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Design-Build Architectural Practices...
Pros / Cons
Posted on August 1, 2023 @ 5:42PM
"Hiring your architect separately from the builder allows you to select your first choice for both, and to defer committing to a builder first thing, before you really know what you're going to build." ~ Sam Rodell

One of the decisions you will make when you select an architect is deciding the role they will have in your project as it is built. What you may not realize is that you may actually be making this choice as part of who you are deciding who to work with as an architect. Some of us practice in what might be called the traditional role of an architect, determining what is to be built but not how it will be built; others assume responsibility for both design and construction; and some of us work either way, depending on the needs of our clients or the circumstances of the project.

For many years, architects and contractors had distinct roles in the construction industry; in this 'traditional' model, the client formed one contractual relationship with the architect to design and another with the contractor to build - so there was no financial link between the contractor and the architect. One of the arguments in favor of this arrangement is that there is no inherit conflict of interest for the architect, who is commissioned to work toward the best interests of his client.

In the last twenty years or so, it has become common to see design services bundled with construction services in various 'design-build' formats. In this scenario, the client enters into one contract with one entity to design and build the project. This might consist of a contractor who retains architects on staff, or it might consist of architects who assume responsibility for managing the actual construction. There are good arguments for and against this format, but in any circumstance it places a heavy burden of ethical conduct squarely on the design-build firm.

I have done architecture and construction very successfully both ways. I am a licensed general contractor with extensive experience executing complex and demanding projects working as both the designer and the builder, but I also do a great deal of work partnered with highly qualified contractors to deliver projects in the traditional format where my role is focused on design.

Which approach is better? It can be a challenge to get an objective answer to that question, since most design-build firms will lobby for design-build while the majority of architects in traditional practice will tend to advise against it. The truth is that from the client perspective there is not a straightforward answer to this question that is valid for all projects. If you have a project with an exceptionally challenging schedule, or if your interest in design quality is strictly limited to questions of functionality, the design-build method may offer advantages for expediency. If you are looking for the highest level of uncompromised design quality and project management, the 'traditional' method allows you to select your first choice of architects and the strongest candidate for the general contractor.

If my clients come to me already comfortably aligned with a great builder, we all know from the start that we will be working as a team in the traditional owner-architect-contractor format. If a client has not determined a preference with respect to a builder, my advice is usually to defer tackling that question until we complete the schematic design phase. At that point, we will know much more about what we are going to be doing with respect to the construction work, and that knowledge will be very helpful in sorting out those logistics and fleshing out the whole team prior to moving into the design development phase of design.

If I am working in a traditional role as a design architect, I still typically have a very strong presence on the project site throughout construction. This often comes as a surprise to the general contractor, but I am not there to criticize or harass them. I am there in service to our client and to the project. So much of what is happening on the construction site will impact the final architectural outcome, and good communication between the architect and the entire construction team is good for the schedule, good for the project, and ultimately good for both the contractor and the client.

Author: Sam Rodell

Sam has practiced as an award winning architect for forty years, and has also built many of his clients' projects.  He is licensed throughout most of the western USA and Canada, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) which expedites registration in other states and provinces. He was the first Certified Passive House Consultant architect in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.