerous high-profile projects, including several well-known Manhattan rooftops. “Among our areas of expertise are green roofs,” says Sussman. “The more we do, the more we are asked to do. As a general rule, design/build projects are more challenging for us than bid/build, giving us the ability to showcase strengths and push the envelope. In such an environment, word of mouth is very effective, and not just from clients. We have formed some great partnerships with electricians, interior decorators, building architects and suppliers, all of whom have become great sources of referrals.”

Making the switch

Town & Gardens threw a hat in the design/build arena after bringing its first landscape architect on board. However, having in-house designers is not a requisite for a design/build company.

“One can always partner with a landscape architect on a design/build project,” Sussman points out. “Operating with an in-house design staff has its advantages, though. Among them is being able to spread out design fees over the entire company and offer top-quality innovative design services at a substantial discount compared to a typical landscape architecture firm. Conversely, if we just designed projects and didn’t install them, we would go broke.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Town & Gardens was recently acquired by Ultimate Services Professional Grounds Management based in Wolcott, CT. The two companies will continue to work together toward fulfilling their mutual goal of being the premier service provider in the southeastern Connecticut/New York City region.

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