3 Variations of Church Design/Build Projects – Who is leading?
It is widely accepted that design/build projects, when done in a project centric, open-book environment; result in some of the very best development and construction projects for churches. In fact, a 2011 study completed by RSMeans Reed Construction Data Market Intelligence , indicated that the design/build project delivery method in the United States was used on more than 40 percent of non-residential construction projects in 2010, a ten percent increase since 2005.
However, design/build is far too often misrepresented, misunderstand and given a bad name by firms that abuse their contractual relationship with their clients. So, let me try to shed some light on the the primary methods of design/build in the market today. DISCLAIMER: While I am going to focus on these 3 primary methods, there are a multitude of variations for each one.
Before we look at the 3 primary design/build approaches, lets first look at the “intent” of any design/build relationship.
At its core, design/build is a method to deliver a construction project in which the design and construction services are contracted by a single entity known as the design builder or design build contractor. In contrast to “design–bid–build“, design/build relies on a single point of responsibility contract and is used to minimize risks for the project owner (i.e. the church) and to reduce the delivery schedule by overlapping the design phase and construction phase of a project. The “traditional approach” (design-bid-build) for construction projects consists of the appointment of a designer on one side, and the appointment of a contractor on the other side. The design/build procurement route changes the traditional sequence of work. It answers the client’s wishes from a single-point of responsibility in an attempt to reduce risks and overall costs. A primary benefit of design/build is to have most if not all of the primary stakeholders of a project involved and providing their expertise as early in the development process as possible. That is the beauty and heartbeat of design/build…when done as intended.
Design/build is sometimes compared to the “master builder” approach, one of the oldest forms of construction procedure. Comparing design/build to the traditional approach, the authors of “Design-build Contracting Handbook” noted that: “from a historical perspective the so-called traditional approach is actually a very recent concept, only being in use approximately 150 years. In contrast, the design/build concept–also known as the “master builder” concept—has been reported as being in use for over four millennia.”
With that as a backdrop, let’s explore the 3 prevailing methods (or better said, mindsets) of design/build:
CONTRACTOR LED DESIGN/BUILD
This is most likely the predominate method used today. It clearly was the impetus that launched the design/build delivery method. In these cases, the design/builder is a general contractor who either hires design professionals to be on their staff or they “partner” (or subcontract) the design elements to independent design professional firms. I spent 23 years of my career working for a firm that adopted this method of church construction, so I have a great deal of firsthand experience in this arena.
The primary benefit to this approach is that the project generally stays in budget because the design/builder (aka contractor) is cost/price driven and so they hold all of the other stakeholders accountable to meet a budget. While that sounds noble, it makes for a very one-sided relationship. All design considerations, systems, audio/video, project size, materials, etc. are driven by cost and not what is best for the client, both short terms and long term (Life Cycle Planning). Don’t get me wrong, having projects that come in budget are of the upmost importance to me and our team…but, there are lots of things that need to be considered and incorporated into a project. Is there really any benefit to reduce the cost by $5/SF by using a lower grade HVAC system but then have major energy inefficiencies or have an AVL system that is unintelligible? Also, in many of the contractor led design/build projects, I have seen the contractor use a “closed book” or lump-sum approach to church construction…heck, I used to be the “greatest of sinners” in this regard. But I am 100% convinced that this approach has the best interest of only one member of the project team…the contractor. HMMM…ever wonder why they close their books? Trust me, it is not for the churches benefit.
ARCHITECT LED DESIGN/BUILD
When design/build began to rise in popularity and acceptance, architectural firms started to feel “pinched” from net new business. In many ways the architects were relegated to being merely a subcontractor to the general contractor similar to the plumber or grading contractor. In many of the contractor led projects, the architect was the necessary “evil” in order to obtain the building permit so the contractor could build the project they had “sold” the church.
To counter this denigration of the role of the design professional, many architectural firms started to offer their own flavor of design/build services. In this approach, the design became the watermark of the project, followed by clients needs and project cost. I realize that I am treading on thin ice with many of my design professional friends…but “them’s” the reality of this approach (in most cases). This was a way for the architectural firms to gain primary control of the projects and be the “head and not the tail”. In my opinion, this was more of a power-grab than actually looking for the best way to serve clients.
PROJECT LED DESIGN/BUILD
This is by far the best option when contemplating a design/build project…hands down….no question! To be fair to the first 2 methods above, I know of firms that have been contractor led or architect led that did strive to be project led…and many times it has worked well. But as I alluded to earlier, this is as much a mindset issue as it is a contractual method. You can have a project led project with the design/builder being a general contractor. You can also have a successful design/build project with the design professional holding the primary contract. The issue is far less contractual and far more the mindset and end game. Who “wins” when there is a conflict? Who has the final say? If the answer to these is the church/client or better yet, the project, then it does not matter who is holding the primary contract.
1. There is a mutual respect and accessibility of all of the project stakeholders to each other and directly to the church.
2. The project team is established as early in the planning (even the pre-planning) process as is humanly possible with each team member providing their expertise and skill for the betterment of the overall project. This needs to include design professionals, prime/general contractor, trade/sub contractors when appropriate, AVLA (audio, visual, lighting and acoustic) designers and integrators, environmental graphic team, interior designers, civil engineers, systems engineers, kitchen and “cafe” consultants (when they are an element of the development), generosity consultants, financiers, etc. In the best scenarios, the project team has worked together in the past and has a track record of successfully completed projects.
3. Transparency – not just in communication (which is vital and referenced in #2 above), but in the project accounting process. An “open-book” accounting process is the best approach for these type of projects. It is important that every stakeholder make a profit to stay in business to continue to serve the needs of the project, but to hide the costs of the project is foolish and deceitful. If the team understands the real costs, then they can provide suggestions and influence as to how to provide the greatest value for the project.
4. Egos and personal agendas are checked at the door. There is no room for egos in this type of environment. There needs to be passion, enthusiasm, conviction and even some tension…but in the end, the project needs to win and not any one entity.
5. Expertise. When buying real estate, the 3 most important features to consider about a site is location, location, location. I would suggest that in church/ministry development projects the key factor is expertise. As we explored in a previous post about the commoditization of church design and construction, your church development project deserves and requires the skill of experts in their field…not just someone who holds a license or certification.