Several years ago — in 2000, to be exact —
we became a full-service design-build company. Previously we
had worked collaboratively with several architects we knew well
and trusted but who contracted directly with the owner rather
than with us. I eventually realized, however, that we were
missing some opportunities for tighter coordination and
improved services by not bringing everything under one
contract. With just one person in charge, we could be more
accountable and better organized, and hit our budgets and
schedules more reliably.
In this article I'll share some of the lessons we've learned
over the last seven years of design-build work. We still have
much to master — if only I live that long.
Accountability Is Clear
When I present the design-build concept to prospective
clients, the most powerful argument I can make is that this
approach guarantees a single, crystal-clear line of
accountability. If anything goes wrong at any point in the
process, the client has just one person to point a finger at:
As masochistic as it sounds, I like it that way. If we make a
mistake, I make sure we fix it. No finger-pointing, no
arguments, no gray areas. This has real resonance for
homeowners. In fact, it's often at this point in our
conversation that the sale is closed, for all intents and
purposes, and we switch from "whether" to "when."
The key, of course, is to back up that sales pitch with
Too Much Trust Can Hurt
With design-build, that accountability is enormous. Clients
enter the design-build relationship with an unusually high
level of trust — which, though essential, can also be
hazardous. Clients who trust you implicitly sometimes don't pay
as close attention as they should, and may end up surprised by
what they actually signed on to. In other words, their trust
may be so high that they're convinced you're reading their
minds and giving them exactly what they're imagining, even if
they haven't explained it all that thoroughly. This can cause
real problems for you when the reality hits home.
I've learned to view as a red flag anything that seems too
easy in the sales process. You don't want a busy, preoccupied
client signing a construction contract just to move things
along. Yes, it's tempting to simply get the signature and close
the deal, but you need to slow down: Set up a meeting to review
the documents, make sure the clients really understand the
package, and then get the signature. You won't regret it.
Design Is for Designers
The design process needs to have its own integrity. Design is
more than a sales tool for the construction side of the
business or a hobby that the contractor indulges in to fill his
evenings — and it's about more than just features,
square footage, and moving product out the door. It's a
legitimate, valuable service, and it needs to be its own profit
I see too many contractors calling themselves "design-build"
without taking the effort to provide a bona fide design
service. Good design requires training, experience, and talent
— attributes that, admit it or not, few contractors
Charge for the Whole Package
Good design demands a serious commitment from not only the
company, but also the homeowner. Thorough, careful design and
planning take time, and the client will have to pay for that
We charge hourly for design work; typically the whole package
of design, engineering, and product selection costs 10 percent
to 15 percent of the construction budget. This seems in line
with traditional architectural firms, which often cite a 15
percent fee (though design costs, like construction costs, can
be all over the map).
The service we offer is comparable to those offered by
stand-alone design firms — and often more
comprehensive — so I know we're competitive in that
regard. We can't compete on price with the design-build firms
who charge as little as 2 percent of construction costs, but we
don't try to.
One of the first things you learn in construction is that the
more you try to compete on price, the longer it will take to
create a viable business. This holds for design services as
well. Telling clients that design-build is a way to save money
on design is one of the weakest arguments you can make
— it sends the wrong message about the value of design
at your company. In my experience, you're better off charging
full market rate for design services and then making sure that
what your clients get for that fee is far superior to what
they'd get from other firms in your price range.
Don't Forget Why The Client
Remember that "design service" has two components: design and
service. Of the two, the service part is typically more
important. Design is not necessarily the first thing on
clients' minds when they call you about a project. I wish
people hired us primarily because of the exquisite quality of
our projects, but I have to acknowledge that their reasons
generally have more to do with other factors: We return phone
calls, we vacuum up after ourselves, and we respond to warranty
requests within 24 hours. For most homeowners, accountability
is more compelling than esthetics.
Here's how I know this is true: Even though we team up with
three architects for our work and each has a distinct style,
people rarely care which I bring to the table first. Clients
assume any architect we work with is good; few are seeking a
particular signature "look." Most know only very generally what
they're after — they just want a pleasant, livable
space, with as little hassle as possible.
The general naiveté and ignorance with which many
homeowners start the design process is all the more reason your
design services need to have a real integrity, independent of
the construction phase. These people trust you; don't betray
that trust with a mediocre product.
The Road to Integration
In my ongoing efforts to improve our overall service, one
major challenge I've encountered is the entrenched separation
between "designing" and "building." Despite our attempts to
integrate these two phases, they tend to come across as two
different divisions within one company: Some people do the
design; others build the design. (Still others price the
design.) There's some practical overlap — the lead
carpenter gets up to speed on the job well before it's
scheduled to start, and the architect visits the job frequently
during construction to help with troubleshooting and
interpretation of design intent — but we still haven't
achieved a satisfactory level of integration.
I'm blessed with carpenters — some of them
accomplished artists in their own right — who are
capable of more than the architects typically ask of them. And
our architects are unusually receptive to feedback from the
carpenters, and consult with them as equals. I keep feeling I
should take this talent and mutual goodwill and make the
borders between the disciplines more porous, to create a true
synergy. I try to encourage the carpenters and the architects
to push each other harder both in design and in execution so
that we can offer our clients even more.
It's a fascinating challenge — the sort that should
keep me going for many more years of design-build.
Paul Eldrenkampowns Byggmeister, a design-build
remodeling firm in Newton, Mass.