Architect vs Design/Build for home extension/remodel and cottage
November 16, 2018 8:40 AM   Subscribe

We are interviewing firms to design our home extension/remodel and backyard cottage. We have narrowed our short list down to two - a design/build firm and a traditional architect that makes plans to be bid out by contractors. How to decide between the two?

The costs for the planning phases are comparable, they are both super awesome to interact with, both have worked a lot in our our neighborhood and are familiar with the neighborhood character, both are experienced with backyard cottages and ADUs, and both get glowing reviews from clients. I've read articles on pros and cons of the different types of firm but they all seem to be written by firms themselves, not actual clients. So I'd love to get your insight on working on a large-scale project like this , why you picked the type of firm you did over the other type, and what were the pros and cons of each type in your experience. Location is Seattle, WA.
posted by matildaben to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Design/build is one less step for you to have to worry about because you don't have to find a separate contractor to do the actual construction. The people building it will know what the designers meant and (hopefully!) will be less likely to misinterpret the plans.

Our contractor also took one look at the plans and said "well, I don't actually have any experience doing a wood stove through a green roof, how 'bout a wall heater?" and got to the kind of windows that the architect told us to pick out, and then said "actually I can't install used windows it's more trouble than it's worth" and went out and bought new ones. Our eave/overhang, ended up like a foot shorter than designed because they misread the plans.

I bet you get some of this with a design/builder but probably not to the same degree. On the other hand, they still built a solid house. And it was probably cheaper than going with a design/builder.
posted by aniola at 9:16 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd go with the design/build team since 'pure' architects, IMO, tend to be on the Ivory Tower side of things and that can cause headaches when it comes to the nuts and bolts and nails of construction. Is the building department going to require any engineering? With the Architects, that's probably going to require yet another sub.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:16 AM on November 16, 2018

Another vote for Design/Build. I faced a similar question last year, and went with Design/Build team; the Architect had plans that were more in line with exactly what I wanted, but I needed built and livable more than I needed "dream". Design/build team also had solutions on the more practical side where the architect has more "clever" (which ugh I would have loved, but honestly practical is probs better in the end). Design/build team would tell me things like "here's the exact part numbers, put up a google alert and buy on line by this date" for high end fixtures, while architect attached a 9% commission to everything they sourced. YMMV significantly based on your priorities though!

Architect would have been better if I had more budget and time. I would have loved some of the clever/pretty solutions to be implemented. *sigh*
posted by larthegreat at 11:46 AM on November 16, 2018

I’m a residential designer and often get asked this question. I try to design to a client’s budget and tastes and when called upon during the build process can advocate for your needs or “translate” between you and the contractor and vice-versa. I’ve had experience where a contractor wants to do X but doesn’t realize that the solution compromises Y. if a client lets me know about some of these decisions, I can be the third party that makes it all come together. With design-build, the one criticism I hear on those projects is client getting talked in to things that ultimately improve the bottom line for the contractor even if later they realize the full effect of some changes negatively. However! As stated above, some projects don’t need a translator and there is a straightforward feel about having your designer and builder in one. Just know that the builder/designer has their eye on their own bottom line as much or more so than your vision.

I have a former client and current friend who is doing a project with a design/build company and I’ve been a little surprised at how little detail is getting presented to her and how little visualization she’s been offered. I show a lot more as I want my clients really involved in the process and to “see” it as much as I can. But every company/designer/architect is different and ultimately it’s their references, their connection to you, and seeing other projects you like in line with your style, scope and budget.
posted by amanda at 11:56 AM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Look at their work, not just the pretty pictures of their work. Talk to (visit) their clients but you will probably not have a clearcut choice. If no dealbreakers emerge from the foregoing research, get each to submit a sketch to your brief (you have a brief right? and a budget?) and make your decision based on that and what you learned in your client visits.

Me? I last built to an architect's design, and because he did a good job if ever there was a next time, I would look to a (carefully selected) architect first. And that was on a very limited budget, with no scope for cost over-runs.
posted by GeeEmm at 1:26 PM on November 16, 2018

Look at the pricing. With design-bid-build, you know what it is going to cost before you let the contract. With DB, not so much.
Yes, there are incompetent contractors. This is why you hire the Architect to perform construction administration. Work not done to Contract Documents doesn't get paid for. But you need Contract Documents that are enforced by someone that isn't also the Contractor.
Used windows? Yah gotta be kidding me. Weather tightness is a very good thing.

An Architect that is familiar with the area and the type of construction you wish to use can also recommend good contractors, or multiple good contractors, that can bid the project. This is called "pre-qualifying" bidders.

Not all Architects practice in residential. You need someone who DOES residential.
(That would not be me.)
posted by rudd135 at 6:51 PM on November 16, 2018

We just moved back into our house after a very extensive redesign and remodel (not quite tearing down and rebuilding the whole house but close). We looked at both design/build firms and an architect + separate builder, and ended up going with an architect. We're super-thrilled with how our house turned out and really glad we went this way. Some specific things that influenced that, though:

1. We had to search a while to find an architect that specialized in remodels at our price point. Most architects focused on much larger houses, and said things like "Oh I think we could probably do the project you want within your budget, that's at the low end but I did it once." In contrast, our architect showed us his 10 years of spreadsheets for remodel costs in our town, and talked through how they estimated costs when they were designing a remodel. Their cost estimates attached our final design were pretty much on-the-nose for what the three builders that bid came in at.

2. We have coworkers and friends who have used design+build firms in our town, and most agree that you're paying a 10-15% premium to go that direction. It's basically a premium for lowering the stress and decision-making on the owner, who doesn't have to referee disputes between the architect and builder. That aligned with what we suspected, based on what design+build firms showed us in terms of remodels they had done at our price point - it seemed like owners got less for a certain dollar amount than similarly-scoped projects that the architect showed us. Your town may vary, but I'm guessing this is pretty consistent. My sense is that most design-build firms are primarily building companies that hired architects and designers, and probably not the best architects, so it's workable but not great design. For the amount we were paying for our rebuild, we felt like we wanted to LOVE the house afterwards. We probably would have chosen differently if it was a small remodel or a narrow project.

3. Our builder was great and came highly recommended by our architect, who had worked with him on one project before. Despite that, there were frequent moments of conflict, where the builder thought the design was crazy (or overly fussy) and the architect thought the builder was being sloppy. But overall they worked well together, and I do feel like we got a better house with the combination of the two than we would have gotten with either one alone. And definitely at a significantly lower cost with better design than we would have gotten with a design-build firm.
posted by iminurmefi at 8:39 PM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

About 25 years ago, we (still married to former husband) interviewed a couple of relatively large, well-known (heavily advertised, anyway) design-build firms as we prepared to add a 2nd story to a traditional brick bungalow in Chicago. We left both meetings with a vague wtf feeling, i.e., we were pretty sure that the ideas they had talked about violated basic design principles, even though we didn't know the first thing about the subject. (One was an unfortunate mix of Tudor and Craftsman, the other looked like someone had parked a double-wide on top of a bungalow.)

So, we chose an architect and contractor based on recommendations from friends.
posted by she's not there at 1:07 AM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

We recently had designs done by both.
The design/ build firm gave us a single plan and an estimate and left is no copy to discuss privately.
The architect gave us four different kitchen layouts to play with. And much to our surprise, we ended up going with the most radical that he drew. It has turned our kitchen from very-nice-ho-hum into something uniquea andreally lovely.
The design/build plan was free. The architect probably cost us $1200. You get what you pay for, I guess.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:47 AM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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