What Is Design-Build?

Traditional Method

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Before you build something, you have to design it. Traditionally, the design of construction projects has been handled by architects and interior designers -- talented, well-trained people focused on blending their expertise with their clients' desires to create a great project. Done well, project planning takes time -- from months to years -- and the finished plans are ingenuous and inspired, and capture clients' desires in the best possible ways.

Unfortunately, it's at this point when builders must be engaged in the process, and that's where the problems usually start. Builders approach projects with a different perspective than either clients or architects, because they have to convert drawings on paper to spaces in real life. They are tasked with taking the plans that have been developed, attaching a budget to them, and pointing out all the realities of construction that must be addressed to build the project in the real world.  More often than not, this requires substantial changes to the original set of plans, which are unbuildable as drawn, too expensive, inefficient, or all of the above. 

Even more unfortunately, the relationship between architect and builder under this model can become adversarial very quickly. The builder can either choose to point out the problems with the plans, which makes the architect look bad to the client OR the builder can bid the plans as is, knowing that there will be expensive change orders later. Two bad options.

Then, there's the whole issue of project cost, which typically comes back 50-100% higher than the client was budgeting during the design process. Most architects are much better at coming up with inspired designs than they are at predicting budgets. The need to address these issues restarts the revision cycle, driving up design and planning costs, delaying the process and frustrating everyone.  

It's not that the architect didn't do a good job or that the builder's is being intentionally difficult.  It's a disjointed process filled with inefficiencies. Good people. Bad approach.

Design-Build: A Better Approach

We (and many others) think there is a better approach.  Take that same group of talented problem solvers (and more experts as well) and put them all on the same team from the beginning of the process.  Let them work together and bring their diverse perspectives to the design from the start.

  • The clients outline their project requirements (family needs for space, personal style) and constraints (target investment, timeline) and thereby set the out the goals that all need to be met simultaneously.
  • The architect leads the design process, planning the layout, optimizing the space for usability and aesthetic appeal, and ensuring that the design complies with zoning regulations, building codes, and historic requirements. Later, the architect works with the construction team and engineers to develop the final construction documents from which the project will be permitted and built.
  • The engineer balances the demands of the project with the budget available to design structure and mechanical systems for the project in a way that minimizes costs.
  • The construction planning staff helps keep the project budget in line with the target investment, providing ideas and alternatives when it seems that the design and the budget are not in sync.
  • The construction team analyzes the buildability of the project as it is planned, pointing out omissions in the drawings or areas of concern that could later become issues in the field.  Additionally, the team suggests ways to value engineer the design.

We find that this approach delivers huge benefits.

Efficiency

  • Speed - Design-build speeds up the process. There is less back-and-forth between parties and fewer required revisions.  Also, construction planning begins with design, so the project is ready to start building sooner.
  • Problem Solving - Using one experienced team from concept through construction means we identify most potential issues before they become problems. Construction problem solving is part of the whole process, instead of being deferred until after an initial set of drawings is already completed.
  • Budget Targeting - Because we price the project at several key phases during design, we keep your budget on track. These budget checks help guide and shape the project. This is much better than having a fully designed project that needs to be substantially redesigned because it’s over budget.

Client Experience

  • No Finger Pointing - We are responsible. Period. When challenges are encountered on a project (and there are always challenges), finger pointing is not an option. Everyone rolls up their sleeves and works on solutions together.
  • Transparency - In design-build, everyone is working toward a clear set of project goals and a target investment. Success means hitting both of these targets, and everyone knows exactly what these are right from the start.
  • No Ridiculous Bid Process - With design-build, your contractor is selected from the start and your target investment is known. This saves lots of time and aggravation. Instead, if you hire an architect and get a set of plans, you must next find a trustworthy contractor that can deliver on budget. That selection process is complicated and often impossible to do accurately since different contractors approach projects differently. The bids you receive always require you to compare “apples to oranges,” and you never really know what games contractors are playing to try and win your business. 
  • Involvement - Design-build assumes that you want to be an active participant in the design and construction of your home. By being involved, you're ensuring that your project meets your goals, and gives you a lasting sense of pride about your home.

Value

  • More for Less - Efficiency delivers cost savings. Doing things right the first time, eliminating endless revisions and nasty surprises during the project save you time and money. A study by the Design Build Institute of America (DBIA) covering 351 projects showed that the design-build method reduced total project costs by 6% and improved delivery time by 33%.
  • Design Cost Savings - Architecture firms are pure professional service providers and have to earn their living exclusively from design.  In a design-build model, there is broader business base which allows for reduced design fees.