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Hiring an Architect vs. a Design-Build Firm

It’s a question that comes up fairly often: “Should I hire an architect and a separate general contractor, or hire a design-build firm as a one-stop-shop to both design and build my space?” There are pros and cons to each; but, before we jump in, let’s pause for a moment and take this conversation more slowly.

December 10, 2020

This is a tough blog post to write. I’ve had various drafts saved on my network drive for years, and yet never published them.

Here’s the thing: Board & Vellum does many things now — architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, graphic design, even branding — but we most assuredly do not build things. Thinking about how to write a helpful blog post, while staying impartial when the very nature of my business means I’m biased, is challenging.

It’s safe to say we have a friendly rivalry.

Architecture firms and design-build firms routinely poke fun at each other all in good fun. Design-build firms accuse architecture firms of having no idea of how things are really built. And, I like to drop my analogy of a general practitioner and a specialist in medicine: just because my general practitioner could perform surgery on me in a pinch, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t benefit from going to a specialist.

But, joking aside, what are the actual differences? I’m going to take this nice and slow and do my best to keep this informative and objective.

What do you get when you go with an architecture firm?

The traditional model is what we do at Board & Vellum. In this model, you separately interview and hire an architect and a general contractor. Ideally, the party you select first is involved in the selection of the remaining party. You have separate contracts with each, and they work together to check and balance the design and vision of a space with its buildability.

Benefits of Working with an Architect and General Contractor

  • You can assemble a team where you “click” with everyone since they are separate entities you hired individually.
  • You can assemble a specialized team for the specific problem you’re trying to solve. You might find a design-build firm that’s great at construction, but perhaps doesn’t have a person on staff with experience designing the particular kind of project you want to build. When you hire your designer and builder separately, you can find specialists in both.
  • An independently-contracted architect can help review your contract with a general contractor and provide insight into how their pricing and contract compares to other firms. This added benefit is a quality check and insurance policy for you.
  • Since your architect is hired directly through you, they can provide insight on the construction site and assurances that things are being built per the design they helped you develop. That isn’t to say design-build firms wouldn’t be performing these checks themselves — our friends at design-build firms are reputable and honest — but an independent set of eyes is always helpful.
  • Architects and general contractors refer work to each other, so there’s an incentive for each party to keep you happy. From the architect’s side, if a contractor wants to work with us and have us recommend them to our clients, they have to understand the importance of being fair and honest. If they aren’t, we stop referring work to them – simple as that.

Challenges of Working with an Architect and General Contractor

  • For some small projects, it’s overkill to have so many players on the team. Sometimes, you just don’t need the specialized team and that’s totally fine.
  • That independent set of eyes that a separate architecture team brings does cost a small premium.
  • We like working with most of the general contractors we work with and all of the ones we recommend. At the same time, with two teams that don’t work together every day and have different approaches or goals, there can be challenges in communication that can turn adversarial. This can slow down the process and turn it sticky. Good communication and trust go a long way when collecting your team.
  • A lot of architects and architects-in-training spend years working before they’re out in the field and actually understand how things are built. Firms like Board & Vellum try to circumvent that by bringing less-experienced staff on-site as much as possible, but we’re still seeing less than a designer in a design-build firm. That level of continuity isn’t something we can always bring to the table.
  • An architect’s knowledge of construction costs is always 6 to 9 months behind. We see trends on costs per square foot but aren’t in the trenches like contractors and construction workers when it comes to seeing weekly pricing shifts. This can certainly be mitigated by careful research and project cost tracking, but architects simply aren’t seeing the day-to-day price fluctuations that might help you understand true construction cost.

What do you get when you go with a design-build firm?

In the design-build world, you interview one firm that does it all: they have a team that designs and, usually, a separate team that builds your project (although it can be the same team). Everything from concept design to pricing to construction is kept within the same firm.

Benefits of Working with a Design-Build Firm

  • You only have to find one firm that you like!
  • Design-build firms are fantastic for smaller projects with tight timelines. When we’re presented with a project like that, we don’t hesitate to recommend the great design-build firms in our area.
  • We hear frequently that working with a design-build team means you get real-time budget information as the plans develop. This should ensure you enter the construction phase of your project with better certainty of the final construction cost.
  • In theory, there are fewer surprises during construction because the design team works closely with the construction team throughout the project. That means changes during construction can be less frequent and solutions can be quickly brought to the table.

Challenges of Working with a Design-Build Firm

  • While you only have to find one firm, you have to ensure you click with both sides of the team. You may end up finding you love the designer but not the person building your house (or vice versa).
  • Similar to the above point, you have less ability to assemble a team where you feel awesome about all of the players. It can certainly happen, of course, and shouldn’t rule out design-build firms as you explore what is going to be best for you and your project.
  • I believe there should be a better understanding of construction costs from day one of the design process, but I don’t always hear that happening even at design-build firms where they’re much more in tune with those costs.
  • On very complex projects, smaller, integrated design and construction teams might not be able to take the time needed to address complicated design challenges. The construction timeline is sometimes set in advance and can’t be delayed. Separate teams can ensure you can take the time needed to perfect the design before trying to move it ahead.
  • As we mentioned before, architects and general contractors refer from a pool of established colleagues with whom they’ve built successful relationships. As large referral sources for each other, we want to maintain good relationships with each other. One homeowner isn’t necessarily the same size of referral pool and it can be easier to burn bridges if you and the design-build firm you hired aren’t working out.

In the end, this comes down to a personal decision. We will frequently refer potential clients to design-build firms when we aren’t quite the right fit for the project type or schedule. They can be a great choice depending on the circumstances. We also, of course, will happily refer work to other architects practicing the traditional model if we aren’t the right fit.

Like any decision in a construction project, I recommend doing your research. Call firms of both types, and see what resonates with you. There isn’t one correct way to do this, and the only wrong way is to go into it all without understanding your options.

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Hiring an Architect vs. a Design-Build Firm

It’s a question that comes up fairly often: “Should I hire an architect and a separate general contractor, or hire a design-build firm as a one-stop-shop to both design and build my space?” There are pros and cons to each; but, before we jump in, let’s pause for a moment and take this conversation more slowly.

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