Making a Case for Designer-Led Design-Build

As one of only two designers, in a sea of Contractors attending a recent week long Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) certification seminar, I must say it was a great learning experience, although it was not without heated debates, one of which concerned designer-led design build.

The Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) states, that only 17% of projects delivered design-build (DB) are designer or architect/engineer (AE) led while the vast majority are general contractor led.  The main, and really only reason anyone could give me for this lack of designer-led DB is that AEs do not have the financial strength (capital assets) to bond for commercial work. But is the lack of assets really the only thing holding back AEs from doing DB?

In my opinion many of the real reasons are unfounded and based upon misinformation, comfort level (both owner and designer) or tradition.  Another major reason is that most firms, especially smaller ones, are risk averse, especially when they are already liable for design.

Generally the main concerns for a GC are budget and schedule. Many times the priority of these items trumps the design, quality, and owner’s intent unfortunately, at least in the designer’s eyes.  So, when these two entities (the designer and GC) are fused together in DB you have a really interesting contest;  a contest between great design, the designer’s responsibility to the public and the end user and the GC’s dedication to cost and schedule. One of the two has to give.

As stated above, the majority of DB projects are contractor led.  In such a relationship, one could argue that, the contractor directs the design based upon their main objectives of managing schedule and cost while the AE is much less free to design as they normally would.  In this case, would it be outlandish to say that design might suffer?  Maybe, maybe not, but the bottom line is that when it comes to critical design elements, or those items that make a good building into a great building, they might be trumped by schedule, cost, or a bottom line, classic value engineering.

Now, let’s turn the tables.  Hold on to your hats, let’s get really crazy here and suggest that the designer (architect/engineer) leads the team and hold the prime contract with the owner for both design and construction. Just as in the traditional AE/Owner relationship, the designer serves as the agent of the owner, and not only does he hold the owner’s best interest in mind, but also the public’s and facility end user’s best interests in mind, just as designers have done for hundreds of years (more often times than not getting beat up for such ethical behavior when the final bid numbers come in).

Here is where the GC comes in as part of the designer’s DB team.  Why could the designer not subcontract the construction, estimating and scheduling (pre-construction services) to a well respected commercial general contracting outfit much the same as that same outfit might subcontract to the designer for design services under a DB contract?

“Well architects don’t really know how to build anything and can’t bond,” is the typical answer I received.  How many GCs do you know that self perform even 5% of their work?  Not many.  So my question to you would be what is the difference?

The designer subcontracts 100% of the construction to a GC much the same as that GC subcontracts to his trades.  The GC will be responsible (to the designer now) to manage it as he normally would, bond as he normally would (this solves our bonding issue), have the same insurance, produce the same schedules and provide estimates as he normally would.  The estimates (conceptual and hard), schedule, and final contract price numbers are passed on to the designer during the DB process just as the designer would pass iterations of his stamped drawings to the GC under GC led DB.

The designer will, through their professional training, be able to make much better, more informed decisions as to what is critical to the owner’s vision. In this version of DB you can easily see that, if the design is what is important, if civic responsibility is what is important, then putting the cart (design) before the horse (schedule and estimate) can be considered a wise decision. The design will still conform to schedule and price (as it is guaranteed under a single contract), but the designer would once again, in unison with the owner’s intent have the power to make these critical decision in the owner’s best interest.

I would argue that many designers not only have the ability to balance schedule, cost, design, and quality but might just be the best at it had they the proper tools to gather and analyze such critical information. These tools are the missing link, and they are contracted from the GC from the beginning.  The designer now has the complete package.

This overview is indeed a simplified one.  There are many more considerations involved especially concerning risk mitigation, business setup for designers and licensing, all of which are possible with proper planning.  Hopefully we can once again open the DB doors to many of the talented design individuals who have so much to offer owners in our industry, once again becoming the “master builders.”

Within the lack of such service provided there is an enormous opportunity, especially for small, lean, informed collaborative organizations that are able to take advantage of this project delivery method and provide their clients with a new model for exceptional project success.

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