Mike Sealander erecting a steel portal frame.

Time for Design-Build?

Time for Design-Build?

Design-build has a nice ring to it. Projects need designing, and building. Why not just do it all under a single contract? Why use two entities to build a building, when one could do?

There are entities in the design and construction industries with expertise and experience in both design and construction, but this is rare. One sees this in specialized niches. Wastewater treatment plants come to mind.

Residential Design-Build Projects

In eastern Maine, a significant number of residential general contractors behave as design-build firms. While their bread and butter is in general contracting, they take on the role of designer, too. Why? I think most of the time this happens because the project at hand is simply not that complicated. It does not need to be designed so much as simply executed. Also, owners who hire general contractors to execute projects believe general contractors are competent enough at building, so they must be competent enough at figuring out what to build. Finally, general contractors often feel they should offer design as a free service in order to secure a project. Thus the contractor as design-builder.

Commercial Design-Build Projects

The contractor-as-design-builder type of design-build breaks down in commercial construction. Commercial construction differs from residential construction in the intensity of regulations, most notably with building code requirements. Residential projects have much less responsibility. General contractors shy away from taking on the responsibility to design code-compliant buildings. Architects design code-compliant buildings as part of their day job. Thus, the typical commercial design-build project still uses a contractor and an architect.

We get a lot of calls from contractors who have been approached to build a commercial project by a client. They start discussions with the owner, and find out the owner’s needs are complex. The contractor typically realizes the amount of design that needs to be done is more than their comfort level. They turn to us for help, and we often enter into a design-build relationship as a consultant to the contractor.

Owner Risk and Design Build

Owners risk paying more for a project under design-build than under competitive bidding. After all, with competitive design-bid-build, competition on the general contractor side is a defining part of the process. In design-build, the contractor is part of the team during the design process. A significant part of the competitive process is gone. Contractors want to choose subcontractors based on their ability to meet schedule. This may lead to less competitive subcontractor proposals. Design-build does not always, or even more often, entail paying more. It is simply that the risk is there. Owners should think about the importance of low first cost versus quality and life cycle cost.

The owner also relinquishes the direct relationship with the designer they would have had under design-bid-build, or even construction manager at risk. The AIA standard form of agreement explicitly says this: the design team works for the contractor, not for the owner.

Speed, cost, and flexibility

Design-build projects are usually led by the contractor. Most of the early work on a project is still design, done by the design staff. Unlike design-bid-build, the contractor’s staff is also involved. The contractor is the contracting entity, after all. They watch the design take shape, and can comment on both cost and schedule. The interaction between the contractor and designer on a design-build project therefore speeds up the process of designing and estimating a project. The interaction also provides a practical form of iteration: both the designer and the contractor can be flexible with the design in order to achieve a result that meets a client’s cost and schedule requirements.

West Coast Design Build

Sometimes quality is a priority. Clients who want a really sustainable project want the best minds at the table from the beginning. The contractor, the owner, and the design team need to be at that table.

Back in the day, I worked on the west coast. Design-build was not a way to save time and money. It was a way to get a really good result. Everyone worked as part of the team. Everyone shared the same goal. We wanted to do quality. We wanted to build the right thing. Design-build was the way to get the best people around the table.

Complex,sustainability-driven projects require a lot of planning. Projects with a shoot-from-the-hip approach are typically not sustainable. Also, projects that can free themselves from a silo approach have a greater chance of success. Siloes that separate the design team from the construction team are an example of an organizational construct that can impede project success. We recently began to refer to collaborative design-build for the sake of quality as “west coast” design build. This is design-build at its apex.

The bottom line with west coast design build is the people, and the table. Get the best people around the table. We should be doing this here. On this coast.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.

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