Design-Build: What It Really Means

So would you choose a two-legged stool over a three-legged one?

Okay, maybe that’s a silly question.  But figuratively speaking, two-legged stools are awfully prevalent in the design-build realm these days.

There’s a common misconception out there that “design-build” equates to contractors that handle all design work in-house with staff designers or architects.  Not so.  While this inflexible design-build model works for some projects, it’s poorly suited for others and can serve clients pretty badly.

Why?  Because it reduces the three-legged stool of project development – client, designer and builder – to two.  The result?  Lack of balance.

Don’t get me wrong, the problem is not inherent to design-build.  After all, we at Hammer and Hand are proud to engage in design-build collaboration.  The problem is with the warping of what design-build really means.

“Design-build” actually refers to a project development strategy in which one entity brings designer, builder and client together to foster collaboration.  Done right, design-build is a streamlined process that facilitates timely, meaningful input by all three “legs of the stool” resulting, ultimately, in a stronger final product.

Put another way, it’s about setting the conditions for effective advocacies.  For a project to meet its full potential and really shine, it requires healthy, empowered advocacies from designer, builder and client – all three realms of project development:

The Designer: Advocates for the way a project’s spaces work and interact with one another, its volumetrics, and its aesthetics.

The Builder: Advocates for safety, efficiency, cost containment, and longevity of the building envelope.

The Client: Advocates for their needs now and in the future, financial realities, and for all the ways they want the building to serve them.

A good design-build process brings all three of these advocacies around one table to work together, advocate for what is important to them, grapple for joint solutions, and ultimately craft a building design that is greater than the sum of its parts.  We’re not talking about the first and easy solution here.  It’s the hard-fought one that finally emerges, stronger in every way for the creative and dynamic process that the three advocacies have fostered and undergone.  True design-build-client collaboration.

The problem with conventional design-build processes that tuck the design function behind the builder’s walls is that it’s no longer a three-way conversation.  The weighing of designer and builder concerns still happens, but behind closed doors, hidden from the client.  In essence, this brand of “design-build” builder absorbs the design advocacy, digests it, and then communicates a simplified version for the client.   The problem is obvious: real collaboration between designer, builder and client can no longer happen.

For smaller, simpler projects, that can be okay – updating bathroom surfaces, a door and window swap, straightforward cabinet replacement, the deck out back.  In fact, we hire a de facto in-house designer for just these sorts of projects.  It’s great for efficiency and economy.  But with more complex projects like full kitchen and bathroom remodels, additions, basement renovations and whole house remodels, the client deserves (and really requires) strong, independent voices to fully represent the designer and builder advocacies.

That’s why we’ve developed close, ongoing relationships with a cadre of independent designers, each of whom offers unique skills and expertise to match each of our client’s needs.  Some projects require a simple draftsperson, others an interior designer, still others a full-scale architecture firm.  Because we do not hire our designers and architects as in-house employees, we’re able to draw on this cadre of diverse talent to match specific client needs with designers’ schedule, budget, design sense, and personality.

So does Hammer and Hand do design-build?  Yes!  But in collaboration with independent designers.  We are the first point of contact for clients to begin project development and we’ll usher you through the entire process from dreaming to construction completion.  We’re passionate about doing project development on a stable, three-legged, designer-builder-client structure.  It’s the best way to live up to John Ruskin’s admonition:

“When we build, let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for.”


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