Design/build construction is a concept as old as building itself, and the advantages—time efficiency, cost effectiveness, economy of effort—draw adherents from both fields. Follow the design/build trail, and you’ll find endless permutations of the model: builders who design their own projects, builders who employ architects or designers, architects who are also general contractors, and more. Amid this diversity, however, one theme repeats: construction pros finding in the design/build model a vehicle that increases their independence, productivity, and profit.
Building on his Strengths
Phoenix-based architect Andy Byrnes arrived at his successful design/build business model almost purely as a response to market conditions. When he graduated from architecture school in the early 1990s, design firms in Phoenix weren’t hiring, so he picked up a hammer and began to bid on other architects’ projects. His rare combination of design sense and organizational ability quickly earned his company, The Construction Zone, the inside track with big-name residential architects in Arizona and beyond. And with that core business as a foundation, Byrnes established a parallel stream of design/build work.
With more than 20 years of experience in both conventional and design/build models, Byrnes is clear on the strengths of the latter. “If a client comes to me with a reasonable budget, I’m going to come up with a solution that meets it,” he says. “Most architects who are just doing architecture don’t have an immediate grasp of what things cost. They may think they’re designing a $2 million house, but it ends up being $2.6 million. They’ve probably pre-sold how exciting the solution is to the client, and they have to sort of unravel that.”
Design/build also allows Byrnes and his designers to produce drawings on an as-needed basis, rather than up front in an exhaustive bid set. “We’re giving clients enough information so that they understand what they’re buying, our subs enough information so we can get accurate pricing, and the bureaucracies enough information so we can get permits,” Byrnes says. “Eventually, we do all the drawing, but we draw what we actually end up building. Too many architects draw so much stuff, and then still go back and do it differently.”
Peter Taggart, owner of Freeport, Maine-based Taggart Construction, had a more technical reason for integrating design and construction. As an early proponent of green building, he was detailing his houses’ envelopes and energy systems anyway, so it wasn’t a big step to take over design entirely. By the mid-2000s, “we had an architect, an engineer, an energy auditor, and a full-time estimator,” Taggart says, “so we had a preconstruction services team, which we still really like the concept of.” And the concept worked well—until the Great Recession, when the firm shrank from 26 people to eight, Taggart says.
But Taggart didn’t abandon the design/build model. For most projects, he now forms an ad-hoc design/build team by hiring an independent designer whose skills match the client’s needs. On a small project, that might be a draftsperson, Taggart says. “On a large remodel, we might team up with a more experienced designer or a licensed architect.”
Taggart typically handles design on a subcontract basis, but he’s amenable to teaming with an architect who works directly for the client. The important thing, he says, is to have early input on design and budgeting—“to decide on a wall system and a roof system, whether we’re going panelized or using some other kind of pre-assembly option. We want to be involved in the window selection and the energy modeling, and those things happen in the early phases of the design process.”
Working with independent designers can complicate Taggart’s administrative role, but it has distinct advantages over supporting in-house talent. “We can be more diverse,” he says. Depending on the project, “we can select a designer that has a historic preservation background or one who’s more into modern design. Rather than having an employee who wears all those hats, we can partner with folks who are skilled in specific areas.”
Drawing the Line
John Rogers had been in the remodeling business for more than 10 years when he saw the light about design/build. Like many small-scale contractors, Rogers had landed work either by bidding architect-designed projects or by offering clients estimates that included his own design work for free. “I was prototypical of a contractor who had a bunch of good subcontractors and really did a good job for clients,” Rogers says, “but I didn’t make enough money.” Estimating and designing projects at no charge undermined both his profits and his morale.
Tired of spending valuable time chasing projects he might never get to build, Rogers decided to embrace design/build in a systematic way, offering design as a value-added service—and billing for it on the front end. “I’m actually a very good designer,” he says, “but I had to hire an interior designer—my wife, Nicola Rogers—so we could charge for that piece. No one wants to pay a contractor for his design ideas.”
Now, instead of competing for architect-designed work, Rogers offers prospective clients a fixed-price package that includes plans, product selections, and a construction contract. At that point, Rogers says, “if they choose to go somewhere else and have somebody else build it, they can.” But that rarely happens. “We sold 22 design contracts last year, at an average price of $3,300,” he says, “and 20 of them went to construction.”
The lesson is clear to Rogers, and he’s happy to share it with any other remodeler who will listen. “We don’t do anything without a design contract,” he says. But while he notes with satisfaction how much his margins have improved, the shift to design/build yielded a less tangible benefit that may be even more important. “Understanding my own value and value of my time was the greatest thing that came out of this,” he says. “I realized what I brought to the table.”