Debating the Value of Design/Build


The recent AIA Custom Residential Architects Network symposium, which took place in my hometown of Austin, Texas, Oct. 2-4, was a rounding success judging from the attendees’ enthusiasm for repeating the event next October in Indianapolis.

Of the many seminars and gatherings during the weekend event, one of the highlights was a bus tour of select homes from the local AIA Home Tour. Most agreed that this was one of the best-run tours (now in its 24th year) and exhibited Austin’s forward-thinking designs.

The symposium featured terrific presenters and topics. Among them was a two-hour seminar on BIM presented by principals of two top architect-led design/build firms: James Walbridge, AIA, from San Francisco, and Stuart Narofsky, AIA, from New York City. Not your cut-and-dry presentation; everyone was blown away with the product and high level architectural design and implementation from these two architect-led design/build firms.

Both architects did a great job discussing the benefits of using ArchiCad and Revit, among many other tools used to communicate their designs. Interestingly, the discussion quickly turned to that of design/build. It was reaffirming to me to see such enthusiastic response to the magic of residential design/build from a national audience of residential architects.

It was phenomenal to see the high level of architectural detailing that these design/build firms were able to achieve in an environment in which the distance between the designer and the craftsman is shortened by virtue of the organization of the single firm. These two firms are representative of the modern-day quintessential master builder.

Among the many other great seminars targeted specifically to residential architects was a final wrap-up session, in the format of a roundtable discussion, moderated by RD+B’s editorial director, Rob Heselbarth. Paneled by three of the seminar presenters, including Dale Mulfinger, FAIA, from Minneapolis, James Walbridge, AIA, from San Francisco and Harold (Bud) Dietrich, AIA, from Tampa. Design/build practices were one of the subjects that lingered for a long time on the floor.

The questions and comments ranged from liability issues, client relations, contractor relations, conflicts of interest, and largely, the role of the architect in a design/build firm.

It wasn’t until the word Realtor was brought into the discussion that several people erupted and started to share stories of having to compete with Realtor-organized design/build companies. As the discussion continued to heat up, and I couldn’t resist jumping in to comment. I reminded the group that while design/build seems to be a source of aggravation for some architects, people have been extremely successful for many decades in the commercial arena putting together these teams under the name of “real estate developer.” It’s only a matter of time before the custom real estate industry begins forming great design/build teams. Realtors are well-positioned to understand customers, to know the market and how to market a company.

DESIGN/BUILD practices were one of the subjects that lingered for a long time on the floor.

We have to recognize that, in the end, it will be whoever appeals most to the client that will determine which entity will lead the next project. After many years of experience and many conversations with home builders and architects, I have come full circle to the conclusion that running a design/build company requires an individual with a good right- and left-brain combination, and most importantly a keen sense of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs can come from many different disciplines to achieve success in the design/build arena. I am the first to push for the architect-led design/build entity (see October issue), and I continue to believe that architects are well trained for this endeavor. This discussion, however, brought me to the realization that ultimately it goes beyond selling a trade or craft; it’s about a consortium of professionals delivering an end product. The bottom line is that a successful design/build entity will inherently be led by a good entrepreneur.

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