Building a major municipal infrastructure project is a challenging task for any community. For smaller cities, building something as complicated as a water treatment and distribution plant, a wastewater treatment plant, or another large public works facility can be downright overwhelming.

Few small communities have staff trained in siting, planning, designing, and constructing such facilities. That puts those cities at a disadvantage because those projects require expertise in many disciplines including finance, grant writing, water resource planning, engineering, environmental compliance, and construction management. For those small communities—and often even for larger ones—hiring consultants to provide expertise in these areas is a must.

Historically, on major infrastructure projects, most communities have separated the design contract from the construction management contract and hired different consulting firms to take on these tasks. But for some communities, the benefits of contracting with one firm to manage the entire project from start to finish—a concept called total project management (TPM)—outweigh any concerns that city officials and the public may have.

The argument against the single-consultant approach—and in favor of hiring different firms for the design and construction management contracts—holds that two or more firms provide more scrutiny of the project's design, cost, construction quality, and schedule, In addition, this reasoning goes, if only one firm is involved in design and construction, it is less likely to blow the whistle on any snafus that arise during construction—the “fox-guarding-the-henhouse” principle.

That attitude may be due for revision, though, some local officials say, as they have found the one-consultant, TPM approach to be very successful. “I think (the stigma) is more paranoia than fact,” said Lee Dorger, director of public works for Missouri City, Texas.

Dorger, whose city is now engaged in its third TPM contract with Carter & Burgess, Houston, said that having one firm perform both the design and construction management functions improves coordination and communication between engineers and construction personnel. It also greatly reduces the potential for acrimony to develop between the design team and the construction management team. Missouri City has used the two-consultant approach on other projects, he added, and has experienced problems on some of those projects when the design firm and the construction management firm were at odds.

Craig Nisbett, director of public works for Lake Jackson, Texas, agreed. On many projects, a construction snag can lead to rounds of finger-pointing. “When you have different firms, you might have a situation where the construction management team blames the design, and the design team blames the construction management team,” said Nisbett.

But when the same firm is responsible for design and construction, the potential for a blame game developing is next to nil. Not only that, when the same firm provides both design and construction management, it is likely to have construction professionals advise designers on the design, and that will increase the odds that designers and construction managers are in sync, thereby preventing problems from developing later on the jobsite.


The TPM approach is most common in two situations: “When you either have to do the project very fast, or when it outstrips the management capacity of the entity (that commissions it),” said David Yeager, an engineer in the project management division of the Texas Water Development Board based in Austin.

When the timeframe for getting the project built is urgent, TPM offers several areas of potential time savings. By using the same firm for two large pieces of the project, municipal officials may review fewer proposals and deal with fewer firms, and thereby significantly reduce the time it takes to scrutinize designs, check references, negotiate prices, and grant the contract.