Some Thoughts on Design-Build

Most homeowners embarking on a remodeling project are familiar with the traditional route of working with an independent design professional, such as an architect, to develop plans, followed by hiring a general contractor to build the project. Another route that has started appearing more frequently is the concept of design-build, where the designer and contractor are essentially the same company —  one-stop shopping!

But which is the right path for you? To help you understand the pro’s and con’s, this article will give you some thoughts to consider.

What, exactly, is a design-build company? Sometimes this is a company created by an architect who wanted more control over the building process and got a contractor’s license. Sometimes it’s a general contractor who has created an in-house design department. Or it might be a general contractor who subcontracts the design services from an independent designer. Occasionally, it’s just a general contractor who decides he or she has a flair for design and wants to do it all.

Whatever the origins, the company will produce a design for you, and after getting your blessing, will construct it. (For a price, of course.) Some of the arguments often made for design-build, with some additional commentary, include:

“Design-build is simpler and more convenient.”

Probably, it is. Rather than having to decide between a number of different designers, and then decide on the contractor, you simply have to decide on one company. Easy. You only have to write checks to one company. On the other hand, unless the designer and contractor is the same person, you likely will be dealing with the same number of faces as the traditional design process.

But what if you don’t like the designs or the designer? Will you then be stuck without a contractor, also? Or if you find yourself having problems with the contractor side of the business, do you then lose the designer? One advantage of having an independent designer/independent contractor is that you have some flexibility if one of the relationships isn’t working out to your satisfaction. Can you use the plans you’ve paid for with another builder if you decide to stop working with your design-builder? Certainly you need to find this out.

“Because the designer and the builder are a team, you can avoid the traditional conflict between designers and contractors.”

Independent designers are not known for making contractors’ lives more enjoyable, and most contractors, if they’re being honest, will admit that they’d prefer it if designers would just go away during construction. And in design-build, they pretty much do go away! The usual scenario is that the design-build designer is “on-call” during construction, only called in by the contractor when there is a specific problem to be solved.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes there is some tension on the jobsite between independent designers and contractors. Often it’s there for a good reason  — e.g. the contractor has built something not according to the plans, and it gets pointed out by the designer. The designer thinks it’s important and the contractor doesn’t. So now you’re in the middle of a disagreement, but at least you know about the issue and can make an intelligent decision after hearing both sides. Personally, I think having an independent pair of eyes during construction, working in your best interest rather than the contractor’s, is valuable.

Early in my career, I did a number of design jobs for contractors, where I was employed by the contractor rather than the homeowner. It was disheartening to visit a jobsite out of curiosity (since I was never asked to) and see shoddy work that I would never have let my own clients accept. I couldn’t say anything to the homeowner, of course, because my fiduciary responsibility was to the contractor who was paying my fees. I’m not implying that design-builders do shoddy work, of course, only that as a designer, I was being handcuffed with that arrangement. As a result, I no longer work directly for contractors.

“Your project is less likely to go over budget because the contractor is involved from the start and will be watching the designs and the budget.”

I agree with this, but actually, I think it’s a great idea to have a contractor involved in the budgeting stage even in the traditional arrangement. Budgeting problems on almost all projects could be avoided by getting cost estimates done at an early design stage. This isn’t limited to design-build.

“Design-build has lower design fees and so is less expensive.”

This is sometimes accomplished by burying some of the design costs into the construction cost, so it looks cheaper. Also, construction plans that are drawn for a specific builder for their own exclusive use often have less detail than plans that are drawn for an unknown independent contractor. Less detail means more unknowns, or at least, more opportunities for misunderstandings. And finally, as mentioned above, you will likely have reduced designer costs during construction — not necessarily a good thing. A very involved designer can often save you money by catching problems early before they become bigger problems.

“Communication will be smoother, because you are only dealing with one person.”

Like the old childhood game of “telephone” where you pass a message by having it whispered through successive peoples’ ears and it comes out the end as a garbled mess, sometimes communication does get more complicated when more than one person is involved. On the other hand, it’s often a valuable check to have more than one person hear the same message. I’ve also had occasions where my client was upset with a contractor on a certain day, and it was far easier to talk to me to pass a message along. (And I’d guess vice versa.)

There are many, many design decisions being made by the designer while putting together a set of construction drawings. For example, cabinets might be drawn a certain way to accommodate specific appliance clearances. Having the designer actively involved during construction is a good way to make sure that the reasons behind the design don’t get overlooked.

In short, my personal view is that if you are paying for a designer, the designer ought to be working directly for you and be accountable to you, not to the contractor. Design-build is great for the builder, but does have some drawbacks for the homeowner. Consider that for decades, the American Institute of Architects frowned on design-build as a conflict of interest for architects. While they’ve given up that official position today, it might cause you to think about this issue.

But are there times when I think it makes sense to consider design-build? Well, there are some very talented design-build artists, who are able to fine-tune their designs as they build. I think that in this case, while you might not be saving any money, the artistic result may justify the design-build arrangement. But this is only the case where the designer is the actual builder. If you are merely paying a contractor so they can turn around and hire the designer, you’ve lost the benefits.

The above is my opinion, and who knows, maybe I’ll change it someday. There are many honest, reputable, and successful design-builders out there and projects are being built this way every day. I’m sure design-builders will disagree with some of what I’m saying here, and that’s fine. But at least, now you can make an informed decision for yourself.

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