Design-Build – What it Really Means

Maryjane E. Cason

So would you choose a two-legged stool over a three-legged one?

Okay, maybe that’s a silly question. But figuratively speaking, two-legged stools are awfully prevalent in the design-build realm these days.

There’s a common misconception out there that “design-build” equates to contractors that handle all design work in-house with staff designers or architects. Not so. While this inflexible model works for some projects, it’s poorly suited for others and can serve clients pretty badly.

Why? Because it reduces the three-legged stool of project development – client, designer and builder – to two. The result? Lack of balance.

Don’t get me wrong; the problem is not inherent to design-build. It’s with the warping of what the term really means.

“Design-build” actually refers to a project development strategy in which one entity brings architect, contractor and client together to foster collaboration. Done right, it’s a streamlined process that facilitates timely, meaningful input by all three “legs of the stool” resulting, ultimately, in a stronger final product.

Put another way, it’s about setting the conditions for effective advocacies. For a project to meet its full potential and really shine, it requires healthy, empowered advocacies from all three realms of project development:

  • The Designer:
  • Advocates for the way a project’s spaces work and interact with one another, its volumetrics, and its aesthetics.

  • The Builder:
  • Advocates for safety, efficiency, cost containment, and longevity of the building envelope.

  • The Client:
  • Advocates for their needs now and in the future, financial realities, and for all the ways they want the building to serve them.

A good project development process brings all three of these advocacies around one table to work together, advocate for what is important to them, grapple for joint solutions, and ultimately craft a plan that is greater than the sum of its parts. We’re not talking about the first and easy solution here. It’s the hard-fought one that finally emerges, stronger in every way for the creative and dynamic process that the three advocacies have fostered and undergone. True collaboration.

The problem with design-build processes that tuck the architect’s function behind the contractor’s walls is that it’s no longer a three-way conversation. The weighing of architect and contractor concerns still happens, but behind closed doors, hidden from the client. In essence, the builder absorbs the design advocacy, digests it, and then communicates a simplified version for the client. The problem is obvious: real collaboration among the three advocacies can no longer happen.

For smaller, simpler projects, that can be okay – updating bathroom surfaces, a door and window swap, straightforward cabinet replacement, the deck out back. But with more complex projects like full kitchen and bathroom remodels, attic additions, basement renovations, whole house remodels and new homes, the client deserves (and really requires) strong, independent voices to fully represent all advocacies.

So should contractors use the design-build model? Emphatically, yes! But project development should be done on a stable, three-legged structure. It’s the best way to live up to John Ruskin’s admonition: “When we build, let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for.”

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