Learning From the Master Builders

Collaboration Between Architect and Builder
December 01, 2014

Throughout much of history, there was no distinction between architects, engineers, and builders. Instead, an individual—the master builder—conceived of the form and materials of a building at the outset and followed it through until construction came to an end, taking responsibility for all of the challenges that arose during the project. This kind of continuity throughout the life of a project is intuitively beneficial: engineering and construction requirements shape the approach long before ground is broken and design decisions need to be made until the final touches are in place. Many of the world's great monuments, from the Parthenon to Brunelleschi's Dome at the Florence Cathedral, were built in this way.

The master builder model began to dissolve toward the end of the Renaissance, when individuals and laws began to differentiate between the art of architecture, the science of engineering, and the craft of building. In the centuries since then, the professions have specialized into increasingly separate fields. The divide is both cultural (consider the stereotypical personality conflicts among architects, engineers, and contractors) and contractual, discouraging social and professional collaboration between these groups despite their shared passion for the built environment.

Predominant Contemporary Model

One result of this is the current predominant model for construction, known as design-bid-build, wherein architects substantially complete a design before a contractor is hired, and then are in many ways marginalized once construction begins. The architect and contractor have separate contracts with the client, and often when a problem arises each assigns blame to the other. This antagonism undercuts trust and teamwork, traps the owner in a mediation role, and ultimately compromises time, money, and quality.

Design-Build Philosophy

An alternative approach, known as design-build, offers a contemporary form of the master builder model. In this system, which has gained popularity during the last few decades, design and construction responsibilities are taken on by one entity and gathered into a single contract, bound to the project from conception to completion. An architect engaged in a design-build project must be knowledgeable in construction practices and must think, from the very beginning, beyond aesthetics to consider how a design will be built. The contractor must be sympathetic to the methods and motives of designers. Because they are joined in the same contract, they can communicate directly and synchronize their expertise at all stages of the project.

Carlos Cardoso, a partner at Beyer Blinder Belle, grew up in Brazil and New York working in his family's construction and real estate business, where he nurtured his interest in how things are built. Early on, he was impressed by the efficiencies gained on projects where they took full responsibility for design and construction. This background powerfully shapes his professional approach at BBB, where his knowledge of building practices informs his design decisions at every stage of development. His mission includes the education of all parties involved in the project, including the client, the contractor, and the design staff, so that everyone can make informed choices in their respective roles. He is cultivating an environment where all projects, regardless of the project delivery method, benefit from this interdisciplinary expertise and inclusive attitude.

Fred Charles
Fred Charles

Case Study: Prince George Hotel Ballroom

The renovation of the ballroom at the Prince George Hotel was one of the first projects for which Beyer Blinder Belle provided design-build management services. The firm provided all architectural documentation and coordination as well as performed construction management services, including purchase of equipment and fixtures and hiring of all subcontractors. By integrating the design and construction teams, the project was completed ahead of schedule and $90,000 under budget.

Case Study: 215 Chrystie Street

A specific illustration of how the schedule can be accelerated by using this philosophy is the envelope design of the mixed use (hotel & residential) building at 215 Chrystie Street, currently under construction. (BBB is the executive architect working with the Swiss firm Herzog and deMeuron (HdM), who led the design.) This project is a "design assist," in which the architect and contractor hold separate contracts but the teams have voluntarily adopted a design-build methodology. As soon as HdM determined the aesthetic intent during the schematic phase, the design was put out to bid and the window installer and manufacturer were hired. Because the budget was set, the team needed to work together to resolve details within the contract amount. Intensive design assist meetings took place to work through the details, and preliminary shop drawings were generated, which led to the construction of two full-scale mockups before the completion of any construction documents. Working closely with these window experts, BBB and HdM were able to identify technical constraints and possibilities while the design was still in development and revisions were easy to make. As a result, the details that were issued with the final construction documents had already been demonstrated to be feasible. Typically, two or three rounds of shop drawing review take place after all of the documents are complete and after extensive amounts of time have been invested developing the design and structure. Because the design assist process incorporates collaboration among team members, any required redesign can occur early on and very quickly, which mitigates technical issues that create unnecessary delays and cost overruns.