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How Do I Choose the Right Design-Build Contractor?

Traditionally, construction projects of all sizes have adhered to the traditional design-bid-build model where the project owner first works with an architect to draw up plans and then bids out the building phases to one or more contractors. Recently, the design-build delivery system has become increasingly popular for a number of reasons, and homeowners seeking to remodel their homes are taking notice.

Whether you are planning to add on, touch up a room, or tear portions of your home down to the studs and do a complete rebuild, there are a number of compelling reasons to go the design-build route. But as with any construction project, poor decisions can result in cost overruns and equally costly delays. Here are the key considerations to keep in mind when choosing a design-build contractor for your project.


Know What You are Getting Into

This may seem obvious but choosing the right design-build contractor begins with knowing what the design-build approach is and how it differs from other (more traditional) construction project delivery systems. Understanding the nuances of design-build construction will enable you to zero in on the issues that matter and surround yourself with professionals who understand your needs and expectations.

These are some of the things that you should be mindful of when vetting a design-build contractor:

  • There is only one contract and two parties to it: you and the design-build entity
  • As the project owner, you set the performance standards(i.e., the end results you are seeking) for the build, and it is up to the design-build contractor to design and construct the project according to those benchmarks
  • The impetus is on the design-build contractor to resolve any inconsistencies between prescriptive specifications (e.g., specific instructions given to the contractor by the project owner) and performance standards, but as the project owner, you are responsible for the costs incurred in reconciling these differences

While there are no guarantees in the world of construction, you can get your project started in the right direction by understanding the unique nature of design-build construction and using this insight to partner with the right contractor.

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Control Costs by Securing a Guaranteed Maximum Price

One of the key advantages of going the design-build route, according to proponents of this construction project delivery system, is that overall costs come in lower, and they are not only more manageable but are also known earlier on in the project cycle. This permits important budget-related decisions to occur when the planning phase is still fluid, rather than in the latter stages of a project when changes can be costly.

This being the case, for project owners who are reviewing their design-build team options, one important consideration during the vetting process is whether any of your prospective contractors are willing to provide a GMP, or Guaranteed Maximum Price, for their package of services. If you are able to secure a GMP from your design-build contractor, you will benefit in these ways:

  • The design-build contractor will solicit competitive bids from selected subcontractors to ensure a viable project budget
  • Unlike traditional construction projects where cost overruns are a common occurrence, your project budget will be a clearly defined and hard-capped number
  • If your project’s costs do exceed the agreed-upon GMP, it is the design-build contractor, not you, that will be financially responsible for the overruns

Cost overruns are one of a construction project owner’s biggest worries, but with a savvy approach, you can eliminate this area of concern by securing a GMP from your design-build contractor.


A Successful Project Begins with a Winning Design

The first word in design-build is design, and this is not happenstance. Before an ounce of cement is poured or a single brick is laid, a project must have detailed plans for the build team to follow. Thus, it stands to reason that properly vetting a design-build contractor necessitates a thorough evaluation of the firm’s design capabilities.

Some design-build entities have an in-house architectural team under the same roof as their construction team, while others outsource this valuable service to trusted design partners. In either case, integration of the design and construction facets into the same delivery system from the inception of the project has key advantages compared to traditional construction models:

  • By working together from the inception of the project, the design team can receive real-time feedback from the construction-side of the equation and incorporate efficiencies(cost and construction) into the plans
  • A skilled architectural team can create mock designs early in the project cycle to see how they affect costs and scheduling and pivot seamlessly from one concept to another when necessary
  • A qualified design team can facilitate cohesiveness among the different project teams, in essence providing a detailed road map for all to follow
  • When a change in the designs or plans is necessitated by changed circumstances, it is the design team that must take a leadership position to ensure that the project continues to move forward

The vital role played by a design-build contractor’s architectural or design team cannot be overstated. A solid blueprint not only represents a project’s game plan but also sets the tone for how things will progress from inception to conclusion.

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Properly Vetting Your Design-Build Contractor is a Key Step

When it comes to gathering the right pieces for a successful design-build project, the onus is on you, as the project owner, to choose the right contractor. This necessitates a commitment on your part to going through a thorough vetting process. As with any hire, the interview process will enable you to better understand the contractor’s professional background, experience, and qualifications to lead your project.

These are some of the questions you should be prepared to ask:

  • A rundown of the contractor’s team, including their experience level and fields of expertise
  • The contractor’s design capabilities, including whether the design work will be performed in-house or outsourced
  • The contractor’s responsibilities as far as the construction phase of the project, including which aspects will be performed by their own employees and which will be outsourced to subcontractors

Beyond the face-to-face assessment, crowdsourcing is increasingly becoming an indispensable resource for information, and this certainly applies to vetting design-build contractors. Within a matter of seconds after typing in a firm or contractor’s name, the chances are that an internet search will yield a number of online reviews that can give a good indication of your prospective design-build contractor’s reputation, including:

  • The quality of their work as viewed by previous clients
  • The reasonableness of their rates
  • The timeliness of project completion
  • Their reliability(do they keep their word), accessibility (are they  difficult to reach), and responsiveness (do they address your concerns in a timely manner)

Furthermore, any construction professional who stands by their work should be more than willing to furnish a list of references, and you should absolutely take it upon yourself to contact these former clients to find out how your prospective design-build contractor performed on previous jobs.


Look for a Design-Build Contractor Who is Insured and Bonded

Choosing the right design-build contractor extends beyond the facets of planning and execution. There are important practical considerations that will ensure that your interests are protected in the event that things do not go according to plan, or worse, if something goes terribly wrong.

Do not be afraid to inquire about your prospective design-build contractor’s insurance coverage and whether they are bonded. These are vital measures that will not only provide protection against the unexpected but are also there to protect your personal interests as well. Here are a few key reasons why these are important considerations in your hiring process:

  • A contractor’s insurance policy not only covers job site injuries but also damage to your property and other areas of exposure, such as neighboring structures
  • A contractor’s surety bond provides vital financial protection that the contractor’s financial obligations (e.g., paying for permits, wages, materials, and other liabilities) are met without impacting your own pocketbook
  • These measures also protect you as the project owner by providing financial compensation in the event that the project is halted
  • Another important consideration (and question to ask) is the design-build contractor’s past safety record

Verifying whether your design-build contractor is properly insured and bonded will not only ensure that your project is secure against unexpected circumstances and that your personal interests are protected; it is just plain good business.


Protect Your Project with a Winning Contract

By its nature, the design-build approach combines the design (architectural) and construction aspects of a project and assigns them to one entity that answers directly to the project owner. It is this streamlined delivery system that makes this project management system appealing for reasons relating to:

  • Cost
  • Control
  • Management

But like any working relationship, design-build projects are not immune to disputes and disagreements. Things can still go awry and cause the progress of a home remodel to come to a grinding halt. One major point of contention that occurs from time to time in design-build projects is when the design phase is completed, but the parties cannot agree on key aspects of the construction phase such as:

  • Costs
  • Selection of subcontractors
  • Performance specifications

This is where negotiating a contract that is favorable to you will enable your project to move forward without unnecessary delays. In the case of a design-build project, separating the design aspect from the construction aspect will benefit you greatly. Specifically, see if your prospective design-build contractor is willing to agree to these types of terms:

  • While you will likely execute a single contract with your design-build contractor, separate the design and construction aspects within the framework of the agreement and define them as distinct elements
  • Clearly apportion separate fees to the design and construction phases
  • If your contractor is willing, include a provision stating that as the project owner, you are permitted to seek outside bids for the construction phase of your project
  • Including language stating that you, the project owner, own all the rights to the project designs and plans(this may enable you to hire another construction firm if there is an impasse between you and your design-build contractor following the design phase)

Construction disputes are nothing new. For as long as humans have been building things, they have disagreed on how best to achieve the desired results. Often, these conflicts can be resolved, but by creating contractual separation between the design and build phases of your home remodel project, you can ensure that in the event of an irreconcilable falling-out, your project will still cross the finish line.


Key Takeaways

Choosing the right design-build contractor is not a task to be taken lightly. There are many things to consider and weigh, and the simple fact of the matter is, going with the wrong design-build partner can spell disaster for any project.

Fortunately, with a diligent approach backed by a good understanding of the nuances of the design-build delivery system, you can identify the attributes that matter and take comfort in the fact that you are making the right hire for your project.

Element Home Remodeling is a Design Build contractor located in Mountain View, CA.  We specialize in full home remodeling and home addition projects that are customized to your needs.  Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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