The advantages of the design-build method for implementing an airport’s BHS

Multi-million dollar projects in airport development carry the inherent risk of going wrong in a myriad of ways. In modernising or upgrading their baggage handling systems (BHS), how can airports avoid these potential pitfalls? One way is to adopt a design-build approach, a collaborative form of contracting between the airport, designer and construction teams.

What is the design-build method?

The design-build method differs markedly from its predecessor.

Traditionally, contracting arrangements between airports and their baggage-handling vendors have adopted the design-bid-build method.

The design-bid-build approach to BHS projects

Under this approach, a specific design is prescribed and contractors are invited to make a bid to build the design. This means that the successful contractor is locked into building the design specified in the tender, which sometimes is not necessarily the best fit for the airport.

This way of contracting may result in the building of expensive and inefficient BHS solutions, with no opportunity for improving the system design or developing alternative ideas to achieve the most efficient, space-saving and optimised system – all critical elements to lowering the airport’s OPEX costs.

On top of that, the airport typically accepts the lowest bid, leaving no room for uncertainty or adjustment as the project progresses. In these circumstances, a design-bid-build contract for a new or improved BHS can lead to change orders and claims, that may lead to project delays and budget overruns.

The design-build approach to BHS projects

In the design-build form of project delivery, the contractor or supplier is responsible for both system design and the build. It means the contractor is not tethered to another entity’s design which may or may not be the most suited to the airport in question.

The design-build scenario aims to achieve the best fit for the airport’s BHS particular operations and requirements through tailored designs. It puts the design in the hands of the design-builder, who develops the cost models and schedules to be used in the early planning and design phases to provide reasonable estimates.

The benefits of the design-build method for airports

There are many advantages for airports to this method of contract delivery.

With all parties working in collaboration, airports can come up with customised and more suitable BHS designs – systems that better fit the airport’s existing or proposed building and that can result in a smaller footprint. By closely collaborating with the vendor the airport doesn’t need to settle for a one-size-fits-all solution, but can better utilise all the special features of the vendor’s specific equipment to meet its exact requirements. This typically leads to smaller systems, better utilisation of space and ultimately a lower system life-cycle cost.

A key concept of the design-build is ‘the big room’, or a shared workspace where the airport, designers and contractors exchange ideas, make decisions and resolve problems quickly.

SFO: Design-build at work

When San Francisco International Airport (SFO) embarked on its modernisation project, it decided to employ a design-build approach to deliver its project.

The airport had ambitious sustainability goals but found that planning for them early in the design-build process helped to achieve them. It led to some interesting dynamics that resulted in greater efficiency. In fact, the project in which this approach was adopted was delivered on time, within budget and without any claims.

As Tasso Mavroudis, SFO project manager, says:

“It’s critical to keep projects moving while making adjustments to the design and/or design criteria to meet unforeseen conditions and/or necessary owner additions and changes. Progressive design-build facilitates that and allows the design-builder and owner to “partner their way to the best solution” within reasonable costs and schedule constraints that are flexible enough to meet the project budget and timeline.” 

Under the design-build method, the design was advanced and implemented in constant collaboration with the construction team and SFO. This enabled elements of the project to be implemented in steps, while the design process continued for the remainder of the work. Together, the design-builder and SFO progressed toward a final design, with actual costs rather than unreliable estimates agreed upon at the outset.


A design-build enables an airport to choose a design-build team based on qualifications rather than price. Due to the very-early stage collaboration that is inherent to the approach, there is greater visibility and accuracy around system design, schedules and costs. The method builds trust and collaboration between the airport, designer and construction teams and facilitates the most effective, custom-built and space-saving BHS design to meet the specific needs of the airport.

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