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Is Design-Build or Architecture-Design the Right Method for Your School, Commercial or Civic Project?
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Is Design-Build or Architecture-Design the Right Method for Your School, Commercial or Civic Project?

If you are a decision-maker or major stakeholder in an upcoming school, corporate or civic building project, one of the key decisions you and your team will be asked to make is whether to do the project via the Design-Build (D-B) or Design-Bid-Build (associated with Architecture-Design) method of project delivery. You should know upfront that both have their pros and cons, and it is important to consider the scope of the project and your specific needs when deciding which method to use.

Put simply, Design-Build is a method where the client has one contract with a single entity – often a general contractor with a subcontracted design team (although increasingly being led by an architectural firm for clients seeking more of a design focus). An ideal Design-Build partnership will bring together the architecture and construction teams right from the start of the project, allowing materials to be ordered upfront and construction to begin earlier. This method provides an opportunity for design and construction to happen concurrently.

In contrast, the more traditional Design-Bid-Build (D-B-B) method means that the Owner will hold two contracts: one with the design team that conceptualizes the project and a second with the construction team. Design must be completed before the contractor can be brought on board. In other words, the timeframes are sequential.

Design-Build Advantages

With a recent survey conducted by the Design-Build Institute of America estimating that approximately 47% of all non-residential construction projects in the public and private sector are expected to use the Design-Build method by 2025, it is clear that the popularity of using this way of building is on the rise. Many owners like having a single point of contact for an architectural design project.

Studies have shown that on a consistent basis the D-B method saves time for the overall project, speeds up construction, lowers costs, reduces risks since the builder is involved from the beginning, improves the ability to work to a budget, and streamlines communication and coordination.

Potential Downsides of Design-Build

D-B is not a panacea for every type of project or client. It has the potential to reduce the amount of input on design decisions and does not offer competitive bidding. This last point means that Owners must have a high level of trust in the entity overseeing the entire project. Owners must feel confident that the firm will select sub-contractors who will provide them with a fair price without sacrificing quality of craftmanship or design. Constant communication with the main D-B contact professional is essential if you use this method.

If it is a construction led D-B team, there is the risk of not pushing forward all the design possibilities of a project in the same way that a direct architect hire might insist upon. The D-B method usually alleviates conflicts between architects and contractors, but sometimes a good, healthy tension between the two can lead to more in-depth explorations of design possibilities.

Many Permutations to Design-Build

As every architectural design project differs, there are also many variations to Design-Build. It can be project specific between an architect and construction firm, or it can be a single company with designers and builders on staff. It can be led by contractors, an integrated firm, designers, developers or be a joint venture.

The bottom-line for me to make sure the D-B method fully works from a design standpoint is no matter what D-B permutation is used the architect should be at the table all the time. This will allay one of the biggest worries that Owners have that the D-B method will give them less control over design issues. This should never be the case. The Owner should always be in control over major design issues. This is why they must insist in being in the loop via ongoing communication with the D-B overseer.

Architecture-Design Advantages

When it comes to Architectural-Design advantages, a main one is that when an Owner hires an architecture firm directly they can be more confident that they have an advocate from the beginning of the project to the end who will navigate all of the design, drawings, and construction issues for them. Along with the potential for greater design input, the Owner can better rely on the architect firm they choose to document the crucial decisions and details of a project.

This documentation helps smooth the way to get all the needed permits and ensures that the competitive bids from contractors will be thorough and complete. This reduces the prospect of additional costs caused by change orders.

Risks of Design-Bid-Build (Architectural-Design) Method

The traditional D-B-B method can create an adversarial relationship between the designer and contractor. It’s easier to blame each other if things go wrong. In the worst-case scenario, this has led to litigation and significant delays. There is a greater chance of not optimizing an architect’s beautiful design if the Owner hires an under-performing or inexperienced contractor who was given the job strictly because of a low bid.

Especially on a civic project, the D-B-B is still the most used method because administrators are usually forced to select the lowest bidder – often without the opportunity to balance whether saving some money is worth hiring a less experienced and talented design-construction team. The D-B-B method is more open to public scrutiny – which can sometimes be a double-edged sword. The public likes the greater transparency of a D-B-B process, but it can come at a cost of selecting a more talented and experienced Design-Build team that can move the project along more smoothly and creatively.

Consider Design-Build and Design-Bid-Build Pluses and Minuses Before Acting

Design-Build and Design-Bid-Build each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Design-Build offers greater coordination and cost savings, while Design-Bid-Build offers more control over the design and increased competition.

Before deciding, it is important to consider the scope of your project, the budget, and your specific needs. Both methods can result in successful projects, but the right one will depend on the individual project.

If you have further questions about whether Design-Build or Design-Bid-Build would be better for an architectural project you are involved with for your school district, commercial enterprise, or for a community civic project, please give me a call at 908-725-7800 or email me at with a question and contact information if you want to set up a time to have an in-depth discussion.

By Marcus Rosenau, Principal, SSP Architects

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