Design-Build: More Than One Way to Skin the Cat

The most commonly stated advantage of design-build remodeling compared to the traditional design-bid-build approach is that the homeowner has only one company managing the development, pricing and construction of the project. This statement implies a more efficient process, with better communication, cooperation and budgetary control than the alternative. Although consumer awareness of design-build is growing, it is not universal nor is it always fully understood. As a result, contractors offering this service should assume a new prospect may need a little education about this option and the benefits it offers.

For me, the need for a little Design-Build 101 is most apparent when a prospective client contacts my company and wants to schedule an appointment for someone to give them a bid. Whether they are unaware they have contacted a design-build firm or simply believe this is how you go about finding a contractor, it is a great starting point for further conversation. It begins with a little information gathering. Among other things, I want to know more about their approach to the contractor selection process, as well as who else they are contacting.

If a prospect is talking to contractors with very different approaches — whether the other companies specialize in handyman projects, competitive bid work or specialty remodeling — it provides the opportunity to quickly differentiate ourselves from the competition, discuss the potential advantages of design-build in general and highlight the benefit of our services in particular. The dialogue, however, is a little more challenging when the prospective client tells us the other companies with whom they are meeting are also design-build. In this simple statement, they have clumped everyone together and, arguably, reduced design-build to a commodity where all parties are perceived to be equal.

So how do you distinguish yourself from other design-build companies? It begins with the recognition that companies vary widely in the manner in which they deliver on the promise of a one-stop solution. For some, both the design and the build are provided by the company owner who, armed with a CAD program and hands-on remodeling experience, personally handles the project from concept through completion. Other companies rely on a staff of designers and architects to provide the creative solution, with a production department responsible for construction. Then, there are firms that outsource some or all of the design work, managing the design process much like they manage the construction — with subcontractors.

Regardless of why a company elects to follow a particular design-build approach, prospective clients want to know how it benefits them and why it is more advantageous than the approach proposed by the competition. Ultimately, this means highlighting how a firm’s selected business model does the best job of delivering on the promise of a more efficient remodeling solution and, subliminally, calling into question your competitors’ approach. For example, when the company owner is responsible for everything, the risk of miscommunication or conflict between design and production is eliminated. As a result, it would seem to be the most efficient approach. But keep in mind that the most efficient solution does not always produce the best overall result.

A design-build company with extensive internal design resources offers its clients the benefit of trained professionals working full-time in their area of expertise. As employees, they are readily available to the company’s clients. For the prospect desiring creativity over efficiency, this may be the best option. However, an in-house design staff has its Achilles’ heel. Its expertise is limited to the collective skill set of the individual employees, and there is a cost associated with keeping design staff on the payroll when there is not enough work. This plays into the hand of the design-build company that outsources its design work. Relying on third-party assistance for design, the company does not have any design personnel expenses unless and until needed, and then it can bring in the right resources for the job. The company following this approach can offer the prospective client the opportunity to share in the savings of a smaller workforce and the endless possibilities provided by unlimited design resources.

In the end, the selection of a remodeling company rests largely upon a homeowner’s perception of which contractor is the best fit for the job. Helping a good design-build prospect reach the right conclusion is just the first step of a successful project.

Dan Weidmann, CR, CAPS, is president and co-owner of Weidmann & Associates Inc., a Georgia-based collaborative design-build firm. A past president of NARI Atlanta, he combines nearly 20 years of remodeling experience with a background in aeronautical engineering and the practice of law to bring a unique perspective to the creative process.

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