Design-Build Construction vs. General Contractors

Published September 16, 2015 by Whirlwind Team

Have you noticed the hyphenated "Design-Build" phrase creeping up in social media postings and other online sources? It's not a typo. What used to exist as two separate phases: design phase and construction phase are now becoming a more cohesive unit for many construction firms - in both the residential and commercial sectors.

Combining Design and Build Phases Makes Sense

There are several reasons this has taken place. When the design and build phases take place under the same umbrella, several things happen:

  • Construction timelines speed up
  • Costs come down
  • There is continuous quality control from start to finish
  • Owner risk is reduced

Even so, there are situations where a more traditional general contractor scenario will be best.

Here is a review of the pros and cons of using a company that integrates the design/build process versus a general contractor who requires separate plans from an architect and/or designer to begin construction.

Pros and Cons of the Design-Build Construction Approach

The Design-Build Institute of America states that nearly 40% of all nonresidential construction projects use a design-build (DB) approach. As metal building and other prefabricated construction models continue gaining popularity for homeowners, there will be a rise in this approach in the residential market as well.

Pros Include:

  • Faster project finishes. The less hoops there are to jump through, the less complicated the process is, and the less time it will require to come to completion. By choosing a construction firm that provides in-house engineers, architects and contractors - the build-out is streamlined from start to finish. DB projects are typically completed 33% faster than their traditional building counterparts.
  • Serious cost savings. Nothing is worse for your relationships with your clients, or your company's brand, than coming in over budget. If this has been a regular concern for your company, consider that DB projects typically enjoy about a 12% cost savings when compared with more traditional methods.
  • Unified quality control. With a DB approach, quality control happens under the same umbrella, from start to finish. This is very different from typical construction models where QC occurs more randomly, in different phases and by various entities. A more streamlined QC process results in a lack of disputes between designers and builders as well as less risk for the building owner.

Cons of Design-Build Construction:

  • Less creativity. If you have a highly-custom project, you may want to stick with more traditional methods. Most DB firms will not be able to offer high levels of creativity or innovative designs considered more "outside the box."
  • Fewer customized choices. In some cases you may have a specific architect or engineer you want to work with on your design. This won't be possible using a DB firm since they keep everyone in-house and do not typically contract with outside entities.
  • Limited checks and balances. When you work with a separate architect and builder, you can benefit from the objective opinions from a range of professionals. Perhaps your contractor will point out he has seen Idea X happen in a different way, at which point you can go back to your architect to discuss it. Similarly, your architect may advise that the contractor take a different approach with a particular feature. Traditional methods also provide additional means of checks and balances for things like contract negotiations, change orders and even payment requests. This same level of checks and balance won't exist with DB projects.

Pros and Cons of Traditional Design, Bid & Build Construction

One of the greatest advantages of traditional design, bid and build approaches is tighter control over who designs the building as well as how it is designed. This is one of the reasons why DB projects reign in the commercial world but are still playing catch up in the residential world. For projects that require more artistic, creative or innovative license, designing the building first and then putting it out for bid may still be the best approach.

That being said, there are disadvantages to separating the design process from the construction process.

  • Time and money. In almost all cases it will take longer and cost more to separate these phases since there are more people, steps and payment requests required. It can take weeks to get project bids back, to compare/review the bids and you may still have to re-submit bids before ever breaking ground on the project.
  • Greater owner risk. Establishing who is responsible for what errors can be slippery, resulting in a lot of "he-said/she-said". All of that is eliminated with DB projects.

All in all, the building world is moving ever closer to the design-build model because, at the end of the day, most clients prioritize time and cost over any other factors. 

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