An Outside Architect’s Observations on Design-Build

Where do you turn FIRST when your department needs a new facility or expansion of an existing station? There are obviously many factors that go into facility construction – from site selection and architectural design to permitting and construction. Getting your design done first may seem like the logical initial step, but there is actually a better approach that will save you time, money and headaches in the end.

In my early career as a commercial architect, I was called upon at the beginning stages of a project to work with my clients. We discussed their vision, developed concepts and drew up preliminary plans. Not until the designs were relatively developed did a general contractor typically get involved in the process. Then I joined a design-build firm and experienced a whole new way to collaborate.

Having now worked as both an “outside” and “in-house” architect, I can confidently say that inviting your general contractor to the table early on in the design of your station provides countless benefits. With the architect and contractor working together from the beginning, they are able to integrate the conceptual design with the logistical challenges of the construction process. This collaboration ensures continuity throughout the entire project lifecycle, saving you time and money along the way.

Integrated Design-Build vs. Design-Build

Any general contractor can offer design-build services by simply hiring out the architectural services to an outside architect or firm. This however removes the typical owner-architect relationship, as the architect technically works for the contractor and not the owner. This can sometimes lead to the architects being reduced to a simple commodity rather than an owner having the full service an architect can bring to the table. The outside architects often fall “out of the loop” as construction begins, leaving them disconnected from the project and from the owner relationship.

Choosing integrated design-build means the architect and the general contractor are under one roof and truly share accountability to the owner throughout the project duration. This relationship provides a connection between the owner and the design-build team that has real value.

Because most fire departments, paid or volunteer, do not have a staff to dedicate to full-time project oversight, working with a single source keeps the project from overwhelming the fire department. The in-house architect and contractor will integrate the design elements, regulatory requirements and budgetary aspects into a cohesive plan. When the architect and contractor are on the same team, there is an increased feeling of shared success, no need for finger-pointing, and a greater desire and urgency to get issues resolved.

Cost Advantages

As an outside architect, it can be difficult to anticipate the cost implications of certain design decisions. There can be a disconnect between design ideas and the actual costs of implementing those ideas. While the architect may understand that you need to stay within a defined budget, there is no substitute for having the architect and contractor work together from the early stages.

The contractor builds and prices buildings every day, so they will have a good idea of what is realistic and achievable within a budget and enable the department to define their priorities. Additionally, an in-house architect has the ability to influence where and how costs get reduced. This is a far better scenario than having a contractor come in with a different agenda and value engineering options that aren’t realistic from an architectural point-of-view or don’t correlate with the owner’s priorities.

Time Savings

Having the architects and contractors able to walk down the hall and discuss design ideas and costs not only saves money but also helps to avoid wasted time redesigning when the design doesn’t meet an owner’s budget. Throughout the architectural process – from the initial program outline through the conceptual plans, preliminary plans, construction drawings and permitting – the contractor can provide the architect with valuable input on construction methods, material selections and cost considerations. This ongoing dialogue assists with the decision-making process, saving time in the long run.

The design process becomes more efficient using the design-build approach since the in-house architect has a direct line of communication to the estimators and subcontractors, allowing for conversations that establish clear direction and expectations.

Choosing an Integrated Design-Build Company

I’ve seen first-hand how a company with integrated architecture and construction capabilities offers the greatest benefits to fire departments and other clients. If these advantages make sense to you, the next step is choosing a design-build firm.

  • Look for a company with a proven track record of successfully delivering fire station projects within budget and on time.
  • Ask to see their previous fire station project experience and obtain references from other fire chiefs.
  • Make sure the company has the financial ability to complete the project, pay their subcontractors on time and fulfill their warranty.

With the right company in your corner, you’ll get a facility that fits your budget parameters and meets the department’s needs today and into the future.

Josh Boltinhouse is a principle architect at Bobbitt A&E, based in the company’s Columbia, S.C., office. He previously worked as an architect with a non-design-build firm.

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