Builders and architects working together: 6 reasons why integrated design and build may be the future of home construction
By Ballast Point director Mat Wilk
When Ballast Point was founded back in 2015, it was purely a contract builder. Over the last few years, it has evolved to become an integrated design and construction company. So, what exactly does that mean? And why does it matter? Traditionally, homeowners first hire an architect to do the design and later engage a building company to build their home. Over the years, we found more and more clients wanted someone who could manage the whole project on their behalf. We dabbled in working with joint venture projects with architects on a handful of projects and then one day, when one of our clients asked us if we can do design and build, I just said yes. We directly engaged a contract architect to help us design the project.
In 2020, in the middle of a COVID slowdown, we decided to ramp up this part of the business and hired our head of design, Peter Maxwell. Pete had worked for some exceptional architectural practices, including Andrew Burges and Popov Bass, and he was ready for a new and different challenge. Hiring Pete was the first step to forming an architecture and construction company and as we proceeded down this path, we found the idea of combining design and construction into one entity worked even better than expected. Our clients loved the fact that we would deal with the project from beginning to end, and that the construction team was involved in the design process, ensuring an efficient build. Since that time, we have expanded our design team to include half a dozen architects and designers.
Here are the things we learned along the journey and why we think integrated design and build might just become the future of home construction.
- People love a one stop shop
People have enough problems to solve. They want to buy goods and services from one entity – in fact if you think about it there is no other time where customers are forced to get one company to design a product and then someone else to deliver it. They don’t want this, they want someone just to deal with things on their behalf; they like convenience and less stress in their lives.
- Budget accountability
Everyone knows this story – an architect designs a new dream home, and their clients love it, but after completing design and approval process the client is left stranded when the builder’s quotes come back at up to twice their original budget. This exercise is arguably set up to fail from the outset. This is because the architecture practice earns most of their fees before the builder is even involved so they are incentivized to complete documentation. If the project is over budget and they raise this with the client, they risk losing the project to someone else or having it cancelled so any problems with an unrealistic budget is pushed down the line. This is a conflict of interest — I call it the architect’s dilemma.
- Problems are fixed quickly
Mistakes happen wherever there are humans working and a typical mistake is never simple, typically involving more than one person and a chain of events or decisions. The builder may say he followed the plans so the architect is to blame; the architect in turn points out that the builder should have used their common sense. When the builder and designer are one, the company takes responsibility. This obviously benefits the client because they don’t get caught in the middle. This approach is not a bad thing for our business either, because we can skip straight to the solution and get it fixed quickly rather than waste time and energy working out who is responsible.
- It just seems to work
It feels right and it just works for the designer and builder to be one entity — “It’s the vibe!” And, if we go back in time far enough, the architect and the builder were once one and the same — that’s how medieval cathedrals were built. The separation of the two appears to be a construct of the industrial revolution, and when architecture was a production line of men on drafting tables this might have made sense. But in 2022, when buildings are designed in cyberspace much more efficiently, there is a tipping point where designers and builders working together makes more sense. One thing I have learnt is that people do things the way they do things — for no other reason than “that’s how it’s done”. But as technology changes, “how it’s done” is not necessarily “how it should be done”.
- Removing layers of management to streamline the process
Most construction companies will have a project manager, project co-ordinator or project admin as well as the site manager. One of their primary functions is to manage information coming in from architects and consultants and going out to the site. If you have an integrated design and build business, you can cut this role out completely because the design team already manage the documentation, so we can avoid duplication and miscommunication. We can also integrate both design and build teams into our project management software. Our construction team and design teams also know the best way to communicate with each other – from language to the communication platforms they use and are most likely to respond to. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We have found that both sides are invested in preserving the working relationship.
- Building knowledge can be incorporated in the design
We’ve found that input from the construction team at early concept stages ensures robust design going through to later stages. One of our building team might pipe up and say: “What’s that thing that’s hanging in the air magically attached to? How are we going to build that?” This also helps with managing costs and details that might get lost along the way if they are not well understood by both the design and construction sides. We pre-empt potential construction problems before they get put into the Development Application. It’s also much easier to get rough cost estimates to test ideas against the budget without needing to engage an external consultant.
- Technology has changed workflows
Building and design technology is improving all the time (although construction is arguably the laggard in adopting tech). This means that where in the past our system was paper-based or computer files that looked very much like paper, we now use 3D software to plan, design and measure. We can take quantities straight out of the 3D model and place orders through the design team, validating with the guys on site. This cuts admin dramatically and technology still has a long way to go.