How do I figure out my design?


The current construction methodology of hiring an architect, engineer, construction manager, general contractor and specialized subcontractors has only been around since the beginning of the 20th century. Before this time, including large projects such as the castles, houses of worship and monuments, were conceived, designed and built under the supervision of a master builder. If a master builder died, another master builder would take his place and continue the design and supervision until the building was complete.

Because of advances in engineering, material science and building technology, it was no longer feasible for one person to master all aspects of the design, engineering and construction management and installation. That lead us to the current industry delivery methods. In order to ensure that you’re risk, schedule and budget are kept under control and that you get the end product you want, it is imperative that you as the Owner have an understanding of your basic options and know what to expect with each.

Phase 1: The idea

So you’ve decided to change the layout of your office space, expand your manufacturing space or repair structural issues.  Or, you’ve bought an investment property that needs a major rehab. 

We are going to define “design team” as either an architect, a general contractor who hires an architect, an interior designer or a specialized design team such as an architect with an industrial designer.  Before you reach out to a design team, there are a few steps you should take.

One of the first steps you should take as an owner is to ensure your idea fits your budget.  We wrote a separate article on how to develop a ballpark budget and a more refined budget as you move through the process which you can read here.

Before you reach out to your design team, determine why you are doing what you are doing.  Write out your needs list and the priority of the needs.  Your needs should be needs and not end results.  For instance, your need should be “we want to add a conference room, kitchen and three offices” and not “we want to add 2,000 square feet to our building.”  If you tell the design team that you want to add 2,000 square feet, you’ll get a 2,000 foot addition that will do what you want.  If you tell them that you want to add a conference room, kitchen and three offices, they may be able to configure your existing space and add 1,200 square feet and save you the difference.

In this list of needs, ensure you determine your schedule, budget and quality.  Ensure that you understand which is most important, along with your other needs.  Our article on “What Type of Contract Should I Use?” lays out the

 Phase 2: Determine the build process

Before you start calling an architect or general contractor, decide which methodology of design and construction that you want to use.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach and every method has its own pros and cons.

If you plan on building from scratch, adding space or even moving walls, ensure there is a design professional involved.  Even if visual appeal is not a concern (such as adding space to a warehouse), ensure there is a someone on the team who has design experience.  Have you ever walked through a home addition, office renovation or factory expansion and the rooms, hallways and stairs didn’t flow?  That was built by a contractor and owner who had an idea sketched out and just “went with it.”  Your objective is that once the build is complete, people can’t tell that space was added or walls were moved unless you tell them.  The only time you should allow a contractor to work without a good design (whether by the contractor or by an outside firm) is if the work to be done is simple such as a paint, carpet and/or ceiling refresh.

There are a number of methods to design a project; but, we will discuss only the four major types here:

Delivery Method 1: Design-Bid-Build

This is the method most people are familiar with.  As an owner, you contract with the architect that designs a project.  Based on a complete set of documents, you hire a contractor and pick the contractor that gives you the best price and that you feel will actually complete the job.

This method, as written as DBB or D/B/B and is sometimes called a “hard bid method”, should only be an option if you have people on your team with extensive construction experience and you schedule is not imperative.  D/B/B also works very well for spaces that have identical design details such as a franchise location which almost always use a D/B/B format.

The reason you want someone on your team with construction experience is because under the D/B/B method, you as the owner are at risk for most errors in the drawings.  We as the general contractor have never had a drawing set at 100% that was error- and conflict-free.  For instance, we were installing an addition for an office building.  The prints had the slab at 4” in one section and 6” in the other.  We had bid the job using the 4” measurement and submitted a Request for Information (RFI).  The architect told the owner it needed to be 6”.  The Owner, at that point, was responsible for making up the difference between what we had bid and what was required to bring the structure up to code. For minor cost adjustments, the Owner typically covers the cost from a contingency budget; however, if the mistake is large enough, litigation typically ensues.

Because the design and construction are completed sequentially, work cannot start until you’re full design is complete.  We built a parking garage under methods described below where we were tasked with the design responsibilities.  We were able to start constructing the foundation of the garage while we were waiting on the balance of the design.  This shaved over eight months off the project schedule if we had used the D/B/B method.

This is still the most common delivery method and is the most understood method by Owners and their professional service providers such as attorneys, accountants and insurance companies. It is also the most competitive and will provide the lowest initial price which only stays that way if there are no major issues with the Design Documents. Most municipal, state and federal projects are required under law to use this method.

Delivery Method 2: Design-Build

Design-Build (DB or D/B) was designed to assist the owner in lowering their design risk and consolidate their schedule. The Owner will typically contract with the general contractor directly and it will be up to the GC to contract with an architect. With this relationship, you as the Owner will have one contract instead of two that is typical with a D/B/B.

In the scenario above with a conflict in the drawings between a 4” and a 6” slab, the GC would either have to absorb the cost or work with the architect to absorb the cost in a way in which the D/B/B does not allow.

The GC is also able to work with the architect to get just-in-time drawings so the project can begin construction before full designs are available. If you are building on raw land, the General Contractor is able to start on the underground utilities and foundation while the architect works to complete the finishes.

The Owner is also able to establish a Gross Maximum Price (GMP) in order to control costs throughout the process. This

Delivery Method 3: Construction Manager (Agency or At-Risk)

These are two different types of delivery methods: it’s either a Construction Manager Agency (CM Agency) or Construction Manager At-Risk (CM At-Risk).

In both of these methods, you will hire the Designer and Construction Manager at the beginning of the project and under two separate contracts.

Under a Construction Manager Agency, you as the Owner will hire all of the subcontractors with advice from the Construction Manager. The Owner takes absorbs all risk of subcontractor overage, schedule and quality. This is a viable option if the Owner has extensive experience but is currently overwhelmed with work and needs assistance in the workload.

A Construction Manager At-Risk, the CM At-Risk will hire all of the subcontractors. A Gross Maximum Price will be established and if that is exceeded, the CM At-Risk will absorb that cost. This may not be the case with changes from the Owner or unforeseen conditions. Unlike the CM Agency, you will only have the two contracts direct to you as the Owner.

Some owners hire a Construction Manager and a General Contractor. In this instance, the Construction Manager acts as an in-house employee who manages the General Contractor

Delivery Method 4: Integrated Project Delivery

Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is a new delivery method that wasn’t used often until 2010. This method combines the pros of D/B/B and CM At-Risk. The Owner, General Contractor and Architect sign a three-way contract with each other.

This process still allows the efficiencies of schedule and budgeting under the D/B/B; however, the risk is shared between all three parties.

This contract is best for clients with in-house construction experience who have a tight schedule with an largely undefined scope.


The type of delivery method you choose is based on numerous factors and there is no one-size-fits-all best delivery method.

If you lack construction experience in your organization and time is not a factor, a D/B/B may be your best option.

If you time is a factor and you have a General Contractor you trust, a D/B option is a good option.

This article is meant to give you a high-level overview of your options. If you like one, there are numerous resources online including dozens of educational videos. Dig into whichever option seems best for you and make sure you are comfortable with the risk, schedule, cost and quality options before you decide which path to take.