The Passiv Report

Improving commercial construction projects with design-build

As a builder and architect, I’ve been doing design-build work for 30 years. I grew up building, so I’m a builder at heart. Later I got my architect’s degree and license, but the reason I don’t just practice architecture is that I want my designs built right. At my company Structures Design/Build, design-build ensures that our projects gets delivered to both the owners’ and my specifications. If something gets installed wrong during the course of construction, it is our responsibility – and ours alone – to fix it. Passiv Science was established to help teams of designers and builders repeat our firm’s success delivering fully integrated design-build projects in commercial construction.

In a previous post I described several ways that commercial construction projects are delivered. Some of these methods might be referred to as “design-build,” but they vary quite a bit in how the contract is written, how the project gets built, and how the owner interacts with the process. In my view there are important advantages and disadvantages to the various approaches.

Trust trumps contracts. As I wrote earlier, when a commercial construction project gets built to everyone’s satisfaction, it has little to do with how the contract was written, and everything to do with the people involved. A competent team — owner, builder, architect, subcontractors — that works well together with a high degree of trust will deliver a great project regardless of the contract. It’s when a project goes south that the structure of the contract comes into play. Here I’ll describe how the various delivery methods can either facilitate or impede productive problem-solving.

Team build. The first method I call the “team build” approach. It’s not actually design-build, since the owner contracts separately with both the architect and the builder. (Team build is basically the same as a design-bid-build; the only difference is that there’s no competitive bidding by GCs, and often few sub-contractor bids.)

The limitations of team build show themselves as soon as there’s a problem — say, something that wasn’t detailed clearly on the drawings. If it’s a small mistake and costs only a few hundred dollars to fix, often the builder will just absorb it to keep things moving.

But if it’s a matter of tens or hundreds of thousands — for example, if the foundation design is found to be inadequate and underpinning is required — what typically ends up happening is that everyone circles the wagons; the builder points the finger at the architect, the architect either blames the builder or says “oops” with a shrug of the shoulders, and the owner ends up holding the bag and paying for everyone else’s mistakes. For standard construction, team build can be an effective delivery method, but for “bleeding edge” projects it rarely is.

Typical design-build. Clearly the team build approach may not serve the owner well in Passive House projects; there’s too much potential for conflict. With the second method, which I call “typical” design-build, the owner contracts with either the builder or the architect, and the builder contracts separately with the architect — or the architect with the builder. While this reduces the number of parties the owner has to deal with, there are disadvantages.

When the builder holds the contract with the owner, the architect works for the builder, and the owner may not get the full benefit of the design services. Because the builder controls the architect, some of the best advice may never get through to the owner, or the builder may even change some of the best-practice details on the drawings.

Though rare, sometimes the opposite is true — the architect contracts with the owner and hires the builder. In this case, the owner may not get the full benefit of the builder’s expertise in building cost-effectively. An architect-controlled project will typically end up costing more than it would have if it were delivered in a truly integrated fashion.

True design-build. With true design-build, the third approach (and the one Structures Design/Build uses), the builder and architect belong to the same firm, and work together as co-equals along with estimators, project managers, and site supervisors. The owner contracts with a single entity — the design-build company — but gets the full benefit of a team of design and construction experts. The design-builder is responsible for delivering the project on time and on budget, as well as meeting the aesthetic, performance, and energy-efficiency goals. When problems arise, there is no need for defensive posturing between different parties. Instead, the design-build firm solves the problem internally, calling upon subcontractors as needed. Ultimately the design-build company is solely responsible to the owner for successful project delivery. Of the three methods described here, true design build is best at protecting the owner’s interests.

I also wrote previously about a fourth delivery method, relational contracting, in which all parties — owner, architect, builder, even subcontractors — join together to share liability and profitability for a project. This is a different animal, the cutting edge of project delivery, and is still rare. Teams that can deliver successful projects with relational methods, especially complex ones like Passive House, will undoubtedly be in demand in the future. I will write about relational contracts in the future, and describe how Passiv Science uses elements of this approach to help teams of independent contractors and designers collaborate effectively.

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