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The Advantages of Working with a Design Build Company

construction workers meeting at a table

When looking at how to accomplish your next building or remodeling project, you have three basic options.  Hire an architect and follow a more traditional process, design it yourself and hope you can find a builder to assume the risk of building those plans, or work with a design build company.  There are pros and cons to the first two and very few if any cons with working with a design build company.  This blog post will walk through all three and explain in detail what to expect and what you will get out of it.   

Option 1: Traditional Architect Driven Process   

The pros to this process is you are typically dealing with well trained and educated professionals whose strengths generally lie in the understanding of a building, its style, spatial organization, and who are creative.  There are good architects and bad architects, just like builders and design build companies.  We'll stick with good ones for this example.  A good architect will be thorough, well supported in terms of technology and have a great working relationship with the builder on the project.  They will typically charge anywhere from 5-25% of the jobs total cost (additional - not included in the price, e.g. 100k job - 100k to builder and 10k to architect).  Usually, new construction is lower than remodels but in Vermont you could probably settle in around 10% for most things.  Renovation work can be a bit more tricky and requires an adequate site study to produce what are called "As-Builts" or a set of drawings that represents what is in place.  This requires time and intimate knowledge of how the building was constructed, so that the plan for remodel fits and works.  Once initial plans are created for the project, new or remodel, each architect will have their own process to revise and complete the plans with the clients.  Once complete, the traditional process recommends getting three estimates, sometimes called "bids", from builders and then choosing the one you want to build the project.  The Architect will support and manage the builder at different levels in different contexts acting mostly as an intermediary between the clients and builder.  Some builders like this dynamic as they don't want to deal much with the client and just want the information to build the project.  A good architect will manage the dynamic between the three parties and make sure they are all speaking the same language, so to speak.  The end result with a good architect should be positive and will be a process fondly remembered.  So why not go this route all the time?  Because it has many areas where it can go awry and often does.   

One of the biggest knocks on architects revolves around the stereotype that they are dreamers designing structures around their ego without any restraint toward the client’s budget - think Howard Roark from the Fountainhead.  That's not fair to most architects but it does highlight one inherent weakness of this process- lack of accurate information on construction costs.  Architects aren’t the ones building the projects so their estimating comes from data in books, and past experiences with a variety of builders.  But since they aren't buying 2x4's and windows, and hiring carpenters, subcontractors and running a construction company, they really are just guessing at what things really cost.  To add to that confusion, in Vermont, construction companies are generally smaller than other metropolitan areas, and their management strategies for overhead, profit, and covering real costs, vary greatly - perhaps more so than larger areas where costs tend to be more normalized.  Which leads to the first major problem - the budget the clients have isn't enough for the project designed and they don’t find that out until the three "bids" or estimates come back from builders.  Then the project needs to be value engineered backwards which typically isn't part of the architect's original work and costs the client more money and time.  This often frustrates the client and hasty decisions are made in an effort to get things moving.  The other problem with this is that the process is asking a builder to do sometimes weeks of work for free, estimating a home build, in hopes that they will get the job - then more work on the value engineering for free. The whole process sets up an adversarial relationship between client and builder, with the architect as the referee.  It is built upon the premise that builders are untrustworthy and unreliable and must be "managed" and kept in line.  A reputation that often is well deserved, but not the case for all builders.  What ends up happening is a lot of crystal ball guess work and padding of numbers by builders to cover themselves in a process that is very risky and uncertain.

How can you fix this?  If you really want to work with an architect, invest in that process and insist that during the design phase you hire a builder as part of that design process who will be paid at different stages to evaluate and estimate the design's construction.  This is often described as Pre-Construction services.  That builder may end up building the job, but their primary role is to get accurate estimates of the job cost before it is sent out "to bid".  Most builders are happy to be paid for their time and expertise. 

The second problem has to do with architect training:  While some programs have gradually incorporated some practical and field training into their programs, it is far from comprehensive and in most cases is a cursory opportunity for them to nail a stud wall together and attempt installing crown molding.  Building structures is a hands on skill that is learned best in the field over many years.  While steps of construction can be mapped out in a book, since it is a tactile skill, it requires practice and repetition to accomplish with mastery.  It's also a skill that often has to be completed in harsh conditions, precarious spaces, and under great physical strain - i.e. it's not an easy job.   People in the trades take pride in that ability and skill, and don't generally take kindly to the "smarty-pants architects waving their hands around without any concept of how to accomplish it"   That also might not be too fair to most architects, but it is a very real dynamic and perception from the trades.   It only takes one slip up by an architect in this category for them to "lose face" with the boots on the ground and thus the stereotype is reinforced.  But there also is a real practical component to this dynamic.  If you don't understand how things actually happen in the field, you can't build that into your plans, and then the "figuring out" lands on the builder who resents that his expertise is being called upon, often for free.  It's impossible to predict what you might find in a home unless you have torn apart many of them and that experience for most architects is limited to second hand observation in a realm where first hand digging in is what produces the expertise.  The general disconnect there often causes friction and it's backed up by AIA contracts that architects like to use as it imposes much of the responsibility and liability on the builder.   The all too common phrase "to be verified by builder in the field" also accomplishes that imposition.  It is a blanket statement often seen on plans or in contracts that basically says, "I don't know what is there, but the burden of making it right falls upon the builder." That dynamic generally leads to two things - 1) a builder who is resentful of being taken advantage of - which is the case,  and/or 2) a smart builder who pads the contract cost to cover themselves, leaving a client typically paying more for the job than necessary.

Architect training degree programs would do themselves a big favor by incorporating real practical training and apprenticeship in the field.  1-2 years in the field would make them far better and valuable architects but usually it's a field course for a semester helping to build a sample home.  It shouldn’t replace the other training they do, which is very valuable, but working for a builder both in the field, and then in the office to understand the financial back end piece would produce a better product.  But that’s a discussion for another day.   

The last problem with this process, is the cost.  If you are building a $500k home, you might have to invest 50-75k in an architect and the builder you hired for pre-construction services.  If you picked good professionals you will get a good result, but at the cost of the kitchen of your home, or a garage. And there is the rub.  Most people building homes for less than half a million dollars aren't willing, or capable of spending an additional 10% of their budget on this process so they opt for the "Architect-Lite Package" and find an architect who is willing to work for less and do less and in this world you get what pay for.  What ends up happening is an incomplete set of plans and that leads to problems in construction.  It also creates a situation where the builder is being asked yet again to figure things out for free in lieu of the architect not doing it.  As the saying goes, there is no free lunch and one way or another this situation will end up costing you something.  If the builder is smart they will have a project manager or the owner billing for time to sort out these details.  If they are not so organized, it will play out in a lot of ways - mistakes that need to be fixed, backtracking, delays etc....  Of course the best way is to figure things out up front or agree ahead of time on a way to sort through things without financial surprises.

Option 2:  DIY 

Unless you are a trained architect and builder, this path likely wont go well.  It can, however, if you are able to navigate the relationship building process with a builder and agree on compensating him or her for their time helping to solve the practical building challenges to your overall design.  In the end, particularly on large or complicated things, unless you are capable of providing fully specified and dimensioned construction drawings, this process wont save you a whole lot of money.  Unless you have A LOT of time on your hands to create those drawings, someone else will, and that comes at a cost.  So more often than not, it is simply the design influence that is your major input in this process if it plays out well - which can be very rewarding!  Luckily that input is generally an integral part of the Design Build Process.   

Option 3:  Design Build 

Different firms have different processes but most of them are relatively similar to the one we use at Allied.  It is specifically designed to work collaboratively with the client to achieve their goals for the project.  Rather than creating an adversarial relationship between client and builder, it focuses on developing a working partnership that supports the other side and works in unison toward a common goal - success of the project.  Clear communication, honest interaction, and sound contracts are critical to achieving that goal.   

Our Design Build process starts with a Design Services Agreement (DSA) which is a separate contract from the construction contract.  It is tailored to the client's needs, the builder's needs, and the specific project.  The outcomes of the DSA are discussed and agreed upon and outlined in the contract.  One of the benefits of the design build process is that the DSA can be whittled down to the minimum needed to build the project -  particularly if the client has the builder build the home.  If it is going "out to bid"  far more extensive plans need to be generated which cost more money and isn't part of the Architect-Lite package usually.  Things like trim details, complicated components to the house etc.. can be discussed and decided on using samples, pictures or sketches in the Design Build process rather than production of a CAD drawing.   

We also work with a desired and maximum budget right from the start of the DSA.  This is critical as we work through the plans to narrow choices and decisions down toward the end budget goal.  While this isn't a perfect process because custom projects can't be estimated until fully specified, we can prevent gross errors in this process where a 6000ft2 house desired and a $200k budget maximum.  We often have a midpoint budget check up and at the end of our process the client receives a detailed estimate on the construction costs.  This rolls the design and the pre-construction services of a builder in the traditional architect driven process into one package.  At the end of our DSA's the client owns the plans and the estimate and are free to hire whomever they please to build the home.   

If the client decides to have us build the project, we then move to a traditional construction contract.  This process works very well when certain conditions exist.  Honesty from both sides is imperative.  The builder has to exhibit trustworthy behavior  and communication and the client must do the same.  Misrepresenting budgets and expectations leads to problems but that is not a problem inherent to the design build process.   

Secondly, you need to find a design build firm that "gets" you.  In initial meetings you need to feel that the builder understands your goals, and also asks the right questions to figure out just what you are after.  The project is yours and not theirs and while they may make suggestions you aren't thrilled with, that is part of the process.  What is imperative is that they listen to that feedback and adjust the design accordingly and explain along the way the implications of your choices.  The back and forth is critical and often is the input many clients are looking for when they try the DIY route.  A well guided process allows the client to do what they do best, which is provide input into how to make it a successful project, and the builder does what they do best by solving the design problem and executing the project.   

Architects don’t have to be excluded from this process and can be integrated into the process to provide their expertise or solve complicated design issues.  A structural engineer can also join the team when larger or more ambitious designs exist.  What is unique to this process is that it is orchestrated by the design build firm who is the expert in the overall execution of the project.  A firm that is well organized, with a well designed process, will assemble the best team to execute the project.   

In the end the design build process has many advantages and very few disadvantages that are mainly limited to personal shortcomings of the people at a particular firm.  It is a process that takes all parties into account and promotes a fair and equitable relationship amongst them all.  When large sums of money are being passed around, the best outcomes are created when all parties feel, and actually are, taken care of.  The traditional model can produce lots of conflict and arguments of money and responsibilities and is generally the root of most construction horror stories.  What is most critical is developing that relationship and trust with the team that will be handling this large investment of yours and knowing that everyone is rowing the boat in the same direction.  That is what Design Build companies do the best.

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