Design-Build is a form of negotiated bid in which one company performs both the design and construction. The classic triangle of Architect-Owner-Contractor is based on an adversarial model where the architect is hired by the owner to design the project, and also to make sure the contractor builds what he is supposed to and doesn’t cut any corners. But who protects the owner from the architect, who often knows a lot less about the costs and practicality of construction than the contractor? How do you know you are getting the best design for your needs? If the architect is out of the picture, the contractor may tell the owner that his approach is more practical, less expensive, and better overall than the architect’s. This can be pretty confusing to the owner caught between conflicting advice. Who is he or she to trust?
A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH
Design-build contractors offers an alternative model based on collaboration rather than an adversarial relationship. In this world-view, the owner trusts one company to come up with a design that works functionally, aesthetically, and financially. The designer and builder are working together as a team, and may, in fact, be the same person. On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense. Regardless of the plans, specs, contracts, codes, and everything else, at the end of the day, you have to trust someone to be fundamentally honest and competent, and provide good work at a reasonable price.
If the adversarial approach always worked perfectly, there would be no need for design-build, but of course it often doesn’t. In design-build, you give up the checks and balances (sometimes illusory) of the adversarial process, but gain the benefits of everyone working together to a common goal. If you choose the right company, and build in some reasonable protections, this can be a good approach for certain projects. At best, you will end up with a successful project that balances the best of both worlds – the designer’s creative vision and the builder’ practical knowledge of construction materials, details, and costs.
Types of design-build firms. Some design-build firms are run by an architect who went into the construction business. Some are partnerships between an architect and contractor. Some employ non-architect designers to do in-house design. Some are run by a contractor who has a knack for design. Each company has its own formula for pricing the design work and allowing you to go elsewhere with the design. In general, you will pay less for the design than you would with an independent design firm, but you may be penalized with an additional fee if you decide to take the design to another builder.
Detailed plans critical. As with an independent designer, you will want detailed plans and specifications, so you know what exactly is included in the contract price. This will take some diligence on your part as well as trust in the contractor to not cut corners and hit you with “extras.” Don’t hesitate to ask a lot of questions about what is included (and excluded) from the contract price.
Separate pricing and contract terms for design and construction. There are many variations in how design-build contracts are structured. The best approach is to separate the design phase from the construction phase and charge separately for each. The owner should have the right to walk away with the design if, for any reason, the contractor does not end up building the project. While most designers will not release their CAD files, if the client has paid for a full set of working drawings, they should get to keep the drawings (several sets) and the right to use them.
The contract should spell out specific milestones for the design and building process, and how things will work in a separation – a “prenuptial” agreement for amicably parting ways. While everyone starts with the best of intentions, there are many scenarios under which the contractor and client may part ways before building begins. For example, the final price may be too high, the timing does not work, or the owner’s personal circumstances may change. A professional contractor should recognize this fact and provide a reasonable roadmap for parting ways.
Pros of Design Build
- Client gets to choose favorite contractor.
- The project is developed from the start to meet both design and budget needs.
- The cost of the design is usually less than with an independent design firm.
- The team is working collaboratively toward a common goal.
- Contractor’s costs and pricing may be more transparent.
Cons of Design-Build:
- Design may be less creative than one from an independent designer.
- Lack of competitive bidding may drive up cost.
- Depends heavily on trust in design-build contractor.
Look at other projects completed by the design-build contractor you are considering. Start with companies whose design and quality appeal to you. Check references. Find out, early on, if your budget is realistic for the project you have in mind. Make sure you get detailed plans and specifications so you know exactly what is included (and excluded) from the contract price. Don’t start construction without a completed plan and price. Don’t hesitate to ask a lot of questions. To help keep everyone honest, retain the right to purchase the plans and get bids from other contractors.
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