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How to pick the right team for your home renovation

(Sean Shanahan)

Matthew S. McDonald is principal at McD Studio in Bethesda and member of the Potomac Valley chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

If you’re considering a major home renovation project, you have two options on how to pursue it: You can hire a construction firm and a design firm and manage them separately or hire a design-build firm that would integrate the two functions into one contract.

Prior to starting my own architecture firm, I worked at a traditional architecture firm for six years, and at a design-build firm for two. So I know the pros and cons of each option.

Design-build is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword in the industry — many contractors market themselves as such; you see many more signs for “design-build” companies. It now represents 16 percent of all billings.

According to data from the Construction Industry Institute, the design-build approach can be more cost-effective and efficient than the traditional method of signing separate construction and design contracts. For instance, according to the institute based at the University of Texas at Austin, the unit cost of design-build projects is 6.1 percent lower and the delivery speed is 33.5 percent faster than the traditional method.

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Still, you can achieve the same result by hiring your own architect and contractor separately who can work together.

Here’s what you need to know before deciding whether to hire an architect and contractor separately or a design-build firm:

• Learn what exactly a “design-build” is. Simply put, design-build is a way to streamline the design and construction of your project to save both time and money. A budget is typically identified early in the project, and the design is tailored to meet the budget.

Having both the designer and builder involved from the beginning allows for more accurate pricing information as well as designs that are closer to that budget.

Traditional design-build firms offer themselves as a one-stop shop for your entire project; you can work with the same single company from the design through the construction.

Ideally, they are licensed as both architects and general contractors.  However, that’s not the only option. A second, equally successful option is to assemble your own design-build team. That option typically involves hiring both an architect and general contractor at the beginning of your project and allowing these professionals to work together, as a team, for you.

I have been involved in design-build style projects completed in both ways with almost equal results. It is different that the traditional design-bid-build method in that the contractor’s involvement comes much earlier and provides an early price-check to ensure the adjustments can be made earlier than not to meet your budget, though certain detailed decisions become more budget driven and are often finalized in the field.

• Shop around: Meet with several firms, design-build firms, architects and contractors to decide who is the best fit for you.

• Make sure you are working with both a licensed architect and a licensed contractor. This ensures you’re working with properly trained professionals. The American Institute for Architects (AIA) and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) are important professional organizations that list many professionals. Your state or local jurisdiction can help you determine if the professional is licensed.

• Understand your contracts. True design-build firms offer a single point of contact and contractual relationship. This can be good, but be sure you read your contracts. Many will discount their architectural fees initially, but if you do not continue through and use their in-house construction services, you are often back-charged the amount you were originally discounted.

One way to avoid this is to look for firms that charge a market rate design fee and a credit toward construction.  You should be rewarded, not penalized in this process.

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• Be honest and upfront with your team about your budget. If you hire professionals you trust (and you should), letting them know your true budget will help them tailor the project to you. Follow the process outlined by your team — it will likely involve multiple steps designed to guide you through each decision as required.

• Avoid two-against-one conflicts: If you hire an architect and contractor separately, you have two points of contact/separate contracts. But you also have two professionals that can each advocate for you throughout the process. This will create fewer conflicts of interest when questions arise.

• Pay attention to the “design” half of design-build. Make sure a licensed architect is involved, either as an employee of the firm, or as your own hire to work together with a contractor. This is the best way to have the end result meet your expectation as you see it on paper. After I show my clients the initial schematic, I ask them to wait at least a week before responding so they can study the drawings in their home, and really think how they’ll live.

• Determine whether speed is more important than controlling the numerous phases of the project. Generally the design-build method offers a quicker timeline, but many decisions are made over the course of the entire project including during the construction phase. I’ve seen more projects go from paper to brick using this method than not.

The traditional process of contracting an architect and designer separately is a slower process, but would be ideal for someone who wants to understand every detail and aspect of their project prior to any hammers hitting nails.

While planning your project, keep in mind that the AIA is reporting tremendous demand for remodeling and renovations, with 4.5 month average backlog of projects at residential architecture firms.

So be patient and persistent  in your search for a professional to meet your design needs.  Spending a little more time in the beginning can help ensure a more successful end result.