Design-build, an outsider’s perspective

Let me walk you through the traditional architect-client-contractor relationship. The client contracts with an architect to design their project. Once the entire space is designed, the drawings and specifications are sent to a contractor to bid. If the price is agreeable, the client will contract with the contractor to build their project. If the architect is involved at all in the building process, it is to oversee the contractor to make sure what was designed is being built adequately at the agreed upon cost. If you zoned out there, all you really need to know is that the contractor isn’t involved until after the project is designed. In a design-build arrangement, there is a contractor involved with the project from the beginning. There are a lot of ways that this is potentially beneficial.

During the design process, especially in residential design, there is the tendency to add to the project during the design process. Insiders call it “scope creep”, I call it the “while we’re here” mentality. “While we have that wall open, why don’t we run the wiring for some new lights in the dining room? If we are replacing the floor up to this point, why don’t we just redo the whole hallway?” This obviously adds cost, but since it’s in increments of a few hundred dollars, nobody realizes what it really adds up to. Then the bids come in and everyone gets surprised at the cost, and the architect has to take out all those new lights and hallway floors. Architects, for whatever reason, have a hard time admitting that they don’t have as intimate an understanding of construction costs as a contractor does. If a contractor is involved from the beginning, it would be easier to keep a running tab of what is added and what it costs to avoid sticker shock when the final bids are in.

An in-house builder would also be an asset in being able to work out construction details. They have first-hand knowledge of using the materials and the sequence of construction and can provide instant feedback on whether a detail is good or bad. This is much better than getting out into the field and finding out that a detail drawn in the office won’t work, which is the classic knock on architects. Imagine never having to hear things like “looked good on paper, didn’t it?” because you’d asked how the contractor would have preferred to do it beforehand.

There are some drawbacks, though. There is generally a push back from contractors when working with new techniques or materials. Contractors understandably want to work in their comfort zone because they know how to do it and, more importantly, they know how much it costs. In a design-build firm, designs could suffer if there is an avoidance of new practices. Also, if the in-house contractor is also the one that builds all of the projects, the client could suffer as a result of a sweetheart deal. If a contractor knows that he is going to get the project, there is less of an incentive to provide the lowest possible cost because there is no competition. But I think that many issues can be solved by working with a contractor that takes pride in their work, and by competitively bidding projects on a regular basis.

Disclaimer: I have never worked in a design-build firm, and I’ve never written or read a design-build contract.

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