Is ‘Design Build’ an option for architecture

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The construction industry as we see it today suffers from multifaceted challenges of quality, speed and cost. As an answer to these challenges some suggest introducing a new contract system such as the ‘design-build’, alluding construction to lead design. The current contract system presupposes design to lead construction and is a standard practice. The challenge is rather in fully appreciating the design origin of construction, providing the necessary instruments and in giving it proper protection. In this short article I shall discuss the origin of the standard design led project delivery system and by way of an example of the new African Union Conference & Office Complex project explain its efficacy for a fast delivery and to achieve good quality projects, when all the instruments are in place.

‘Design-build’ is an arrangement where a design and construction work is contracted directly to the builder (Robert F. Cushman, Design-Build Contracting Handbook, 2nd Edition ) . The employment of a designer and the production of the necessary construction drawings shall be the responsibility of the builder. The standard building contract system recognizes design and construction as two separate and independent activities. Therefore the client (employer) first makes a contract with the designer. After the design work is completed then employs the builder (contractor) to implement the project. The designer remains the trusted advisor of the client and supervises the work during the construction stage to ensure that the project is implemented according to the design he originated. Simply put, in the ‘design-build’ arrangement the client signs and deals solely with the builder while in the standard design & build arrangement the client deals with the two parties: the designer and the builder (with the latter assisted by the designer).

Historically speaking, it was a natural beginning for architecture to start with ‘design-build’. The great cathedrals of Europe were all ‘design-build’ projects. In the old days the designer and the builder were all one person. In those days, construction of churches took several years. St Peter of the Vatican in Rome for example took 120 years to build (Sir Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture). The master builder (as referred in those days) would spend all his life and building only a few structures. Later he realized that part of the building activity (the actual construction work) could be delegated and started to put his ideas on paper. In this way instead of spending his life building few, he was able to produce more edifices. As a result the birth of two distinct professions was at hand: the designer & the builder. They had lived as one soul & body in one entity unaware of their distinction. Then a higher level of consciousness was achieved and their roles was defined; indeed a higher level of maturity of the building delivery process.

The same is true, to this date, to some engineering structures, such as the construction of hydroelectric stations, where the knowledge of design and implementation is confined to certain companies. For such projects ‘design-build’ is not a choice but a natural beginning borne of their peculiarity, as was true once to architecture. It is natural then, when there shall be enough experience and projects to sustain a separate design team, a time will come where ‘design-build’ shall become a story of the past even to such engineering structures.
But, the mere fact that we see ‘design-build’ being practiced today in certain specialized engineering structures cannot be a reason to pull back architecture and cripple the practice. What benefit shall ‘design-build’ bring to the building delivery process? May be speed of construction, as decision is made at one point? According to the proponents of ‘design-build’ they enlist faster delivery, singular responsibility, reduced risk as advantages for the client. But all this come at the cost of quality and high project price to the client. A great advocate of ‘design-build’ once tried to win my heart by telling me that ‘design-build’ actually pays more for the designer than the standard contract system. I wondered where that money would come from.

The challenge of the construction industry is rather in fully appreciating the design origin of construction and in providing the necessary instruments to function well. The newly completed African Union Conference & Office Complex is a good example – a gift of China, designed and built by the Chinese. The contract arrangement was a regular standard design – bid – build contract. Two separate contracts were signed for design and construction. The first between the African Union and the design firm – Shanghai Tongji University Architecture Design Institute (2007); and the second with the construction company – China State Construction Engineering Corporation (2008). But despite having to import nearly all the building components (apparently except sand and gravel), the building was completed within the scheduled three-year contract time. The Contractor attributes as one factor to this achievement, the provision of complete drawings by the designer to be able order all materials ahead of time. This has to do with a good appreciation of design and paying proper fee to a design work. In the case of this project, a 7% of the project cost was paid as a fee to the Design Institute. In addition the design team provided a resident supervision which is another important instrument for assurance of quality.

The designer took himself out of the direct construction by choice, because of his passion for design. The progress and well being of society is gained from such passion. Why then cripple our source of pride and culture in our attempt to make it subordinate to the process it is supposed to guide? In fact, to go back to construction is shorter for the designer than for the builder to do otherwise, as the designer is technically the sole provider of building construction details to a project for the builder to follow during implementation.

For sure a building quality of the new African Union Conference & Office Complex or that of the Sheraton or the ECA cannot be imagined with a ‘design-build’ contract. The ‘builder’ of today and that of the ‘builder’ of old are not the same. The master builder of old was also a designer. Both the knowledge of design and construction were in his very person. He was an embodiment of both design and construction. Whereas the builder of today is only a builder - not a designer. Therefore, in the ‘design-build’ contract, it would mean that the builder (contractor) need to employ a designer. The issue of quality starts to be questionable already at the design stage. Most likely the builder has to resort to an inferior design team as the ‘designer’ proper would not find it acceptable to get in to such subsidiary contract arrangement, relinquishing his authority. Even if we assume that the builder could manage to get the ideal team, the very contract arrangement of ‘design-build’ does not provide the designer the necessary capacity to exercise his power to protect the design he originated. The final say for both design and construction including the choice of materials lies in the shoulder of the builder. The quality of the building is, therefore, left at the mercy of the builder with no room for check and balance.

To prove, on the other hand, that ‘design-build’ is more expensive than the standard contract does not require much argument. Architecture has surely out grown ‘design-build’. ‘Design-build’ cannot be a choice even to specialized engineering structures, but a path trodden when the other alternative is unavailable.