Making a Case for Designer-Led Design-Build: PART II

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA

This is the second article in what has become a Designer-Led Design Build mini-series.  In case you missed the first installment (Volume 1, Issue 1) you can find it at Click on the newsletter link on the homepage which will take you to a printable PDF.

It is a relatively recent idea that design and construction are separate processes.  This idea really took hold in the mid-15th century when Leon Battista Alberti (considered the first modern day architect) convinced Pope Eugene IV that he could simply draw the plans to “instruct” the builder how to renovate the façade of the Gothic Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence.  This was the first instance of the designer and builder becoming separate, thus navigating away from the “master builder” integrated concept.  It was further divided throughout the Industrial Revolution in the propagating of many separate professional associations and in the Miller Act of 1935 which required posting of surety bonds on Federal projects. A power struggle has continued to this day between the designer and constructor with the owner ultimately being the one who suffers from over budget, sub-par, complicated and many times litigious projects.  Why? Just because this is the “way” it is done?  It seems it is time to move back to a better solution in designer-led design build. From day one design it as it will be built and guarantee it!

Some of the advantages of Designer-Led design build to the Owner:

1. The common complaint of the Architect lacking cost discipline disappears.

Under a designer-led design build contract the architect will implement a much more thorough cost monitoring process from conceptual estimation through final hard numbers.  This is because the architect is now guaranteeing cost and budget and has designed to this from day one.  The architect’s teaming partner (whether professional GC (general contractor) or estimating firm partner) will continuously monitor the design in an integrated iterative process.  The end product is not only high quality, but guaranteed as to cost and time; a big advantage to savvy owners.

2. The architect is best suited to balance design quality vs. cost:

Often times GC led design build is criticized for its inability to weigh cost vs. design decisions, with the cost and schedule trumping the design.  With the owner’s original agent, the architect, back in the driver’s seat, not only will projects be on time and on budget, but the important design considerations will be given equal weight as the designer uses his or her training and expertise to weigh such decisions in a more informed manner.

3. The owner/architect relationship is important:

The trust factor is paramount.  Many owners and architects enjoy a very trust based relationship which has been a source of comfort to the owner.  The architect has traditionally been an agent of the owner and has looked out for their best interest throughout a project.  Who better to construct the project than someone who already has that trusted relationship established and truly knows the owner and the design intent? Why throw the project to market for bid, reiterate everything to the GC, do post design VE, and haggle over price, when the one with the most intimate knowledge of the intent from day one is already able and ready to build it?

4. The Architect has less conflict of interest than in GC led Design Build:

When the architect is a sub-consultant of the GC in GC led design build he or she is, for all intents and purposes, an employee of the GC and, as such, will abide by the GCs direction or face possible replacement.  The ethical and moral obligations of the architect to the owner become somewhat clouded as the architect now has split allegiances.  The traditional architect as owner’s agent, as in designer- led design build, may offer most owners much better comfort and protection.

5.       Probably the most important, is that the architect maintains the same traditional relationship with the owner for design, but the design build contract can be delayed and implemented anywhere in the design process:

Typically the owner who enters into a design build contract with a GC does just that, signs a construction contract.  However, with a designer-led delivery approach, the architect can start design and the owner can then elect, if he or she wishes, anywhere in the design process (conceptual-construction docs) to initiate a guarantee on cost and time by entering into the design build contract at that time (simply a step beyond the typical design contract, it may be even included as an amendment).  This gives the owner flexibility as he or she will still get the full architectural services as normal, but can at anytime convert to design build with the designer.  In GC led, the decision has to be made up front as the GC will be generally hiring an architect to produce the design but will not make money unless the actual construction contract is executed.  The designer-led model offers the owner much more flexibility and the ability to test the waters before jumping in!

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome on all sides is being able to break away from the old way of thinking when it comes to project delivery, the design-bid-build low bid mentality. The idea that the design is separate from construction and the constructor is separate from the designer. The major contributing factor to this is generally comfort level, the “this is just the way it is done and will always be done” mentality. This is simply just not true!  As architects and contractors become more integrated, both sides will eventually see the advantages in such a teaming model.  It is a triple win, especially for the Owners who, for the longest time, have been on the losing end of an industry divided.

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