The Truth About Design-Build Firms

A design-build firm can manage an entire project and be a “one-stop” shop—if you choose

design-build Cat and Jordan’s Fort Greene apartment

Design-build firms are a growing segment of the construction landscape. As the name suggests, the firm takes care of the design as well as the construction phase of a project. Historically, the process involved homeowners working with a designer or an architect before taking those plans over to a general contractor to execute the vision. Now, those specialties exist under one roof.

In commercial construction, design-build firms are nabbing about 40 percent of contracts, according to the Design-Build Institute of America. While there are no comparable statistics for residential, about 15 percent of members in the American Institute of Building Design (AIBD) are now design-build firms, said Steve Mickley, the executive director of the organization, which is made up of designers, builders, and architects.

It’s important to note that not all projects will require a designer or architect. For example, the National Kitchen & Bath Association found that only 22 percent of homeowners renovating a kitchen or bathroom enlisted professional design help. Instead, many chose to work closely with an experienced general contractor on their design to bring down the budget. However, if the scope of your project involves structural changes like moving load-bearing walls or shifting plumbing or gas lines, you will at least need an architect or engineer to approve your renovation plans. Bringing in design help is also a good option if you want to pay careful attention to planning and visual details.

The many forms of design-build

There’s no clear-cut definition as to what a design-build firm is and who is in their employ. Usually, a firm will either be more design-forward, primarily led by an architect or a designer, or construction-forward with a general contractor taking the reins. Of course, some firms can be an even balance of both.

Whatever the scenario of the firm and your project, “the best approach is to interview as many people as it takes to find someone you feel comfortable with,” advised Mickley. That could mean going with a design-build firm or handpicking a designer and a general contractor. This more traditional method is called design, bid, and build, or DBB. It is where the designer or architect is hired separately from the general contractor. Sweeten, a free service matching renovators with both vetted contractors and D+B firms, outlines the benefits and potential drawbacks of this category.

PROS

“One-stop” shop

Design-build firms operate as a “one-stop shop” for home construction, said Mickley. This means homeowners only need to explain their vision to one person who then communicates it to the single design-build team. This is also the case throughout the project. If a change needs to be made, no need to discuss it with your designer or architect and then communicate it to your general contractor.

With a design-build firm, you should have one point person throughout the entire length of your project who is accountable for the timeline, the budget, and delivering what the homeowner wants. “The same person who has the vision has the responsibility to make that happen,” said Mickley.

Project management help

Some homeowners want to closely oversee their renovations. Others don’t. For the latter group, a design-build firm might be a good fit. Rather than the homeowner overseeing the two moving parts of the design and construction phase, a design-build firm watches over both.

If you want a little help with managing a project but aren’t sure you want a design-build firm to take care of the whole thing, some designers or architects may offer a service to help oversee the job. “This is where the designer or architect makes periodic site visits to make sure the general contractor is doing everything to the specifications,” said Mickley.

Guaranteed synergy

There’s always a risk of a personality clash when you pair two humans together. That includes your choice of designer or architect and general contractor. They could work together seamlessly, or they could not. Working with a design-build firm basically eliminates that risk. The design half and construction half would have worked together on many projects and likely created a firm together based on their positive collaboration. “Depending on the project, you could be working with them for six to 12 months, so it’s best to choose wisely,” said Mickley.

design-build Erica’s Clinton Hill kitchen

A faster project

Of course, things can go wrong with any project and slow the timeline down, including one managed by a design-build firm. However, this type of firm will likely complete a job at a faster pace. A study commissioned by the DBIA found that commercial projects using design-build firms finished about 33 percent faster than those that used the traditional design, bid, and build process.

There’s reason to think residential projects could also move faster with a design-build firm. That’s because there is likely an overlap between the design and construction phase rather than a lull in momentum when the design phase ends and a general contractor takes up the build phase.

Changes you make along the way could also be done faster, according to Gary, who heads up a Sweeten-vetted design-build firm. Often with the traditional design, bid, and build workflow, a change to your project will require some back and forth between architect and general contractor to see what’s possible and what the best way forward is. This could hold the project up for weeks or more. With a design-build firm, you have your architect and builder already working together and abreast of the project. “Pretty much within a couple of days we can have everything sorted out,” said Gary.

Less expensive (maybe)

Given that design-build is slowly gaining momentum in the residential market, the data isn’t yet available to know what workflow method is easier on the pocketbook. In commercial construction, DBIA found that projects with this category of professionals came in at six percent cheaper when compared with similar jobs using the design, bid, and build workflow.

THE DRAWBACKS

Less control

A positive to one person may be a negative to another. As we mentioned above, a design-build firm generally means less control for the homeowner, which is great if that’s what you want. However, if you know you want to be hands-on with your construction project, take that into consideration when choosing between design-build or the typical design, bid, and build.

Less choice

Again, this can be a pro or a con. It’s definitely a con if you have your heart set on an architect and a general contractor who are not part of the same firm. One thing Mickley advised when considering a design-build firm is to ensure it can produce quality designs. “Some design-build firms call themselves that, but they really don’t possess the design portion,” he said. “They just subcontract that out.”

Fewer objective solutions

Having the eyes of a separate general contractor and architect could mean more objective observations about how your project is progressing. It could also mean more ideas. If there’s a problem in need of a solution, you have your architect or designer as well as your general contractor to brainstorm with.

Regardless of which way you ultimately lean on your construction, design, bid, and build or design-build, selecting who you work with is a crucial decision. “Once you’ve made that decision, you have to give them your full trust,” said Gary.

If you want to see the results of renovating with a design-build firm, check out these 5 major kitchen transformations.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.