Accountability and Liability

I recently picked up a course manual from a design/build seminar that is sponsored by NAHB. One of our staff attended and found it interesting and particularly well suited for young professionals still early in their careers.

The manual outlined the advantages and disadvantages of design/build versus design-bid-build delivery systems. Overall, the assessment of pros and cons was reasonable and for the most part aligned with our experience and the manner in which we describe and market our services.

What caught my attention was something on the side of disadvantages. It was a reference to “Increased Accountability and Liability.” These words engender a somewhat negative connotation. Rather, I view it as an extension of Professional Responsibility, which is as much about our approach to business as it is a legality.

Even though intellectually I see how daunting the increased accountability and liability in design/build are, a part of me considers this to be on the side of advantages. In reality it can be favorable to all parties. It is this accountability that has kept me on my toes, running a tight ship every day for the past 25 years. I know that accountability is as much about fiduciary responsibility to my company and my staff as it is fiduciary accountability to my clients.

The common questions we get from prospective clients often concern checks and balances. “How can we be assured of getting a fair price if your company controls the whole process?” And, “How can you possibly provide checks and balances over your own construction quality?”

Regarding fair pricing and cost control, I tell my prospective clients that for this reason it’s critical to choose the right service provider. Ultimately I believe it really speaks to the integrity, reputation and longevity of the company to keep things balanced, fair and competitive.

Clients are mistaken to believe that the more familiar system of design-bid-build ensures quality oversight. Unfortunately it’s a very small percentage of architects that participate in overseeing the residential construction process. When the architect is involved in project management, the outcome is going to involve lots of finger pointing between architect, builder and others. It will ultimately be the owner that ends up in the middle and bearing the brunt of financial responsibility.

This kind of mayhem can virtually be eliminated in the design/build model where all the finger pointing is in one direction. This is a big advantage and selling point of design/build, where the single entity assumes accountability and liability for the project as a whole.

It’s critical, therefore, to provide a thorough set of construction drawings and specifications. It is effectively your contract with the client, and your best insurance against a client’s overreaching or misinterpretation of scope of work. I call it the fine print of the contract.

Design/build brings new layers of responsibility. For instance, design integrity often requires additional tweaking after construction start. You may notice that the arch doesn’t hit at the right spring point or an element doesn’t align the way you intended. Do you change it or leave it, and who pays?

We approach this as an opportunity for further design refinement and choose to implement corrections transparently. I call it my contingencies. The client need not be aware of details, and while it can impact the bottom line, we are committed to charging clients only for changes they request. It’s another advantage and selling point of our integrated services. Taking full responsibility for flaws gives us a very strong incentive to take corrective action internally so it doesn’t happen again.

Increased accountability and liability are very real components of design/build. You have to be very good at juggling lots of balls or the contingencies will eat you up. It’s probably a big reason there are so few design/build companies.