Design-Build: A Third-party Approach

As discussed in my column in the May issue, p. 16, the design-build model can take many forms, including outsourcing some or all of the design work to third parties.

There are a number of potential advantages to a third-party approach to the design process: 1) better control of design costs, 2) the ability to retain the right design professionals for a particular project instead of being limited by the expertise of your in-house staff, and 3) preventing design from becoming a bottleneck within your organization.

For example, we used an outside architectural firm, a landscape architect and two independent designers on a recent project to tackle a large job that would have stretched the capabilities of our in-house design team from a technical and time perspective. Using these outside resources, we were able to successfully manage the project from initial concept through completion of construction without impacting our ability to provide timely design to the rest of our clients. This approach also allowed us to provide the maximum creative output for the money by assigning design work to the party best suited to the specific task.

However, outsourcing design is not without its challenges. Before considering third-party design in your remodeling business, there are a number of factors to consider. First and foremost, how do you hand off the first half of the process to a third party and still fulfill the commitment of design-build as a one-stop solution? It starts with a very candid conversation with your prospective design partner. The discussion should cover a number of basic issues, such as identifying who will own the design; determining whose logo appears on the drawings; deciding whether or not their job sign will be posted alongside your own once construction begins; and quantifying how and when the design professional will be compensated.

It also should focus on establishing the appropriate line of communication between the design professional and your client. However, the most critical element of the conversation is defining exactly what services you are and are not asking them to provide. For example, if the party you are dealing with sells products in addition to providing design services, determine in advance whether or not you want them to discuss their product lines with your clients. In essence, integrating outside design resources into the design-build process requires significant preplanning and clear communication of expectations.

With the groundwork completed, the introduction to the client follows, and the design management process begins. At this point, I have found it is vital to obtain an estimated design cost and delivery schedule from your design partner as quickly as possible. By having them break it into increments, you can anticipate how long it will take and how much it will cost to obtain floor plans, elevations, 3-D renderings, CDs, etc. If you authorize the design work incrementally — with a clear understanding that advance notice is expected if the estimated cost or schedule will be exceeded — you can closely monitor progress and, if needed, bring in someone else to handle the next phase of design if expectations are not being met.

Effective management of the design process also involves oversight of the interaction between the independent design professional and your client. Although more leeway might be appropriate after working together on several projects, it may be advisable to start out with a company employee participating in every design meeting, reviewing all design work in-house before sharing it with the homeowner and handling all communication with the client. Ultimately, it is your company that is being represented at a critical stage of the process.

Fail to effectively manage the process and you risk losing the job. Ensure your independent design pros are representing you well and you’ve set the stage for a successful design-build project.


Dan Weidmann, CR, CAPS, is president and co-owner of Weidmann & Associates Inc., a Georgia-based collaborative design-build firm that has been on the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s list of Atlanta’s Top Residential Remodeling Contractors every year since 1997. 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.