“Design-Build” For Your New Home?

Couple examining floor plans along with a middle-aged builder. The three of them are presently engaged in a discussion.

An architect may be your first choice when you building your home or you can choose a design-build firm that both designs and builds the home. Here’s what you should know about both options.

Whether you’re planning to build a custom home or a major addition to your current house, you’re likely to confront this key question up front: Who should I hire to do the work?

You’re also likely to ask yourself these questions as well: Do I hire an architect to come up with the design and draw up the house plans and then bring in a builder and subcontractors to actually do the construction?

Or, should I instead hire a company that puts it all together in an integrated, seamless package — a “design-build” firm that has an architectural capability, but is also a general contractor and is responsible for the construction?

Are Separate Architectural and Construction Firms — Or a Single Design-Build Firm — Right for You and Your Project?

Both options have the potential to deliver precisely what you want — the home of your dreams, completed on schedule, at a price you agreed to upfront. Both options also have passionate, outspoken supporters.

Arantza Murphy is a civil engineer who considered both the architect-builder and design-build approaches for a significant expansion and remodeling of her home in Chevy Chase, Md. “We ultimately went with an architect-designed renovation because I think an architect has a clearer vision as to how the flow of a house should work – how the old should work with the new,” she says. “With a design-build firm, we were concerned about the risk of just adding on a box.”

Lorenzo and Kelly Benedict of La Grange, Ill., took a very different view. They hired a prominent Chicago area design-build firm for their project and couldn’t be more pleased. “Building a home is a scary and sometimes overwhelming process with lots of personal risk involved,” the Benedicts say, “so trust in your builder is critical for peace of mind.” The design-build firm the Benedicts selected “exceeded our expectations from the beginning planning stages all the way through.”

But choosing each option — design-build or architect-builder — comes with its own pluses and minuses. Here’s a quick overview to help you proceed with your own project:

Do Your Research

Keep in mind that the success of either approach may depend on how well you researched the reputations and previous work of competing firms in your local market. You need to get references and talk with previous clients who sought to build houses or additions similar in scope to what you have in mind.

Key Differences

When you hire an architect who designs and creates plans that are then bid out to construction firms by a builder or general contractor, you can get exactly — or close to — what you wanted in terms of design. And if your contract includes a requirement that the architect be on site to check the quality of the construction and compliance with building codes at every stage of the project, you also get an invaluable, expert advocate for your interests.

However, because there is no single party responsible for everything — the architect’s main responsibility is design and the builder’s responsibility is construction — conflicts can occur, putting you in the middle. One important issue is that the architect’s initial design may not turn out to be within your budget, something you may not discover until you put it out to bid. At that point, you may either have to dig deeper into your pocket and up your budget, alter the plans (more money) to fit your budget or you may have to abandon your plan as originally envisioned.

With a design-build firm, by contrast, you typically set up a budget and schedule up front, and then work with the design professionals provided by the firm to arrive at a final plan that can be achieved within your budget and time frame.

A design-build firm includes a general contracting unit that should be intimately familiar with building material costs and have working arrangements with a network of subcontractors, so surprises on budgets before and during construction shouldn’t be a major problem. With design-build, you have a single company responsible for the entire project — and for you who pay the bills, a single point of contact to keep track on progress.

However, some critics say that with design-build, in the event of a conflict over some aspect of the project, the only party representing your interests in the project is you. And that puts you at a disadvantage, since it’s not likely that your knowledge of construction or materials equips you to know when you’re being charged too much or that the job isn’t getting done properly.

Some Other Thoughts and Advice on Design-Build:

Working with a respected local design-build firm is often a less-costly option because the in-house communication between designer and the building team saves time and is governed by the overarching requirement of staying within the contract budget.

The success of either approach may depend on how well you researched the reputations and previous work of competing firms in your local market.• In the architect-builder approach, a significant part of the design fee is devoted to making design details and drawings crystal clear to contractors and for working with the client and contractor while the project is being built. In design-build, some of these expenses and time can be avoided. This helps preserve the integrity of the design you’ve approved and lowers the final bills.

Also important: Most design-build firms have a process in place for selection of cabinets, countertops, bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances and other building products used. That can make choosing these items easier and less costly than paying an architect to make the choices for you. Or worse yet, having an architect instruct you on what choices you need to make in order to conform to the architect’s “vision” for your new house. Bear in mind, of course, that you, the client, may be guilty of having too expensive taste, so this is not always the architect’s fault alone.

If a design-build firm does not employ or work with a registered architect — and not all do — you are running the risk of having a builder take on design functions without the necessary certifications, training and liability insurance. Make sure you check on the professional qualifications of the design staff. Also, if your emphasis in your custom home or remodeling project is cutting-edge, high-end design, you may be better hiring an independent architect who is known for such work.

When you are researching a specific design-build firm and speaking with previous clients, ask how the company handled design changes that occurred at the client’s request during the project. Did the company have financial controls in place to alert the client to extra costs caused by the changes to the original plan? If a good process is not in place, the result could be hefty, unexpected cost overruns — one of the very problems that the design-build concept is supposed to avoid.

Finally, whichever option you select, make sure that you have a well-drafted contract between you and the design-build or architect-builder team with specific construction benchmarks tied to financial draws. Before signing any contract, run it by a local attorney who specializes in construction law to make sure that all parties are clear on terms and deliverables and to minimize the chance of later disputes.
In addition to his articles for NewHomeSource, Ken Harney writes an award-winning, nationally syndicated column on real estate for The Washington Post Writers Group that appears in 90 newspapers.

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