Some things to think about BEFORE hiring a Desing/Build firm

With the high-end residential market back in full-swing, most Architects here in New England have, once again, been hearing their phones ringing at a steady pace.  I know that Lisa and I have had a steady influx of inquiries for new projects and have been interviewing regularly.  But, it seems that these days, we are not only competing with other Architecture firms as we have in the past, but with Design/Build firms as well.  So, for this blog post we are going to look at the Design/Build approach.  We will look at the benefits that Design/Build firms typically market to prospective clients, and give some additional things to think about before hiring a Design/Build firm.  Finally, we will propose our own Hybrid approach that we have successfully used in the past with clients that want the benefits that Design/Build ostensibly offers, but without the risks inherent to that approach.

CONTRACTUAL ARRANGEMENTS

The most common traditional project delivery method is often referred to Design-Bid-Build, where an Owner hires an Architect to prepare the drawings and specifications for a project that are given to various General Contractors who submit their bid for the project.  The Architect and Owner then review the bids, discuss qualifications, experience, etc and the Owner selects the General Contractor and awards the contract to build the project.

Design-Build refers to a method of project delivery where a single company provides the Owner all of the services necessary to both design and construct the project.  Contractually, the key difference is that with Design-Build the Owner has a single contract with the Design-Build Company, where in the traditional Design-Bid-Build method the Owner has one contract with the Architect to design the project and a separate contract with the General Contractor to build the project.

PROS / CONS FOR DESIGN BUILD

The typical advantages claimed by the Design-Build companies are usually something like this.

  • There is a single point responsibility for execution of the project.  This eliminates “finger-pointing” between Architect and Contractor when a problem arises and thus reduces construction change orders.
  • They claim that there is a benefit of construction input, techniques and systems early in the design process that provides better cost control and saves time. Design/Build provides an opportunity to “fast-track” – to start construction before the completion of design.
  • Design/Build can offer a lower cost of design because the designer does not need to draw to the same degree of completion required in a Design-Bid-Build method.


While this all sounds great, there are some problems with these apparent “Advantages” that we feel are detrimental to producing good work.   First, there is a conflict of interest that is inherent in the Design-Build model, whether it is an Architect led Design-Build practice, or a Builder led Design-Build practice.  In the traditional approach, where the Architect has a direct contract with the Owner, the Architect is under contractual obligation to identify Contractor work that does not comply with the plans and specifications.  Throughout construction, the Architect is observing construction in the interest of the owner.  We review the quality and completeness of the work, we review and sign-off on Contractor Request for Payments, we approve Contractor requested changes in materials and methods, etc.  In the Design-Build practice, the Architect and the Contractor are business partners who make joint decisions and judgments that directly affect THEIR business and financial status.  Thus, the Design-Build method deprives the Owner of the checks and balances protection inherent in the traditional project delivery system.  

Second, construction input early in the design process for an experienced firm such as ours is not only unnecessary, but can be detrimental to the design process.  Architects and Contractors are wired differently.  Early in the process, too much thinking about how to build the project is stifling to the creative process of exploration that is critical to a good project.  OK, if you want to add a family room off your existing kitchen whose location is pretty much pre-determined and whose detailing is to match the existing house, there is not much exploration there.  But most projects that we undertake have a more sophisticated level of creativity involved.  The amount of professional judgment, time and effort it takes for an Architect to work closely with an Owner to review design concepts, details and program elements, is not conducive to the Design-Build method. Here at Mockler Taylor Architects, we provide our clients a tremendous amount of guidance through an iterative design process where different options are explored and design ideas are tested and refined.  For someone that has not gone through this process it is very difficult to adequately express the time and energy it takes to design a great home.  For the Design-Build firm, minimizing the iterative developmental design process equates to maximizing profit.  The Design/Build firm typically will devote 20% of their time and energy to design and 80% to Construction, while the Architect traditional approach devotes 80% to design and 20% to construction.  We feel that the extra time and energy devoted to design not only produces better projects, but can also save a significant amount of money - problems and mistakes are easy to fix on paper and very expensive to fix during construction.  We suspect that this is the main reason that we so rarely see good work from Design-Build firms.  Harsh, I know, but true.

Finally, Design/Build firms claim that they are able to achieve efficiencies due to the fact that both the design team and construction team are under the same roof.  They typically claim that this arrangement allows them to fast-track a project by generating less drawings due to these communication efficiencies - which also allows them to charge lower design fees.  From the outside this might seem to make sense, but from our perspective it does not.  Drawings are the way that we generate design ideas, work through them, refine them and communicate them to the builder, suppliers, vendors, etc.  Whether or not, the builder has a desk in the same room as the architect, or if they are a separate company across town, you still need a way to communicate the design information from one person to another.  Further, the GC is not the only entity that needs the information that drawings and specifications communicate.  How does the plumbing subcontractor know how to price the job without detailed drawings and specifications?  How does the lumber yard calculate their framing take-offs?  How does the electrician know what to price?  The sheet rocker? Painter? Flooring installer?  Stair manufacturer?  Tile supplier or installer?  etc, etc, etc.  All of these professionals need drawings and specifications to give the homeowner an accurate price to do their job, and without thorough Construction Documents you, the homeowner, will see change orders from these trades (or, reduced quality of work).  

The REAL reason that the Design/Build firms are able to charge so little for their design services, is because they know that there is significantly greater opportunity to make money on the “build” side of the equation.  According to a speech by Mark C. Friedlander at the AIA National Convention in 2006, “Designer-led design build enables the Architect to participate in construction profits, which dwarf the profits from the design phase.  Informal research among design firms that take the lead in design-build projects indicate that the ratio of construction profits to design profits exceeds 4:1.”  There are dozens of line items in a project budget - any one of them can be inflated with “contingencies” that more than make up the difference between an Architect’s fees and the Design/build design fees.  And without the checks and balances that the Architect provides, how would the homeowner know if the budget pricing that they are receiving passes the smell test?

As an Architect, I can see big advantages in the Design/Build approach.  But these advantages are for the Architect, not the homeowner.  

OUR HYBRID ALTERNATIVE

On many projects, we recommend that the homeowner interview several General Contractors and bring one into the process during the design phases.  We recommend Contractors that we are comfortable with, and that we think are appropriate for the project.  This encourages a cooperative team-approach where the Architect, General Contractor and homeowner are on the same page from the beginning.  The General Contractor (and frequently some of their prime Subcontractors) provide detailed preliminary pricing and value engineering ideas if necessary.  The GC is able to generate their construction schedule early in the process and possibly order long lead-time items if necessary so that they are ready when they are needed.  Then, once the Construction Documents are complete, and the building permit is in hand, the construction team is ready to hit the ground running, due to their prior planning.  Essentially, this is very similar to Design/Build, without the conflicts of interest noted above.

For the homeowner that is skeptical about this approach and really wants a competitive bid environment, then this hybrid approach is not for you - but then you shouldn’t even be considering Design/Build anyway.  But, if you see the benefits of this hybrid approach the homeowner can leverage the advantages of a teamwork approach with open communication between the design and build team from the beginning, while maintaining the benefits of having the Architect as THEIR trusted adviser.

So, what do you think?  Does this make some sense, or am I full of it?  I have a lot to say about this subject, but it is difficult to pack into one blog post - if you can believe it I really try to be brief!  I am happy to continue this discussion in the comments section below.