How construction margins fail to make up for the risks

24 August 2018

Sirinarth Mekvorawuth/

There’s a worrying gap between the margins construction professionals think companies should be earning and what they actually earn, a survey by CM and Commercial Risk Management discovers.

The margin that the majority of construction firms expect to make from projects and what they actually earn is “seriously imbalanced”, meaning the compensation they receive is often insufficient for the risks they undertake.

That’s one of the worrying findings from a survey of over 300 construction professionals by CM in partnership with Commercial Risk Management, which set out to examine where risk should sit on construction projects.

Nearly two-thirds (63.6%) of respondents say they would expect the appropriate level of margin for a main contractor under a design-and-build contract to be above 5% – well above the average achieved in the industry.

Even in fee-based contracting arrangements, just under a third (29.3%) think the margin ought to be 5% or above, while 35% think it should be 3-5%.

“The survey responses are communicating clearly that the ratio of risk to reward in contracting is seriously imbalanced – put simply, the margins that contractors may expect to earn from projects is insufficient compensation for the uncertainty and risk exposure they face in delivering them,” Jason Farnell, managing director of Commercial Risk Management, says.

“Contracting procurement routes have changed over time and a significant contributory factor to the erosion in margins, in terms of both aspiration and actual achievements, is the blurring of the difference between what would once have been termed ‘hard money’ – traditional or design-and-build lump sum contracting – and fee-based arrangements – construction management and management contracting,” he adds.

The effect of this blurring of the boundaries between design-and-build contracts and fee-based arrangements means clients and contractors see both options as interchangeable, resulting in the suppression of margins in both forms of procurement, Farnell contends.

When it comes to the specialist contractor markets, almost half of respondents believe that the margin for a specialist firm without design responsibility should be 5-10%. Another third (29.4%) think it should be 2-5%.

That compares with specialist contractors with design responsibility, for whom 41.3% of respondents think the appropriate margin is above 10%, while 48.6% consider 5-10% suitable.

“There is a greater level of consistency in the responses about the levels of margin that are appropriate in the specialist contractor markets, with a significant proportion of respondents recognising the risk inherent in design contracts and that this should be rewarded accordingly,” Farnell remarks.

Meanwhile, the scale of risk required means that only large contractors can compete for most design-and-build contracts, with more than 60% either agreeing or strongly agreeing.

When asked which party out of the architect, main contractor, specialist contractor, product manufacturer and employer should take more risk on design-and-build contracts, most respondents (31.6%) opted for the employer, then the main contractor (28.6%) and the architect (26.2%).

On traditional or lump sum contracts on the other hand, there is a clear choice in favour of architects (46.7%), followed by the main contractor with 27%.

“Design responsibility is a significant contributor to project delivery strategies and financial performance.  The approach to allocation of design responsibility has also changed over time and it is now rare to find a project where there will be absolutely no contractor design responsibility and usually there is either a significant or comprehensive transfer of responsibility” Farnell says. 

“The survey results indicate that the feeling in the industry is that only major contractors have the infrastructure and skills to deal with design and build contracts properly and that there should be more responsibility allocated to the architect, particularly in traditional contracts.”

In what Farnell calls a “particularly disturbing” development, only 42% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they were comfortable with their risk management approach, while 27.5% were neutral and 30.5% either disagreed or strongly disagreed.

“This is certainly an area where contractors and specialists can help themselves, which will inevitably lead to margin improvements,” he says.

When it comes to defects on projects, 66% said they dealt with them as and when they found them, 14.3% managed them at the end and 8.7% used an independent assessor or certifier, while 3% claimed not to have any defects.

Most respondents expect insurance premiums to increase. “The insurance responses were consistent between design and build and traditional procurement routes, indicating that premium increases do not seem to be determining the market for design and build rather that bespoke policies, exclusions and liability caps will be the way in which the appetite for risk will be controlled,” says Farnell.

Summing up the findings, he adds: “The survey strongly supports a return to the allocation of design responsibility where it can be best managed and an indication that unsustainably low margins will not be tolerated.”

This survey was carried out in association with Commercial Risk Management


Sorry if I am confused, but I always thought that in a design and build contract, the contractor controlled the architect? Is it not the contractor's skills and experience the customer is buying into?

How many architects would accept additional responsibility when the contractor is using every effort to engineer the cost down to increase margins.

Lack of margin is not a new phenomenon in construction. Tenders have always gone in too cheap to secure turnover with the expectation money can be made throughout the project by playing games with sub-contractors and making claims against all and sundry. Sometime it works but it will only be short term.

It is time contractor’s stopped blagging their way through projects and looked at their own processes and controls.

MKF, 3 July 2018

Reading the comment above I wish MC would price correctly, maybe if budgets handed to clients were realistic and contracts not so heavily amended that risk is disproportionately relocated then we could avoid an adversarial industry.

The right price and the correct programme will not win projects, cheats and slight of hand do which is wrong and wastes so much time effort resource and money for all of us.

So help us out PM/QS & clients stop accepting lowest price out of the tender return.

Ask real questions and I interrogate to get the right price and programme.

PJF, 5 July 2018

I'm confused, by the absence of definition of what is meant by "margin" above. In my book, true margin is the accounting net profit before tax, after all overhead costs (on and off site). Industry practice often applies a "margin" which includes overheads, so that a (too) common "margin" of 5% is false because overheads are often most of that.
Secondly, "margin" added in bids should not be assumed to make some vague notional portion for risks. Again in my book, risks ought to be a separate line item separate from margin, calculated by identifiable undue risks (eg, inequitable amendments to standard form contracts, bad documents, tight programme, excessive LD's, consultants and principal record, degree of difficulty of construction, design risk transfer, etc) each factored by chance of occurance. If principals wish to reduce risk premiums then this gives them opportunity to discuss improvements.
The ball is in contractors' court.

R McIntyre, 11 July 2018

D&B contracts very complex in terms of risk management. Professional Clients will always pass on as much risk as possible to the contractor. The contractor needs to well education not only in financial, contractual but also risk management. How many contractors have there risk managements process as the first stage of the tender process? If taking on D&B contracts, Contractors should have fully trained staff not just at senior level but also the guys on site and the supply chain then perhaps contractors could achieve the margins they require.

john, 19 July 2018

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