How Design-Build Services Improve Outcomes for Life Sciences Construction Projects

How Design-Build Services Improve Outcomes for Life Sciences Construction Projects


A Faster, Easier, Less Expensive Way to Build

Life sciences organizations bring life-saving products to market every day. To maintain the levels of precision, quality, and innovation required to continually deliver breakthrough therapeutics, these companies require state-of-the-art facilities designed around industry best practices for safety, security, and efficiency.

The construction of a research or manufacturing facility, though, is a major undertaking for organizations that typically comes with intense demands and high financial risk. Project owners often navigate barriers like a lack of resources and time, competing priorities, inexperience, multiple stakeholders, administrative tasks, regulatory compliance requirements, and increasing global competition.

To overcome these challenges, leaders should look to streamline the design and build processes and maximize their return on investment by partnering with an experienced life science design-build firm that can help them reap the many benefits of this delivery model?

Project owners often navigate barriers like a lack of resources and time, competing priorities, inexperience, multiple stakeholders, administrative tasks, regulatory compliance requirements, and increasing global competition.

What Are Design Build Services?

Design-build construction is a modern integrated project delivery method, sometimes called EPCMC, with collaboration at the forefront. The project owner works directly with one design-build firm that fills the role of both designer and general contractor rather than dealing with multiple contracts and a stable of subcontractors. Design-build services include everything from program and construction project management to cost management and continue through commissioning and operational readiness. According to the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), this single-contract, full-service approach is the “fastest growing, most cost and time efficient method used to deliver construction projects in America.”

Design-Build Integrated Project Delivery

For years, industrial construction in general (and life sciences construction more specifically) has centered around traditional models in which an owner or an owner’s representative acts as the program and project manager, facilitating the work, managing the scope, and supporting multiple stakeholder groups from project start to completion. However, in today’s fast-paced economic environment, and because each organization’s needs and each project’s requirements are different, it is important for life sciences facility owners to understand their options when it comes to choosing the best delivery method to meet their needs.

Project owners typically select one of the three delivery methods below, with design-build increasingly gaining momentum as the preferred choice.

Option 1

Design-Build: One Contract, One Project, One Price

Design-build services offer life sciences organizations a single-source solution for their construction projects that simplifies the often-circuitous process of building a high-quality laboratory or manufacturing facility by funneling all tasks, paperwork, and decisions through one main point of contact — the design-build firm. The design-builder liaises with subcontractors and other service providers on behalf of the owner to promote accountability and streamline service. Often likened to the “master builder,” a role that was prevalent until the end of the Renaissance, the design-build team takes on the roles of engineer, architect, and contractor to seamlessly deliver an integrated service ꟷ eliminating gaps in oversight as a project moves from one phase to the next.

Option 2

Design-Bid-Build: The Most Traditional Method

The most traditional, and perhaps the most fragmented of all the methods described here, the design-bid-build model requires owners to contract separately with the design firm and the construction company, both of which are typically focused on different priorities. The primary risk with this method comes from a lack of communication and coordination between the two groups as the design and construction phases are completed in siloes. The process is linear but requires the owner or their representative to work with two separate firms, leading to an increase in administrative tasks such as scheduling and document control and more opportunities for important work to slip through the cracks. Additionally, the owner must take extra time to mediate disputes that sometimes arise between designers and builders.

Option 3

Construction Manager at Risk: A Method with Multiple Stakeholders

This delivery method is differentiated by the commitment of the construction manager (CM) to deliver the project within a set timeframe and at a guaranteed maximum price. Any overages that fall outside of the agreed-upon price structure become the financial responsibility of the CM, who consults with the owner throughout the design and construction phases. Many owners consider this model to be a good choice because it minimizes their risk. However, this methodology still leaves the project open to ongoing conflicts and disputes because of the variety of stakeholders involved in different capacities. This method also requires the owner to develop and maintain multiple contracts — one for the CM and one for the designer or architect.

Benefits of Using the Design-Build Delivery Method

For life sciences organizations seeking to build a state-of-the-art laboratory or facility, there are clear benefits in using the design-build process and partnering with an experienced design-build firm. With this model, project managers are empowered to optimize timelines, maintain budgets, identify opportunities for value engineering, forecast equipment lead times, and focus on quality assurance.

Reduced Complexity

With an experienced design-build firm in the driver’s seat, this turnkey solution effectively simplifies the role the owner must play in project controls, construction project management, and execution. In fact, the research shows that design-build is rated highest in terms of “experience” compared to other common delivery methods. As processes are untangled, mutual goals are clarified, and communication is simplified, associated costs, time, and risks are thereby reduced, as well.

Speed to Market

With increased public demand and global competition, life sciences companies are challenged to bring products to market as quickly as possible to maintain their market share. One of the best ways to accelerate project schedules is by using an integrated team approach that allows the design-build firm to partner early with the design team and the general contractor to ensure projects are on time and on budget, without sacrificing the integrity of the final product.

Schedule Performance: Other Models Compared to Design-Build

Schedule Growth Delivery Speed
CMR vs DB 3.9% more 61% slower
DBB vs DB 1.7% more 102% slower

Cost Reduction

As complexity is reduced, so too are the costs associated with life sciences construction projects. A DBIA report states projects that adopt the design-build approach cost less and see less cost growth than their counterparts that leverage either the construction manager at risk model or the design-bid-build model.

Cost Performance: Other Models Compared to Design-Build

Cost Cost Growth
CMR vs DB 1.9% more 2.4% more
DBB vs DB 0.3% more 3.8% more

Risk Mitigation

Along with decreased project costs and increased speed to market, organizations that opt to deploy the design-build methodology for their construction projects reduce their associated risks. When one firm is responsible for driving the project from launch to operational readiness, there are fewer opportunities for disputes, which often result in delays, and less likelihood of scope creep, which can lead to unanticipated costs.

Decades of research continues to show that projects developed via the design-build method have higher success. Projects are easier  and delivered faster at a lower cost, even for the most complex life science facilities.

6 Traits to Look for in a Design-Build Firm

It is critical to the success of life sciences construction projects that project owners vet prospective firms to find an experienced partner who can deliver on the benefits of the design-build methodology. We have identified the following five traits of effective design-build firms as a benchmark to aid owners in the process of choosing the right partner.

The best design-build firms for life sciences construction projects:


Have extensive experience in the life sciences industry.

The development or manufacturing of life-saving therapeutics is complicated and requires specialized facilities that go beyond the standards of typical industrial construction. Firms without a deep portfolio of life sciences experience might falsely assume the same procedures they use to construct an office building can be unilaterally applied to pharmaceutical or biotechnology projects. Look for companies that understand the nuances of the industry and can showcase previous successful executions with a range of satisfied clients.


Can customize the project to meet your specific needs.

No two life sciences construction projects are the same. The owner’s level of previous construction experience as well as knowledge of the area and key players can impact a design-build project’s success. Firms with extensive expertise can easily adapt their standard approach upfront to incorporate these factors, lessening the likelihood of mix ups or mistakes down the road.


Have the right talent, at the right time, for the right job.

Some firms employ in-house designers and builders, which may seem like a benefit to uninitiated owners. However, program, project, and construction management firms that choose not to keep designers and builders in-house, but rather build strong relationships with outside designers and builders with various specialties and strengths, are better positioned to select the right team from their broader network for specific projects. These firms are not limited by the strength of their own bench.


Can collaboratively develop governance and processes to support integrated project delivery.

In many cases, this will be established via a project execution plan that is developed at the start of a partnership. The owner and the design-build firm will talk about all major elements of managing the project including key roles, authority, schedules, budgets, and how decisions will get made. It’s a document that provides clarity and can be referenced if there is ever a misunderstanding. This level of alignment at the beginning stages helps to ensure efficiency and a smooth working relationship throughout the project.


Keep commissioning front and center.

Experienced design-build firms in the life sciences industry understand the importance of quality, efficacy, and compliance. Commissioning teams should be on point from day one, writing user requirements developing master plans to deliver a high-quality facility that meets engineering requirements and stakeholder expectations. Enhanced commissioning reduces the risk of disruptive and sometimes costly change orders by following good documentation practices, reviewing contractor submittals for systems being commissioned, and developing systems manuals, and other actions that help expedite the first two steps of the validation process.


Start with the end in mind.

Inexperienced design-build firms may not consider using modern adaptations like “progressive design-build” (PDB) approaches when appropriate and will walk away from a project after construction is completed. The best design-builders, though, do what’s best for clients and maintain oversight with an end-to-end approach from site selection all the way through commissioning and operational readiness to ensure everything is ready for the owner to take possession and safely start their work. Knowing what the final product should look like allows for better communication of project expectations, and test protocols will reflect the owner’s priorities and the requirements of the process. This ensures the client receives the facility they need including preventive maintenance and calibration programs uploaded into CMMS or CCMS systems.

4 Traits of the Best Design-Build Clients

Of course, the design-build firm plays a major part in the success or failure of a life science construction project. But the client’s role is critical, as well. Design-build clients can ensure an optimal experience and outcome by:

  1. Collaborating with and offering information transparently to the design-build firm.
  2. Soliciting and accepting feedback from the design-build firm about any barriers that might impede progress – and taking action to mitigate them, as needed.
  3. Understanding that the processes in a design-build project are iterative. Flexibility is key.
  4. Appointing a single (or streamlined) point of contact to facilitate quick decision making.

The Risks of Going It Alone

Life sciences organizations are grappling with myriad external forces — regulatory compliance, global competition, heightened public scrutiny, and more — that complicate the nature of their work. Ensuring their employees have the right facilities to do their jobs well is of paramount importance. The design-build methodology may not be the right approach in all cases, but it can be a game changer for startups and small to midsize life sciences organizations for whom cost and efficiency are paramount.

As demand continues to grow for gene therapies and other innovative products, speed to market will differentiate first movers from the competition. The right design-build firm can help.

Meeting Your Needs

Are you thinking about renovating, expanding, or building a new life science facility in North Carolina? Contact us to learn more about how 35 North partners with project owners to streamline the construction process and maximize ROI.

We welcome the opportunity to understand your goals and share resources to help you make the best decisions for your company. We have significant experience building some of North Carolina’s most sophisticated biotech and pharmaceutical facilities providing turnkey solutions like design-build  or individual services like site assessments, program and project management, or commissioning and operational readiness.

35 North President and CEO Scott McEntee

Scott McEntee is the president and chief executive officer for 35 North. He is the founder of 35 North and has 30 years of industry experience, including over $2 billion in construction experience.

35 North Director of Project Management Services Pablo Hernandez

Pablo Hernandez is the director of project management services for 35 North. He brings 25 years of practice in engineering, project management, and site operations in the compliance-focused life sciences industry.

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