Start your Design/Build Firm

Today’s economic uncertainty has architects re-evaluating their professional focus and seeking a broader project base. This is an opportune time to expand your knowledge of construction techniques and move toward providing integrated design/build services to your clients. This will better position you to proactively develop your own projects — an ideal scenario in any marketplace.

For those of us two or three decades into our professional careers, it may seem daunting to change course by reinventing yourself. I have been building my design/build company for close to 30 years and I’m still having fun with it, but it takes years to develop and is not for everyone. I am an architect who builds homes, and for this column I’m going to assume I’m addressing younger architects still developing their niche. Think of this as Design/Build 101.

A design/build business requires a well-balanced left- and right-brain capacity. You must be a good manager, learn how to delegate as well as be an outstanding residential architect. It’s the great design that ultimately will set you and your company apart.

I believe architects are better prospects for mastering construction than builders are for learning how to design. I don’t intend to belittle any professional or tradesman who has crossed over to construction. Rather, I think that architects are particularly well prepared with education in building design and construction techniques

Businesses driven by an architect, whether as a principal or manager, have greater opportunities to shine within the industry. Our signature is stamped on the project, both literally and aesthetically. It is great design that makes our companies notable and give our projects a sense of quality. Good construction is fundamental and expected, but it’s the overall look and flow of a home that people will remember.

Join and participate with your local homebuilders association. The members will welcome you as an associate. Take full advantage of the many available construction classes, seek whatever designations are offered, and register your company if required by your state.

Be prepared to underwrite your business for at least one year. This may require sustaining your design-only projects for cashflow purposes while investing another 20-plus hours each week to evolve your design/build company.
Get out of the office, visit construction sites and talk to builders and tradesmen. Ask questions freely. Identify what’s selling and become familiar with the speculative inventory. Who is custom building and what kind of finishes and materials are featured? Is there a gap in the market where you can stand out? Become familiar with your residential market. What can you do better?

A great way to get your design/build business off the ground is through remodeling and renovation projects, which can generate some cash flow. Adopt some good software to set up a spread sheet for cost and critical path scheduling.

If you can qualify for an interim construction loan to build your personal home, however small, this may be the best avenue for getting a foothold in construction. Start saving now, find a community you could afford to live in and make an offer on a home site. Now is a great time to buy. If you have to ask close family to co-sign a note, do so in a formal contract with reasonable terms. Don’t partner with an investor until you have more experience in business.

While contemplating your design/build firm, it might be easiest to hire construction talent rather than to partner with a builder. This way, you determine the vision and retain decision-making authority. Also, when times are slow, you can trim the company without worrying about preserving a business partnership.

It’s going to take plenty of dedicated time and work, possibly years, to build up your design/build expertise. I started when I was in my mid 20s and I’m still reinventing things decades later; I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think that as architects, we own the golden goose but we’ve been giving away the eggs. Let’s choose to own the goose AND the eggs.

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