The Pros and Cons of Design-Build vs. Architectural Firms

When it comes to renovating apartments in New York, two common routes are architects and design-build firms. Find out the pros, cons, and service breakdown of each approach.

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The Pros and Cons of Design-Build vs. Architectural Firms

Two common renovation routes in NYC are design-build and architectural firms. Find out the pros and cons of each and why design-build may be the best approach for your project.

When people embark on a large renovation project, it’s common to begin the process by deciding between an architect or a design-build firm. Many people, however, don't even realize that a design-build firm is a viable option and often an even better approach. 

The key here is that the project is a larger renovation. When you’re doing a full remodel of a home, especially a project that involves multiple rooms or most parts of the entire home, the traditional approach has always been to hire an architect. In this scenario, the architect draws up plans and does all the design work, then bids out those plans to multiple contractors. The architect will act as your independent owner's agent, managing the project construction too. This does not come without its fees; architects typically charge 20% of the project price. 

Design-build firms, on the other hand, offer the same approach without having to bid out plans to multiple contractors and without charging the 20% that architects do. With a design-build firm like Gallery, everything is done in-house: our architect draws up the plans and does the design work, then our team does the actual build and construction, with an in-house project manager as well as an in-house construction manager. Everything is under one roof; we design it and build it, hence the name.

A Breakdown of Services in Each Approach

Both approaches encompass design. A quick word on design: design and decorating are two different aspects. Design here refers to the actual construction, meaning layouts, floor plans, and material selections, like finishes and fixtures. Decorating refers to furniture, art, and those interior design components. Both architectural firms and design-build firms do design. Many higher-end architectural firms also offer decorating services, while design-build firms typically do not.

Both approaches include architectural drafting. The difference is that the architectural firm does this in-house and is typically hired specifically for their expertise or architectural cachet. A design-build firm usually works directly with a handful of architects, overseeing that process themselves.

Both approaches contain some aspects of expediting, meaning permits, any filings with the city, handling the submissions process to apartment buildings for management approvals and board approvals, etc. All architectural firms will do city filings, but some do other aspects of expediting and some don’t. The same applies for design-build firms: some do and don’t. Gallery does: we will file all city permits, deal with building management, and anything else that might need to be expedited. 

Both approaches include some aspects of construction management. Architectural firms typically always include construction management. Some design-build firms do, some don't. Gallery does; construction management is always within the scope of our projects.

Only design-build firms include project management. While architectural firms include the high-level work of construction management, only design-build firms include the granular details and nitty-gritty of the project management side. 

The Major Differences


When an architect draws up plans and then has them bid out to various vendors, the abundance of moving parts creates a more chaotic environment. The more vendors involved – a separate plumber, electrician, millwork company, and general contractor – the more that can go wrong. 

An architectural firm is tasked with managing multiple vendors, which is partially why they charge more. A design-build firm, on the other hand, is already responsible for everything in-house: architectural drawings, filings, design work, plumbing elevations, material ordering, construction, management, etc. With less independent vendors involved, it’s far less likely that unexpected delays or simple mistakes will occur. 

Architect Pro: They’ll manage the bidding process for you.
Architect Con: It will still be fragmented, and you’re still paying extra.

Design-Build Pro: All the work is done by the same people, so there’s less room for error.
Design-Build Con: Because it’s all the same people, the trust factor with the client is even more important.


Related to fragmentation but more specific, another key difference between the types of renovation approaches has to do with communication. As with managing multiple vendors, the more parties touching the process from any direction, the more difficult it becomes to effectively and efficiently relay information. Once the architect has drawn up the plans for the space, all the other work is completed by others. That means the architect must manage and keep organized all the communication between vendors, contractors, and city officials, on top of keeping their clients informed. You can imagine right away that this is not the case with a design-build firm, since one firm is overseeing the entire project and is ultimately responsible for any and all issues that may arise. 

Architect Pro: They throw their expertise into the plans, while still managing the rest of the process.
Architect Con: Because nothing but the plans is done in-house, the sheer amount of people involved can facilitate communication errors.

Design-Build Pro: The firm is responsible for everything, which means that communication is already streamlined.
Design-Build Con: Since design-build firms eliminate the need for many outside vendors, the trust factor is once again the most important consideration. 

Costs and Efficiency

We’ve arrived at the most straightforward difference between the two: costs. Simply put, it will cost you roughly 20% less to use a design-build firm. The trade-off, as we’ve mentioned, has to do with the role of the architect as an independent owner's agent, overseeing the construction process. On the other hand, with a design-build firm, not only will you pay less, but efficiency is also improved because design and construction are not being separated: the firm that's actually doing the construction also designed the space.

Architect Pro: The architect becomes your independent owner's agent, which means you benefit from their ability to vet all the vendors and contractors; ideal for the renovation project in which the client has time and money to spare, but wants to be as hands-off as possible.
Architect Con: A typical fee of 20% of the project price is considerable. A $300K project, for example, will cost you $60K in this management fee alone. 

Design-Build Pro: It costs 20% less! The savings are significant when considering a typical New York City apartment renovation. An extra $60K could mean fully custom cabinetry, the 4-D backsplash tiles you had your heart set on, or custom millwork! Plus, the efficiency is improved when the firm that's actually doing the construction also designed the space.
Design-Build Con:
The trust factor rears its head again. The client has to be able to trust their firm, knowing that an independent owner’s agent is not watching over them. 

If an apartment renovation in New York City is in your sights, consider your options. An architectural firm is the traditional approach when making major updates, but your project may actually be much better suited for a design-build firm. When you choose to work with Gallery, know that your project will benefit from our years of expertise designing and renovating apartments in New York City, from brownstones and townhomes to co-ops and condos to lofts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens – all in one, end to end, start to finish. 




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