Why not Design-Build?

Design-Build vs. Dedicated Architects

Design-build firms get a lot of hype online these days, but we keep hearing regrets from homeowners who’ve chosen this method of renovation.  The most common problems are stop work orders, heavy change orders, dubious craftsmanship, and endless delays in job completion.  Is this just the bad luck of a few homeowners or a systemic problem?

First, let’s clarify the difference between the design-build process and the traditional architect-contractor relationship.  Design-build offers one-stop shopping for the client.  A single company provides all the services needed to design, price, and build the project.  It’s a streamlined process that feels collaborative, cooperative, quick, and efficient.

By contrast, a dedicated architect works solely for the client and competitively bids a project to a few general contractors.  If the bids come back higher than expected, the architect must then redesign to lower the price.  This back and forth is the reason so many clients opt for design-build.

Missed Opportunity

But we’d argue this is exactly the reason for sticking with tradition.  Competition may seem adversarial, but it’s a fight that benefits the client.  A builder will always work harder to lower his prices when he’s struggling against other bidders to land a job.  By eliminating this struggle, design-build costs the client the single greatest opportunity for savings in a project.

Moreover, design-builders exaggerate the time difference between the methods.  A design-builder can’t price a job any faster than a pool of competing bidders would.  And while it’s true that design-builders get more practice at detailed cost estimating than architects do, any architect with a few years’ experience in a given market can accurately predict construction costs.

In our office, for example, our budget estimates typically fall within 10% of the competitive bids we receive.  Here’s why.  If an architect has recently bid out six similar projects to four contractors apiece, that’s a data trove of twenty-four detailed bids to use for estimating future projects.  A design-builder would need twenty-four separate projects to amass as much data.

Defend the Client

Another traditional relationship that benefits the client is the triangle of checks and balances that links the contractor, the architect, and the client.  The dedicated architect is the client’s agent, not the contractor’s.  As such, the architect has a fiduciary duty to the client and defends the client against the contractor’s mistakes.  Since most clients have little experience with construction, having a seasoned professional on your side can be a crucial advantage, especially if something goes wrong during construction.  And construction is rarely a smooth process.

Here’s a common example.  A contractor proposed covering the chimneys in waterproofing, rather than follow our spec for cutting stepped flashing into the brick.  Even though this kind of “repair” is common practice, it’s short-sighted.  If you let bricks breath, they’ll last a lifetime, but if you wrap them in waterproofing, the mortar corrodes.  You’ll have a few leak-free years, but water will eventually get in and turn the mortar to sand.  As architects serving our client’s interest, we vetoed the idea.

In a design-build relationship, however, our veto would never happen.  The contractor would get no resistance from the architect because the two are on the same team.  No one defends the client.  If anything, it’s the opposite.  Against a unified front of professionals speaking their own jargon on their own turf, the client is on her own.

Look, we’re great believers in collaboration.  We love the synergy of all parties working towards the same goal: making a project the best it can be.  And our design and construction process is rarely adversarial.  But when it is, don’t you want your architect to fight for you?

Design-Build Diagram

The Best Residential Architects in Brooklyn, NY

Home Builder Digest has just published its Best Residential Architects in Brooklyn, New York.  And we’re happy to report Delson or Sherman Architects made this short list.

Home Builder Digest is a team of builders, project consultants, and writers united by their passion for home construction and architecture.  They publish lists of the best building professionals across the U.S. using a rigorous evaluation methodology based on more than a dozen criteria.  The goal of their findings is to help homeowners find the best professionals for their projects.

They singled out Delson or Sherman Architects as “one of the most collaborative architectural firms in New York”.  This caught us by surprise.  Not that we don’t value collaboration–we do!  We just assumed all architects do, too.  After all, a successful project requires a lot of people with lots of divergent talents to all work towards a shared goal.  It’s more like making a movie than the Howard Roark myth of a solo architect suggests.

On the other hand, Home Builder Digest also noted our specialty is “maximizing a space to its full potential”.  Can’t argue with that.  Thanks!

Best Residential Architects in Brooklyn NY


Curbed has chosen a project by Delson or Sherman Architects for its list of “New York City’s Most Beautiful Homes of 2019.”  The project was the gut renovation of a twin house on Prospect Park West.  With only ten projects selected, the twin house stands alongside  some celebrities.  These include I.M. Pei’s Sutton Place townhouse and Calvin Klein’s former penthouse in the Police Building.

Curbed notes the house “hit the market this year, asking just under $6 million”.  In other words, almost double the purchase price from 2014.  But the added value isn’t unusual for our office.  When sold soon after renovation, our projects typically fetch 20% more than the original sale price and cost of construction combined.  Renovation, as it turns out, makes a surprisingly good investment strategy.

Curbed - New York City's Most Beautiful Homes