Design-Bid-Build vs. Design-Build?

It’s a pretty common question for homeowners considering a renovation, “Should I hire an architect and go the traditional design-bid-build route, or should I hire a design-builder?”   The answer typically depends on a number of factors, including your budget, the complexity of the project, and your design aspirations for the finished home.   Many of our clients interview both architects and design-builders when considering their options.  Both have benefits, and both have liabilities.  We hope this summary helps as you prepare to begin your project.


The traditional model of hiring an architect to design your project, conduct a bid, and help you select a builder can lead to higher design fees and a longer project delivery period, but those liabilities bring with them several benefits.  Hiring a design professional typically leads to a more thorough design process.  While this generally requires more participation from you, it results in a design that is truly customized to your lifestyle, your family, your entertaining habits and your personal needs.  This process ensures that you are meeting the goals your project and maximizing the results relative to your budget.

An expanded design process also typically results in more developed and detailed drawings and specifications.  These documents are necessary to conduct a thorough bid process, and ultimately become your protection during construction, as they will be the basis of your contract with the selected builder.  A less thorough set of plans and specifications may leave the door open for change orders, misunderstandings, and other issues that can increase the cost and duration of the project.

Both the builder and the architect are working directly for the owner in the typical owner-architect-builder relationship.  This means they are both motivated to serve your interests, rather than one another’s.  During construction, an architect helps you manage your relationship with the builder.  This includes scheduling payments to keep the builder funded, but properly motivated to complete the work in a timely manner as well as reviewing the work for compliance with the project intent and design.


The idea behind design-build is generally sound:  When the design and construction phases of a project are performed by a single entity there are efficiencies realized, and those efficiencies can generate a lower project cost for the home-owner, as well as a guaranteed / fixed project cost and duration.  If the designer and the builder are one and the same, they can get by with less documentation and a specification that includes only those products and materials with which they are most familiar.  This is likely to speed up the project, streamline the decision-making process, and allow the budget to be fixed early in the design process.

While the concept makes sense, the practice is not always perfect.  Surely there are several qualified design-build firms doing great work at a fair price.  Unfortunately, some design-builders are more accurately described as a builder with drafting software rather than a partnership combining professional design and construction services.  This may lead to less inspired solutions, a less thorough design process, and fewer drawings and specification documents to protect you during construction.

Another potential liability is that the design work is typically begun only after a hefty deposit is paid, committing you to the design-builder before you have a sense of what the project will look like, and exactly what it will cost.  In many cases design-builders will fix a guaranteed project cost prior to beginning design, which can protect you from growing costs, but this often leads to compromises in the project scope or size to stay below that cap.

Different project delivery methods will result in different outcomes.  Depending on your goals and factors such as budget, timing, quality of materials and design, the traditional owner-architect-builder relationship associated with Design-Bid-Build may offer a better balance of quality design, cost control, and risk protection than the more economical route of Design-Build.

– Shawn Buehler, Principal

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