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Design-build concept helps control costs, temper expectations

The Kingsway Assembly of God Church in Cherry Hill was rehabilitated by The Bannett Group, in one of the architecture firm's many design-build projects.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Many architects know the scenario all too well: They sit down with a client and come up with a dramatic, exciting design for their project, before putting it out to bid for contractors.

When the bids come back, the client finds out they can’t quite afford all of those fancy design features.

It’s why many property owners and architects turn to the so-called design-build approach, a method of procurement that calls for architects and contractors to bid together from the beginning, creating greater predictability and better efficiency in the construction process.

“In design-build, because I can bring the estimators into the project sooner, we can do a sketch, sit down with them, talk to them about what we thinking we’d like to do there,” said Anthony Sirizzotti, vice president of architecture with The Bannett Group in Cherry Hill. “And I can get a dollar amount on that approach and then the client has the ability to make a decision: Do I want to spend my money on this or do I want to save it and spend it on something else?”

It’s a longstanding practice for many design firms, including The Bannett Group, but architects say they’re seeing design-build become more of an option for sectors such as health care, education and religion. Sirizzotti said it’s often for projects in which “it’s a long design process (and) the cost of the project is very important to them, in that they either have a very tight budget or they have long-term fundraising projects that they need to achieve.”

For instance, The Bannett Group recently worked on a $1 million project on behalf of the Kingsway Assembly of God Church in Cherry Hill. The plan called for adding or rehabilitating some 17,000 square feet of space to help the church support its growth, and the firm “worked with them for a long time trying to figure out how to best utilize the funds that they had in hand.”

“(Clients) find that, in design-build, we’re able to get into a project early, come up with a design and a cost and help them with their promotional and fundraising opportunities,” Sirizzotti said. “I find that those types of projects tend to work really well with design-build.”

That’s not to say design-build is the most widespread project delivery method. In its 2014 national survey, the American Institute of Architects found the traditional design-bid-build method accounted for nearly 61 percent of member firms’ activity.

Design-bid projects, meantime, accounted for 16 percent of projects when measured by construction volume. Still, architects say anecdotally that they’re seeing it play a greater role in the industry.

“It’s more and more of a preferred approach, and I think a lot of it gets back to the ability to contain costs from the very beginning of a project through design and construction,” said David Manders of Manders Merighi Portadin Farrell Architects, later adding: “It truly is a team approach, but the system only works when there’s that high degree of trust between the parties.”

Manders, the founding partner of the Vineland-based firm, said there are pros and cons to the design-build approach. From an owner’s standpoint, there is “one source of responsibility for the project and everyone, from the contractors to the subcontractors to the design team, are all working together as one and it’s not an adversarial situation.”

On the flip side, he said, being tied to a single contractor from the beginning can mean “you lose the competitive bidding aspect of a conventional project … so if there’s anything to be gained from that competitive advantage, you don’t see that.” He also noted that some architects feel that it gives up control.

Manders’ firm has been doing design-build work for 25 years, he said, but it’s been largely focused on private-sector clients in fields such as manufacturing, industrial and food processing. To move into the public sector, the firm is now looking to establish relationships with contractors that have a history with public design-build projects.

“(For) the owners, especially in the public sector, one of the first questions they ask is, ‘How long have you worked with this contractor?’” Manders said.

Sirizzotti said The Bannett Group has long sought to gain an edge in design-build projects by having construction professionals in-house. The firm has an estimating department of six people and a five-person project management staff, complementing its eight-person design team.

Control issues

Architects say design-build projects can be either contractor-led or architect-led. According to industry research, the former is more common.

Nationwide, contractor-led design-build contracts accounted for 11 percent of total construction work in 2014, according to the American Institute of Architects’ 2014 Firm Survey Report. Architect-led design-build methods accounted for 3 percent, in a question based on total construction contract value.

The fact that it can go either way is one reason why David Manders, founding partner of Manders Merighi Portadin Farrell Architects LLC, feels some firms steer clear of the design-build method.

“I think you’ll find there are a lot of architects who don’t like the design-build,” he said. “They feel that it gives up control.”

“Those are the people that we bring to the table on every project, so that we have a construction person who’s going to run the project, we have somebody who’s going to bid out all of the costs and the designers,” he said. “And we work together and (have) found a pretty good niche doing that.”

While The Bannett Group has been doing design-build for decades, Sirizzotti said the percentage of design-build projects in its portfolio can vary from quarter to quarter. In the meantime, he said he has seen “an increase in interest in design-build” in the architecture community at large.

“It just depends on the ebb and flow of the work coming in,” he said. “But what I’ve noticed is there are a lot more design build firms out there. There are a lot more people practicing design-build.”

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Joshua Burd

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