Winning Design-Bid-Build Projects

What if commercial solar contractors could consult a catalogue of PV projects that have already been sold, funded and designed, for which qualified customers are actively soliciting bid proposals? Sounds pretty good, right? I am here to tell you that such a resource exists, and to help you access and win these projects.

In the US, the commercial construction industry, including the vast majority of public works projects, traditionally relies on a design-bid-build (D-B-B) model of soliciting bid proposals. In contrast, the solar construction industry is more likely to use a design-build process. Many solar contractors I have spoken with are reluctant to bid on D-B-B projects. Some are unfamiliar with the bidding process or feel that it takes too much time; others would rather originate their own projects and avoid a competitive bidding environment.

They are missing out on an opportunity to land profitable projects. My experience suggests that relatively few contractors respond when solar projects go out to bid via a D-B-B process, and that even fewer contractors submit a bid. My hope is that demystifying this process will encourage commercial solar contractors to view D-B-B projects as another customer acquisition route, one that they are currently underutilizing. Adding these opportunities to your new-project funnel not only diversifies your project and revenue streams, but also reduces your company’s reliance on lead sellers and direct sales tools.

Understanding the Process

In a design-build project, the customer contracts with a company that takes on both the design and the construction of the PV system. This company could be a general contractor, an EPC firm, or an architecture or engineering firm that then subcontracts out the construction. The key point is that the customer contracts one company that is responsible for both the project design and the construction.

By contrast, in a design-bid-build project the customer contracts with a design professional, usually an architect or engineering firm, to produce a detailed design. Once the design is complete, the customer then puts it out to bid and selects a contractor to build the system to the design specifications. The key point is that the customer contracts the design firm and the contractor separately.

Request for proposal. At the core of the D-B-B bidding process is a document called a request for proposal (RFP) or an invitation to bid. The RFP includes the project design documentation and other essential information such as bid dates, general information for bidders, conditions for the bid, scope of work, contract terms, insurance requirements and bid submission forms. When responding to an RFP, it is very important to read the bid documents carefully.

Failure to follow the bid preparation instructions precisely—for example, by overlooking a submission deadline or a required piece of documentation—is an easily avoided way to get eliminated from consideration. The goal of the RFP process is to make it easier for the customer to compare proposals. By defining the project design and bid submission terms in advance, the customer is able to make an apples-to-apples comparison when evaluating bids. This is in contrast to the apples-to-oranges comparison that customers must make when evaluating design-build proposals, where different contractors are invariably proposing different technical solutions.

Finding solicitations. Before you can submit a proposal, you have to find the project solicitation. While it is not particularly difficult to locate projects to bid, the process can be time-consuming. Governmental agencies and local municipalities generally post RFP solicitations to their publicly accessible websites. Some of these websites allow you to sign up to receive email alerts whenever new RFPs are posted.

The challenge for specialty contractors is that these public entities tend to post all their bid solicitations in one place, meaning you might have to search through RFPs related to landscaping, water systems and roof replacement to find a PV project solicitation. A typical medium-sized city could have 10 pages of RFPs, and searching through these solicitations might uncover one solar RFP or none at all. If you multiply this example across various public-sector entities and websites, you can see how tracking RFPs quickly requires a significant investment of time.

Another option for finding solicitations is to pay for a service that tracks and aggregates RFPs and sends you daily email alerts. Companies such as BidSync (bidsync.com) and Onvia (onvia.com) offer these services and allow you to customize your search criteria to specific geographic areas and types of projects. These options are a worthwhile investment if your service area is large enough to generate many RFPs and you intend to respond to a majority of solicitations.

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