Thinking about building your dream home or renovating your existing home? It is simultaneously an exciting prospect and a daunting task. A typical residential construction project can easily involve 50 people, from the architect, engineer, surveyor and contractor to a multitude of material suppliers and subcontractors, all before you even pick out drapes. So how do all of these people stay on the same page in order to execute your vision? The “old school” way of building your dream home involved hiring an architect, bidding out the plans to a handful of contractors and then going shopping on your own for all of the finishes. This process is sometimes known as “Design-Bid-Build.” Each step tends to exist in a vacuum and there is little collaboration among the participating parties. The contractor usually has no involvement at all during the design phase and frequently the contractor and architect have competing interests. For example, the contractor may be given two weeks to develop a line item estimate from a 10-15 page set of plans with thousands of details to understand. If the contractor misses or misinterprets a detail, he or she could be in a position of requesting a change order or having to absorb additional costs. The architect, as the owner’s advocate, might be inclined to push the contractor to absorb costs that should not be the contractor’s responsibility. While most architects and contractors are able to work through these issues, the point is that the Design-Bid-Build model does not have an inherent collaborative basis.
It is exactly this concern that the Collaborative Construction, or Design-Build, model has become more prominent in recent years.
Collaborative Construction means that all of the parties have a seat at the table from the very beginning. The owner, architect, contractor, engineer and anyone else with a stake in the project (i.e. interior designer, landscape architect) all work collaboratively to assist the owner in developing budget and design goals. Once these goals are understood by everyone, each team member adds their expertise to the process as needed. An architect’s expertise is design, but they typically do not know costs as well as contractors because they do not price labor and materials every day like contractors do. A contractor might have some experience in design, but obviously nowhere near as much as an architect.
Now let’s look at how each of these approaches can affect a real life scenario. The project is a major renovation to a home, which includes a new kitchen and living room that look out onto the backyard.
In the Design-Bid-Build model, the architect designs the back wall of the house to be ten feet tall glass panels that fold into themselves so that the whole back of the house can be opened during nice weather. When the plans go out for bid, the glass wall breaks the budget. The architect then redraws the plans with French doors and sends them back to contractors for bidding. The owner is frustrated because she now has her heart set on a glass wall she can’t afford. The architect has spent extra time drawing the plans twice and all the contractors bidding the project have spent extra time bidding the plans twice. Even if the French doors fit within the owner’s budget and the owner moves forward, the result is a process that took longer, required additional work and effort, and left the owner feeling like she had to compromise in her desires to meet the economic reality of the project. To consider a more extreme example, which happens all too often in this model, plans are drawn with a sole focus on design and no focus on cost at all. Then, when the bids come back way too high, either the entire project has to be redrawn or the owner simply decides not to move forward at all with the project. A set of plans that may have cost tens of thousands of dollars ends up sitting on a shelf, never to become a reality.
What does the collaborative approach to this same project look like? As discussed above, from the very beginning, the architect, contractor and owner, together, identify both design and cost goals. The architect designs within the context of the budget goal, rather than the design driving the budget. The contractor feeds the architect cost information at various points throughout design. For example, architects will often generate schematics, or basic floor plans, before they begin fully dimensioned construction documents to build from. This is a natural point at which the contractor team member can provide rough cost estimates as a check against the owner’s budget goals. A good contractor will know the approximate cost difference between the glass wall and French doors, and would be able to inform the owner and architect early on in the process that the glass wall will likely not fit within the budget. The architect is not too far down the road with design, so changes are easy to make. The owner is not too invested in his glass wall yet, so shifting to French doors at the schematic stage does not have a major emotional impact on the owner. The schematic drawings are easily changed and the process moves forward with very little time lost.
This is a very simplified example of how the collaborative construction approach can benefit the owner as well as all of the other team members involved. In large projects, this process can occur many times throughout the design process. At the end of the design phase, the architect has developed construction documents that are much more likely to meet the client’s budget and design goals and the contractor has a deep understanding of the plans as they move into the final estimate phase. In short, all of the questions are sorted out prior to driving the first nail, rather than solving problems in the middle of construction.
Building a new home or renovating your existing home is often one of the biggest life events you will undertake. It seems obvious that you would want a team of experts guiding you from day one, all rowing in the same direction. The collaborative construction method is by far the best way to ensure a smooth construction process.