In previous posts, we have introduced Design Build and explained how it differs from the “normal” project delivery method. Now, we’d like to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the model as it applies to small projects. For our purposes, I will define small projects as under $250,000 – basically the small additions, kitchen and bath renovations, etc.

The majority of residential clients on these smaller projects are doing their first renovation and are unfamiliar with the process. They have probably heard a horror story or two from their friends or family so building trust in their architect and contractor can be difficult. The Design Build model gives the client the appeal of a single point of responsibility. If there are any issues on the project, there is one entity to go to. There is no worry about a designer blaming the contractor and the contractor blaming the designer with the client stuck in the middle mediating (and often footing the bill for the mistake).

Similarly, the same team that has been championing a particular design solution is the team that is building it. Therefore, there is more assurance that the design intent and integrity that was discussed in the early meetings will be carried through to the final product. This is a huge motivating factor for our decision to get into Design Build – to have more control over the design integrity of the final product, not just the drawings. We have spent too much time training and convincing contractors to pay attention to what we knew were important details but that they saw as superfluous.

Design Build is also more efficient on the schedule and often the pocketbook. In order to successfully produce a final project that has the cohesive vision developed by the architect and client, a large part of the design fee is spent on thoroughly drawing details to communicate the design intent to the contractor. Also, there is another chunk of the design fee set aside for working with the client and contractor during the construction phase to further clarify and define the design intent as the project is being built. Both of these steps can be significantly reduced with Design Build since the communication between the design and build teams happen all in-house. For a project where design integrity is important, it is a very efficient, cost-saving process.

Where budget is a main limiter to the scope of the project – and really, when isn’t it – the ability for the design build team to simultaneously develop a design and a construction cost estimate allows the design to be literally developed within the confines of a budget. Many architects will do cost estimates along the way to guide their projects but few have the resources and relationships to have suppliers, fabricators, and subcontractors as active members of that early cost estimating process. The ability to identify potential cost overruns early and make budget-minded design decisions saves time and mitigates the risk of having to spend additional money redesigning later in the process.

We’ve talked a lot about the pros of Design Build, and there are a lot. But to be fair, there are some perceived weaknesses, too. One of the criticisms of the process is that it gives too much power to the design builder without the checks and balances of a separate designer and contractor. The thought being that if the same entity that is determining the design quality is profiting from the construction, there is an inherent conflict of interest. That is hard point to defend because if someone suspects the possibility of corruption, it is difficult to prove that it won’t happen. Our solution, in addition to maintaining a strong personal and professional level of integrity (that should be apparent through our references), is to have a very transparent cost and billing structure.

We will see in the next entry in our design build blog that there are other pros and cons to Design Build on large projects which relate to the added complexity and risk involved in those projects.