How buildings really get built

August 11, 2010

Who decides how a building gets designed and built? The architect? The owner? The contractor?

There are those who declare the owner to be all-powerful. After all, who's paying the bill?

Others believe that only the architect can be considered the true soul of any building, for without a design, how could there be a structure in the first place?

Still others side with the contractor, who must transform the architect's vision into a physical entity, while keeping the job on time and within budget for the owner.

The answer to the conundrum of how buildings really get built is, of course, that it takes all three parties — architect, contractor, owner. Depending on the phase of the construction process, each will have a greater or lesser role in the decision-making process. But no matter where the project stands in terms of completion, all three players continue to influence its design, construction, and implementation throughout every phase of development.

This assertion is borne out by the latest research conducted by this magazine's parent company, Reed Business Information. A few months back, 310 individual Building Team members participated in 30-minute-long telephone interviews on the building process.

The respondents came from design firms (32%), contractor firms (34%), and owner firms (34%). Geographically, the sample was carefully balanced to represent the U.S. nonresidential construction community.

More than half (56%) worked for firms that did more than $50 million in design and construction fees in the last year; 41% were from organizations that did more than $100 million in that time frame. Their projects were also fairly balanced: 44% commercial structures, 30% institutional, 22% industrial, 4% other. In sum, a representative sample of Construction USA.

Sharing the burden

The responses show clearly that the task of building a commercial, institutional, or industrial structure is very much a collaborative process. As is to be expected, architects are seen to have a greater role at the beginning of the process, from Feasibility & Programming through to Construction Documents, while contractors have a more decisive role in the last two phases, Bidding & Negotiating and Site Construction. Owners wield their greatest influence at the Feasibility & Programming stage, which makes sense, since they're the ones with the cash, and they continue to press their demands right through to the Site Construction phase.

The most remarkable aspect of this power struggle is that nobody gives up. At every stage of development, each of the three key forces keeps exerting pressure on the decision-making process. This tug-of-war extends into the choice of services, the types of materials and products, and even the brand names of materials and products. At each phase, one party might have the upper hand, but the others keep putting their two cents in.

It's a messy process, but when it works right, it results in great projects — the kind we strive to feature in these pages.

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