In June, six design/build remodelers met at the site of the Andersen inHOME, overlooking the mountains of the Park City, Utah, ski resort. The occasion was a series of roundtable discussions among architects, builders, and remodelers to follow up on research, sponsored by Andersen Windows, to gauge the influence of design on American housing and explore the extent to which design affects business decisions. The three surveys (and a fourth that polled housing consumers) were broadcast via e-mail and the results tabulated and analyzed by The Farnsworth Group, an Indianapolis-based research and consulting firm. Highlights from the roundtable discussions are presented here.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, even as wisdom among remodelers held that homeowners would never pay design fees, a few firms were moving in the direction of design/build. Says Mark Richardson of Case Design/Remodeling, one of the early practitioners, “I remember giving talks to remodeling groups and feeling like they were going to throw apples and tomatoes at me, saying, ‘It's impossible to charge for design.' I said, ‘We're doing it this way, so clearly it's not impossible.' But I think what's happened is over the last 20-some years, there's been an acceptance on the part of the homeowners to value the design/build process as a way of doing business.”

A combination of factors — including homeowner/consumer pressure, a desire on the part of remodelers to be more in control, and changing governmental antitrust regulations that opened the door for competition among professionals — led more remodeling firms to team up with architects and professional designers.

“In the '70s we got to be pretty good designers,” says Tom Kelly. “And we got really tired of seeing designs that we were doing for free getting built by other contractors. We'd design the job, get the client a price, and they'd go price it out with other people and we'd lose the project,” he says. “That was a big motivator for us to start charging.”

Back row, from left: Ken Klein, Frank Spivey

Front row, from left: Tom Kelly, Susan Cosentini, Tom Swartz, Mark Richardson
Back row, from left: Ken Klein, Frank Spivey Front row, from left: Tom Kelly, Susan Cosentini, Tom Swartz, Mark Richardson

But what is design/build? On the most basic level, it's a project delivery system whereby contractor and architect work together as a team. Yet even among the practitioners who participated in this discussion, the characteristics of the design/build model vary. Some have architects in-house, some work with a pool of local architects, depending on the needs of a job. Richardson says there are no rules of the game. It is, he says, a business strategy. Ken Klein says, “It's not a profession; it's a process.”

Yet all agree on the benefits of design/build for the client and the remodeler. They speak about the level of control that design/build firms have because all the processes are essentially under one roof.

That control helps “to create some element of predictability,” Richardson says. “When you control the process, when you can manage a pipeline, when you know that in January when I sign this preliminary design fee and I know statistically that 72% of these become construction within 4.5 months, now all of a sudden, when I pile a whole bunch of these numbers together, I can create a business model that has predictability.”

From a consumer's perspective, having a single source of responsibility is an advantage and a convenience. “They don't have to worry about their relationship with the architect and their relationship with the contractor,” or how well those two are getting along, Kelly says. “It is much more of a solid relationship for [homeowners] to have just one entity to deal with and a team of people who are working together toward a common goal.”

The client-remodeler relationship also is not confrontational in design/build. “When clients get three bids and they're dealing with the low bidder, they're dealing with a contractor whose goal was to get that job for the least,” Kelly says. “So there's an automatic adversarial relationship because [the remodeler's] interest throughout the project is to keep control of their costs, which they [lowered] to compete. The interest of the client and the contractor are in a different direction.” In design/build, he adds, “all of our interests are the same.”

Richardson points out that the design/ build process is lower risk for a consumer. When clients work with an independent architect, “historically a relatively small percentage of those projects get built,” he says. Why? “In large part it's because you told the architect originally you wanted to spend $100,000 and it ends up coming to $200,000.”

Participants agree that architects don't always have a handle on budget and costs and make promises a remodeler can't keep. In the design/build process that's not an issue, because tracking the cost of construction is an integral part of the design process.