Bridging the design and build divide

News | October 20, 2022

2 min read

Michael Davies, a project manager at specialist building consultancy HartDixon, considers the risks and rewards of putting all your eggs in one contractual basket

Finding middle ground on the merits of design and build contracts is near impossible in construction circles.

It is a project procurement route that polarises opinion and provokes perpetuating banter on building sites.

Ask an architect their view on entrusting too much of the aesthetics to a “jack of all trades” general contractor and they’ll call on an arsenal of analogies that champion a harmonising of form and function and warn of the pitfalls of cutting artistic corners. In the eyes of many architecture firms, the side-lining of their specialism is akin to Pope Julius II having commissioned the brushstrokes of an industrial decorator – rather than the majesty of Michelangelo – to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Similarly, consult a contractor accustomed to finalising a project’s design and overseeing its construction about the artistry of architecture and you’ll be subjected to a succession of stories about blueprints being devoid of the realities of building regulations and the physics of contemporary construction. Those au fait with filling foundations will tell you that fancy flourishes rarely prove fit for purpose. 

A lack of consensus has not, however, dampened interest in the design and build approach, and perhaps understandably so given that two of the accepted advantages it can afford clients have become increasingly desirable. 

Against significant economic challenges (a perfect storm of spiralling inflation, war-hampered supply chains and lack of labour), the saving of time through the overlap of a project’s design and construction stages, and ability to better control costs – as a consequence of contractors shouldering the lion’s share of financial risk by pre-agreeing a price – are certainly hard to overlook.

Though where there are pros, there are – of course – cons. Dissenting voices will be quick to highlight that time and cost savings come with a threat of diminished quality, with the chosen contractor able to exploit any specification open to interpretation by selecting the cheapest option.

Furthermore, design flexibility is generally sacrificed with any deviation from the plan – whether because of unforeseen construction and planning challenges or simply a change of heart – likely to incur additional costs and potential delays.

Such risks are far from insurmountable though and can be mitigated by appointing a building consultancy such as our own to manage your development from start to finish.

With the benefit of early engagement, a proven project manager will tease out a client’s key drivers – ensuring design clarity is accurately communicated when tendering so that expectations ultimately tally with what is delivered. Design and build is only a threat to quality if the parameters shared with a contractor are not prescriptive.

Experience of both “design” and “build” can bridge construction’s chasm, bringing with it an ability to talk the language of both parties, to present a realistic picture of budgets and build timelines, and pragmatism as to the art of the possible.    

Michael Davies

Project Manager

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