Category Archives: DESIGN-BUILD

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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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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