You can never be completely certain what a remodeler means when he describes his company as a “design/build” firm. Does the remodeler or his staff do the design work? Possibly. Does he build jobs using his own field crew? Perhaps.

To be sure, there are certain basic characteristics inherent to the term: In some capacity, the design/build remodeler has a hand in every element of the remodeling process — from developing the initial design concept to signing off on the final punch list.

But the shape that this process ultimately takes can look strikingly different from one company to the next.

OUTSOURCING DESIGN In the first and perhaps most common incarnation, the remodeler has an architect or pool of architects to whom he subcontracts the design work. John Tabor, owner of Tabor Design-Build, in Rockville, Md., is one such remodeler who has worked with the same architect for the last two years. Though simple floor plans for kitchen or basement remodels are still handled in-house by Tabor and his design assistant, the bulk of his projects — usually additions costing around $200,000 — are designed out-of-house. Tabor's architect accompanies him to all client meetings, beginning with the initial visit to a client's home.

Although the architect is ultimately responsible for producing the design, Tabor is constantly involved in directing the process. “I'm there to try to preserve the budget,” he says. “The last thing I want is to design something way over budget and then the client decides not to do it. Then we've wasted a lot of our time and their money.”

Using a team of three designers, Jeff Rainey, owner of Home Equity Builders, in Great Falls, Va., has a similar setup. For him, the benefits of outsourcing design are clear: “I'm feeding them plenty of work, but I'm not paying all of the overhead, benefits, and vacation,” he explains. “And when the economy takes a dive like it has recently, lots of people are looking at layoffs. That's a tough thing to face.” By outsourcing, this is one headache Rainey is able to avoid.

Jeff Petrucci, owner of Bloomfield Construction, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., points out the flexibility that outsourcing provides. “We have two different designers — with very different strengths — who we can choose from, depending on the demands of the project,” he says. And, like Rainey, not having to keep a full-time designer on his payroll is a major benefit. “The ultimate advantage of outsourcing,” Petrucci says, “is that if you don't have the job, you don't have to pay them.”

The downside of subcontracting design is, unsurprisingly, that the owner surrenders a certain amount of control. “My biggest gripe is that sometimes it takes a lot of time to get revisions back,” Tabor says. “The architect may be dealing with a dozen other people, too, some of whom may be feeding him more business.”

Petrucci has encountered some of the same problems. “Outside architects can be a little less available,” he admits. “But I won't use a guy who won't call me right back. I've had those people work for me, and I don't work with them anymore.”

The key, as in any professional relationship, is to find a reliable architect or group of architects who work well with your company, and stick with them. Nurturing those relationships will strengthen your processes and cut down on unpredictability.