Fabrication image
image credit: Ethan Labowitz

Design/Build is a trend that I’m seeing more and more in the environmental graphics work that I do. Clients are increasingly looking for the turn-key approach that can provide them with a full-service solution from design through to installation. I understand the motivation from the client’s perspective — they only have to deal with one point of contact, and that simplifies their lives. A scope of work is defined and a budget assigned. The job is tendered as a design/build, and once the contract is awarded, the responsibility for delivering the final product on time and on budget rests almost entirely with the contractor. For the client it seems ideal, even irresistible. So what’s the problem?

If you’re a decent sized fabrication house with at least some in-house design talent or a malleable free-lancer handy, there’s no problem at all. When you take on design/build work you’re able to steer the design in a way that will utilize processes with which you’re most comfortable, have extra capacity in, or are most profitable for you. You can limit or eliminate any sub-contracted services that might be inconvenient or unpredictable. Since you effectively have control of the budget, you can ensure that the job will be designed well within it, reserving a healthy profit margin. Given that you control your own internal schedules, meeting any reasonable timeline established by the client is almost risk-free.

So far, everybody seems happy, so again, where’s the problem? It’s possible that there isn’t one. It’s possible that the solutions that will be offered by the one-stop shop will be exactly what the client wanted and needed. But all too often, the proposed designs may be exactly what the client expected to see, and that may be a problem. Designers can bring the most value to a project when they’re coming up with options that the client didn’t expect and never would have thought of. Ideas that take the project objectives and mix in the constraints and opportunities to come up with something unexpected, delightful and exciting. In the environmental graphics realm, these are the ideas that propel brands forward, or that transform ordinary spaces into extraordinary places.

In the design/build context, it’s difficult to give the design process its due. Almost by definition, the designer will start with a new layer of constraints overlaid upon the programme identified by the client. There will be expectations that certain materials and processes will be specified. After all, the quote for the job will have been based upon these. There will be pressure to spend as little time with the concept phase as possible. Going wide with concepts would just introduce uncertainties and risk that could ripple through the entire project. The most successful design/build firms will be very good at containing the scope of the design to conform as closely as possible to their initial quoted assumptions.

It’s a trade-off really, the predictability, safety and security of the design/build contract versus the potentially more dynamic and creative approach of hiring a qualified independent design firm to design solely to the project requirements. Both have their place, but clients need to make the choice with their eyes wide open, and be honest with themselves about their objectives and expectations.


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Comments (2)

  • You raise a very good point and that is why it is important for both team members and the client/owner to understand best practices in design-build project delivery. At the Design-Build Institute of America we urge project owners to use performance based requirements rather than specify materials or processes and we do so because that is how owners leverage the most creativity and thus value from their design-build team. We also advocate the use of qualifications-based selection that focusses on past performance rather than low bid and early engagement of key subcontractors. You can learn more about our best practices, what we call “Design-Build Done Right” at

      Thanks very much for your comment. I wholeheartedly support the idea of qualifications-based selection of contractors, with a strong focus on past performance (and non-performance!). I think where we diverge is in how the design is developed and documented. I believe that the performance and aesthetic qualities of the design can be most creatively addressed through the services of an independent professional designer, free from the biases imposed by a particular fabricator’s capabilities. This does not preclude early engagement with potential fabrication contractors, indeed, it permits the widest possible consultation. I believe that this approach puts design first, allowing a wide and deep exploration of concepts before focusing on a final design.

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