Design/Build Makes Sense

Architects typically are focused on the needs of wealthy individuals, government agencies and the business community. To our profession’s credit, we are increasingly doing more probono work for the least fortunate members of society as well. If we are engaged at both ends of the economic spectrum, then why are we not also serving that huge segment of society in between?

I recently was involved with a limited remodel and addition project which reminded me why architects generally don’t take on small-scale, design-bid-build work. However, I was willing to pursue this opportunity, sensing that it might provide some good public relations and offer a creative design challenge.

The first obstacle to overcome was educating the clients in the procedures and milestones associated with construction delivery methods. It was necessary for me to explain the concepts of construction documents, bidding strategies and building permits before we could start talking about good design. This was precipitated by the clients’ desire to distribute bid documents to several local contractors. Had we done this project as a design/build turnkey operation, there would have been little need to explain in detail the various steps involved.

Furthermore, as this was the first architectural project this couple had undertaken, it was important for them to visit a few of my previous projects or see photos of similar commissions I’ve done, to be sure that my design skills and sensibilities matched their expectations. Such a request is reasonable for a major house design, but somewhat time-consuming for a small fee on a $100,000 project. Thus, the amount of hours I expended (without any guarantee of the project going forward) was disproportionately high compared to the design fee I was likely to collect. Had this been done as a design/build project, I might have spent similar time, but my margins would have been greater to compensate for my efforts.

Another impediment to architects doing small-scale residential work is the disconnection in many homeowners’ minds between professional service fees and good design. From watching the Home and Garden channel and perusing a few upscale architecture magazines, many people have come to appreciate good design. But getting them to pay an architect’s fees in line with obtaining this level of quality is another matter. In a design/build relationship, when competent design solutions are included in the total cost of the finished product, typically no amount of justification is necessary.

Exacerbating the traditional architectural process is the fact that drawings often must be redone several times in the early design stages in order to get the project back into a budget that the homeowner can afford as opposed to the design that they would like to have. With a lump-sum design fee, this can further erode profitability.

Small projects also are extremely susceptible to the vagaries of the market. Contractors with a full plate will not necessarily provide competitive prices for minor jobs they don’t really want. Many contractors will not even bid on your project if they have too much other work. For this reason, it is quite difficult for architects to give homeowners accurate bid pricing information for additions and renovations. In a design/build relationship, the contractor is in from the start. This not only lends credibility to the cost estimates, but also ensures that there is a builder to take on the work at the end of the design process.

At a seminar I attended a number of years ago, a construction litigation attorney described the profession of architecture as one of low margins and high risks. Designing small additions and renovations as stand-alone assignments is in many ways a game of even lower margins and higher risks. It is while undertaking these commissions that I am once again reminded why participating in residential design/build makes sense for architects.