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Return of the master builder

Design-led design/build enables smaller design firms to reassume a once-familiar role

February 01, 2002 |

From the design and construction of the first pyramids by the Egyptian architect Imhotep in 2780 B.C., until the 20th century, the architect acted as designer and construction manager on building projects. As civilization progressed from the Industrial Revolution through the 20th century, the architect's role as master builder diminished.

However, the growth of the design/build project delivery system is offering designers the opportunity to again assume the role of master builder through a design-led design/-build delivery process.

Smaller A/Es eye process

Design-led design/build is not a new offering for many of the top integrated engineering firms. "The large EPCM [engineering/procurement/construction management] contractors, such as Bechtel and Fluor Daniel, have been doing design-led design/build forever," says Mark Friedlander, a partner in the Construction Law Group of law firm Schiff Hardin & Waite's Chicago office. "They are basically engineering firms with in-house construction management expertise. What's new is that smaller A/E firms are beginning to do it."

Design-led design/build offers the same benefits to the client as the more typical contractor-led design/build process: single-source responsibility, guaranteed price, and time and cost saving. The difference is that the designer is responsible for the contract instead of the contractor. "It simply means that it's the designer who hires the contractor rather than the other way around," says Friedlander.

He adds: "Design-led design/build does not involve cutting the contractor out of the party." While there is profit to be made by the designer in managing the construction phase, Friedlander says there are benefits for the contractor — particularly the smaller contractor and those trying to break into design/build. The contractor does not have to competitively bid the project or expend marketing resources to share in the profits with the designer.

Other pluses of having the designer lead the project are that the designer often has a closer relationship with the client than the contractor, and may be better versed in issues regarding quality. In 1998, in a bylined article that appeared in Contract Design, Rob Busler, vice president and director of architecture for HNTB's Washington, D.C., office, made the case for the designer's return as master builder: "The architect has an overriding commitment to quality, time and cost — in that order — while remaining sensitive to cost implications as they relate to project quality and return on the client's investment."

"Architects are good at making decisions that bear on the aesthetic and functionality of buildings," says Kevin Kemp, principal of DLK Design & Build of Chicago, a management company started by the 30-person DLK Architecture in 1996. "Throughout the course of a project, changes are required that affect a building's aesthetics and functionality. As designers, clients feel comfortable that we'll make the right decisions when the time comes."

The designer's knowledge of building operations makes it a viable candidate to lead a design/build project, according to Betsy Downs, president of OWP/P Design/Build, the 31/2-year-old design/build arm of the Chicago-based A/E firm. "Through our understanding of the operations of a facility, we can work with the contractor to minimize disruptions," she says.

Schedule drives client requests

Design firms such as OWP/P and Baltimore-based Gaudreau Inc. say they began providing design-led design/build services at the request of their clients. William L. Gaudreau, principal of Gaudreau Inc., says his A/E firm created its separate design/build entity, Gaudreau/CM Inc., in November 1997 at the request of a client for which the firm was designing a genetics research facility. "They said they needed the building completed in March 1998 and asked us to do it," says Gaudreau. "So, we used an American Institute of Architects design/build contract and formed the company."


OWP/P Design/Build led the effort to renovate the company’s Chicago headquarters.

Scheduling, according to Gaudreau, often drives design-led design/build. Because of a lack of in-house expertise, or because their businesses are growing so rapidly, owners often aren't certain of their building needs and turn to the designer with whom they've been working to carry the project through to completion.

"The decision to have us lead a design/build project occurs most often after we've already become involved in a project. We may have already done planning, schematic design and cost modeling," says Nicholas Raab, managing principal of HarleyEllis Build, the design/build entity formed in late 1999 by Southfield, Mich.-based A/E HarleyEllis. "By using the design/build delivery system on a project, we can engage a contractor partner early on, which enables us to start construction sooner."

DLK Design & Build, OWP/P Design/Build, Gaudreau/CM and HarleyEllis Build all say they work with a variety of contractor partners of different sizes with which they have established relationships. Formal design/build agreements are signed with each contractor that spell out the terms of how design-led projects are to proceed. The designer signs a contract with a client, usually for a guaranteed price and delivery date, and is responsible for the project's budget and completion.

Though most integrated EPCM firms carry their own bonding capability, smaller design firms often use their contractor partner's capacity to bond a project. "The major construction risk flows through the architect to the contractor," Friedlander says.

"Most bonding companies call the policy a 'dual obligee,' meaning it bonds both the design/builder and the client," says Gaudreau.

The risk assumed by the designer is a reason why firms typically limit the size of their design/build projects to about $15 million. "It has to do with the amount of risk that we feel comfortable taking at this time," says OWP/P's Downs, who adds that one of the company's goals for 2002 is to begin performing design-led design/build projects of larger dollar value.

"We'll look at anything," says DLK's Kemp. "It depends on if we feel we have the right contractor to do the job."

Design-led or not design-led

Most design-based design/builders agree that not all projects lend themselves to design-led design/build. Complex projects with tight schedules and projects that emphasize aesthetics and functionality are most appropriate. High-tech, research facilities, campuses and business parks, and reconstruction and renovation projects are all good candidates for design-led design/build.


Atlanta-based Heery International used its integrated professional services to renovate and expand the McCoy Stadium minor league ballpark in Pawtucket, R.I.

However, design-led design/build has its detractors. "I don't believe design firms can lead design/build," says Jim Moynihan, president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta-based design, engineering and construction management firm, Heery International, whose at-risk construction management business has delivered $500 million in design/build projects in the last four years. "Designers are an integral part of the team, but not the leader. In design/build, you're working with tight budgets and schedules, and have to have experienced people who understand budgets, unions, and deal with regulatory agencies."

Because of their reliance on the contractor for bonding and risk reduction, Moynihan questions whether designers are truly the ones leading their design/build projects. "Those who assume the risk are the ones that run the project," he says.

While firms such as Gaudreau and DLK would disagree with Moynihan's assessment, a question remains as to why all design firms aren't jumping on the design-led bandwagon. "The main reason that it hasn't grown faster is that there aren't enough people leading it or teaching it," says Friedlander, who adds that in Chicago, for example, the practice is a major delivery method.

"I'm not sure that all architects want to get into design-led design/build," says Gaudreau. "We like the master-builder concept, and we offer it because it offers an advantage to our clients."

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