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Architect-led design–build

Design-build construction methods, where the designer and constructor are the same entity or are on the same team rather than being hired separately by the owner, began to make a resurgence in America at the end of the twentieth century. Most of these design-build projects were and are led by the contractor, who hires an architect to design its building, which the contractor then builds for its client, the owner.

More recently, some architects have begun to embrace a lead role in the design-build approach. They contract with the owner both to design and to construct a building, and they procure the construction services either by subcontracting to a general contractor or by contracting directly with the various construction trades. Ironically, although the notion of an architect leading a design-build team is considered new and innovative, it is really a return to the construction approach employed for the millennia prior to the twentieth century, in which the architect was the Masterbuilder, rather than merely the designer.

The following definition describes, assesses and compares the architect-led design–build (ALDB, sometimes known as designer-led design–build) process to other, related architectural project delivery methods. It focuses on the architect's role in each method, and characterizes that role in terms of responsibility. Responsibility is interpreted in terms of how much direct contact with the client (building owner) and how much control over the project the architect has, and how much risk the architect bears. The architect's role and responsibilities may change in function of the geopolitical location of the development and other criteria.

This definition of ALDB outlines the broader context of design–build, presenting that as an alternative to the traditional design–bid–build process for making buildings. First, this traditional process is introduced, then the distinct forms of design–build are explained, and from there, the focus narrows to examine specific forms of the architect-led design build method, what distinguishes it, the benefits and limitations, the results that it can achieve.

Of various approaches to making buildings, the traditional design–bid–build process is one in which a building owner hires an architect to design a building and provide a complete set of design and construction documents (drawings); a pool of general contractors bid to deliver the project's construction; the architect is hired by the building owner to aid in selecting a general contractor from those bidding on the job; the architect's set of stamped, completed and approved plans are handed off to the contracted GC, to establish a contractual agreement which binds the contractor to build the building exactly as shown in the drawings, approved plans / blue prints. From the plans/blue prints and under the GC's supervision, the project is built.

Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center, Anchorage, AK, Neeser Construction, Inc.
In 2010, it won the 2010 DBIA Design Build Merit Award for a public sector project over $50 million.
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Phoenix, AZ, Ehrlich Architects
In 2009, it won the 2009 DBIA National Design Build Award for a public sector project over $25 million.
Issues that an architect-led approach to design–build still does not overcome:
Where architect-led design–build imposes:
  • Dynamic: Design–build (or Design/Build, D-B or D/B, or 'DB') is a construction project delivery system in which the designer and constructor are teamed together (or are a single entity) rather than each being hired separately by the owner or developer. If teamed together, the designer and constructor may be in a joint business venture, or one may be the subcontractor of the other.
  • Efficient: Typically led by contractors, 'design–build' has evolved as an efficient way to deliver projects primarily where the building project goals are straightforward, either constrained by budget, or the outcome is prescribed by functional requirements (for example, a highway, sports facility, or brewery). Construction industry commentators have described design–build as a high performance 'construction project delivery system', a dynamic approach to making buildings that presents an alternative to the traditional design-bid-build approach.
  • Single-source: Design–build is growing because of the advantages of single-source management: Unlike traditional design-bid-build, it allows for the owner to contract with just one party who acts as a single point of contact, is responsible for delivering the project and coordinates the rest of the team. Depending on the phasing of the project, there may be multiple sequential contracts between the owner and the design–builder. the owner benefits because if something turns out to be wrong with the project, there is a single entity that is responsible for fixing the problem, rather than a separate designer and constructor each blaming the other.
  • Discovering and prioritizing client's requirements (functional, aesthetic, budget, schedule) to
  • Identifying contextual constraints (technicalities of site, materials, construction methods, neighborhood/cultural mindset, historical meaning)
  • Synthesizing both to define initial parameters and set project direction to assume the best and most complete architectural expression
  • Generating a preliminary design response
  • Drafting documentation for that design that invites and facilitates continuous client and consultant feedback
  • Managing the financials and assuming full fiduciary responsibility over the course of the project with full client transparency
  • Refining progressive iterations of a design from both design and construction perspectives until an optimal outcome, appropriate to the project goals, emerges.
  • Preparing actionable, legible drawing sets that reflect construction-ready and trade-specific details for each trade to refer to, under architect's supervision, on site – and publishing these at the appropriate time in the process of construction.
  • In the master–builder relationship, design and construction tasks were considered inextricable from one another. From the mid-twentieth century on, design and construction contracts, activities and roles were separated from one another as projects became more complex. In response to this complexity, increasingly specialized roles, silo'd by skill, and project management shaped by litigation and risk management, deepened this split.
  • The architect-led approach challenges this "Balkanization" of the building profession, successfully, respectfully, comprehensively reintegrating design and construction tasks and reuniting architecture and construction professionals.
  • The architect leading these complex design–build projects acknowledges that the client requires interdisciplinary – not just multi-disciplinary – teams of properly coordinated, varied specialists to deliver, and these cross-functional teams require active management to collaborate effectively.
  • Serves the owner directly, rather than through the contractor
  • Respects the contractors' craft expertise and time
  • Facilitates a profitable project for all
  • Reclaims his or her own value, and draws on knowledge from a project to feed it back to the profession
  • Facilitates as the "conductor of a work or symphony with only a single performance", advocating the owner's vision, maximizing the subcontractors' construction expertise and brokering the two.
  • Where the primary project goals are design-driven or visionary rather than prescribed by budgetary constraint or functional requirements
  • Where the project is specifically "Capital A"-artistically/creatively driven, in a way that traditionally yields the highest level of cost overruns.
  • Where the efficiencies of design–build approach and an architect's interpretive skill are equally important
  • Speed of completion
  • Single-point responsibility
  • Greater cost savings and earlier cost certainty
  • "Value Engineering" at conceptual stages rather than too late, after project design is complete
  • Better communication
  • Fewer disputes and litigation
  • Higher quality outcomes
  • Clear roles, responsibilities and accountability
  • Less administrative burden
  • Reduced risk to the client (because the design–build entity assumes more)
  • Reduced risk to design consultants and subcontractors which results in lower construction costs, greater efficiencies and fewer litigation claims.
  • Control over costs
  • Streamlined team communication, so less administration, fewer litigation claims, greater market share as more owners choose this approach.
  • Owners remain involved and therefore are able to contribute throughout their projects. Because of process they are able to make informed decisions at the opportune times, which results in better buildings that meet their needs in meaningful ways.
  • Subcontractors are respected as team-members, and can perform their work more efficiently, effectively and profitably. Unknowns in their work are reduced so that they are better positioned to be financially successful.
  • Architects regain control, assert their value in making buildings, ensuring their designs are realized
  • Architects gain and share knowledge in their community of practice
  • Conflict is reduced or resolved at low cost
  • Costs and quality are controlled
  • As more "trouble free" high quality buildings are bid, architects will gain respect and have more impact on the American built environment.
  • Typical project management issues (establishing liability, writing contracts, scoping estimates and schedule) or
  • Variation across different states' licensing laws or
  • Conflict of interest and ethical issues
  • Greater business and financial risks associated with architect taking on general contractor responsibilities
  • Changes to the way architects do business, so they
    • Establish a construction company as a separate corporation that signs a separate construction contract, so they are able to insure and simplify liability insurance coverage
    • Either they have, or are able to acquire, the skills of a design–builder
    • Recognize the parties' different incentives
    • Modify how they prepare Contract Documents, relying more on performance specifications than they do currently, to facilitate substitutions for the benefit of the constructor.
  • Establish a construction company as a separate corporation that signs a separate construction contract, so they are able to insure and simplify liability insurance coverage
  • Either they have, or are able to acquire, the skills of a design–builder
  • Recognize the parties' different incentives
  • Modify how they prepare Contract Documents, relying more on performance specifications than they do currently, to facilitate substitutions for the benefit of the constructor.


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