Design-Build vs General Contractor: What’s The Difference?

Considering a renovation in NYC and wondering whether you need a design-build firm or standard general contractor? Let's compare and contrast the two approaches.

May 17, 2023

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Design-Build vs General Contractor: What’s The Difference?

Breaking down the differences that distinguish a design-build firm and standard general contractor.

Table of contents

After months or potentially years deliberating over the nuances of a much-needed home renovation, choosing a partner to lead your project may be the most important decision made. While hiring a general contractor is the traditional route for the build aspect of a renovation, opting for an all-inclusive design-build firm that handles every portion of the renovation is ideal for substantial projects with lots of moving parts. The following article provides an overview of both design-build firms and general contractors, their processes and offerings, along with advantages and disadvantages of each service. 

[#Overview]Overview: Design-Build Firm Services and Processes[#Overview]

Put simply, design-build is a comprehensive approach to home renovations. A design-build firm offers a full-service renovation for clients who value a partner with one main point of contact to oversee the entire process. 

Because a design-build renovation offers that total package approach, the services delivered as part of the partnership leave minimal requirements for the customer beyond cost of material choices. A standard design-build firm renovation includes the following services and processes: 

Building, Electrical, And Plumbing Permits From DOB

Navigating co-op boards, management companies, and city agencies can be a cumbersome process. That’s why design-build firms take on every aspect of the planning and approval process on the clients behalf. This includes the production and filing of all architectural plans along with obtaining all building, plumbing, and electrical permits from the NYC Department Of Buildings. At times this also includes handling landmarked-related approvals with the LPC.

Inspections & Testing

Successful interior renovations consider all angles up front, including all inspections and testing. That means having an electrician ensure electrical updates are attainable, determining whether there is asbestos testing on site, and considering any additional tasks needed upfront to mitigate surprises along the way.

Architectural Design

Instead of looking for a completely separate architect to provide one aspect of your project, a  design-build firm will accommodate every architectural design adjustment that may arise amidst an interior renovation, whether that’s an adjustment to the kitchen traffic pattern, a specific archway into the bathroom, or turning an unused closet into a washer/dryer room. A true design-build firm will also handle all architectural planning plus filings on your behalf via our award winning in-house design team and architects. 

Interior Design

When considering interior design, some clients have a highly specific aesthetic in mind, complete with color swatches and a mood board for inspiration. Others are a total open canvas and welcome direction from the experts. Design-build firms deliver built-in interior design expertise, helping deliver a customer’s vision no matter how clear. 

Material Selection + Procurement

The most hands-on aspect of any interior renovation is finding the right materials for the chosen design style. That entails paint color, accent walls, flooring style, mouldings, fixtures, countertop materials, and more. Full-service design-build firms take on the design, sourcing, and procurement of every permanent fixture required in your renovation. 

Design render from Manhattan condo renovation in Lincoln Square. View our NYC condo renovations portfolio.

Design Renders

After materials have been sourced, a design-build firm will create life-like digital renderings of what the completed space will look like. This includes every aspect of the design, down to the cabinet color and hardware. These high-end renderings provide a visual accompaniment to the blueprint that guides construction. 

Construction & Renovation

  • Demolition Phase
  • Initial Inspections
  • Framing & Rough Carpentry
  • Electrical & Plumbing
  • Finish Carpentry & Fixtures
  • Final Inspections & Walk-Through

[#Advantages]Advantages Of Design-Build[#Advantages]

Increased Quality 

Renovations in New York City require the utmost attention to detail and when all parties involved are working in tandem and not in siloes, there is less chance for error.

Streamlined Communication

With so many moving parts during a renovation, having effective communication is essential to a successful end result. Since a design-build firm team is all under one roof, communication between design and construction is seamless and leaves zero project management for clients. 

Change Orders Less Likely & Minimal Risk

With a full-service team of design and construction professionals experienced in the complexities of NYC renovations, design-build firms make change orders and mid-project budget adjustments much less likely. 

Living area from pre-war apartment renovation in Manhattan. View the full renovation before and after.

[#Disadvantages]Disadvantages of Design-Build[#Disadvantages]

No Price-Shopping For Build

When hiring a full-service design-build firm, you are getting all elements of the project in one - the designer and the build contractor. The design-build firm sets one price for the entire project, start to finish, inclusive of every single nuance associated with the renovation. While convenient, that also means you cannot bid out the construction phase of your project to multiple builders, in order to find the most competitive price. One way to deal with this is to compare numerous proposals from various firms.

Trust Is Everything

Hiring a company for anything requires a leap of faith. Hiring a design-build firm for your home renovation requires research and confidence in your decision. Since design-build firms handle every aspect of your project, they’re solely responsible for meeting your high expectations. Choose wisely. 

[#General]Overview: General Contractor Services and Processes[#General]

While a design-build firm handles the entire scope of your renovations, general contractors typically only account for the construction and renovation work. Because of that singular approach, you will be required to contract and manage an additional designer and/or architect to render the project design and blueprint. You will then need to bid out the construction to a separate general contractor for the build.

Kitchen from Manhattan loft renovation in Tribeca. View our full renovation before and after portfolio.

[#General-Advantages]Advantages of General Contractors[#General-Advantages]

Hands On The Wheel 

For anyone with time to manage multiple contractors, having the full control of your home renovation project might be the ideal route. While this definitely requires a substantial amount of time and energy, being in the driver’s seat allows you to be sole decision-maker. 

Additional Architectural Involvement 

By using a general contractor for only the construction aspect of the renovation, you’re able to find architects that have more unique and specific design styles, with potential for an extremely personalized renovation (IE: very unique design aesthetics). 

Competitive Bid Pricing 

By bidding out each facet of a home renovation (interior designer, architect, construction contractor), you’re able to get competitive prices from various contractors vying for the job - potentially saving on costs by forming a lower-priced team for the job. 

[#Disadvantages-General]Disadvantages of General Contractors[#Disadvantages-General]

Change Order Disorder 

Renovating a home almost always results in a few unexpected surprises. For instance, what happens when old cloth-wiring is encountered during demo? Or, how about if corroded plumbing is found in a pre-war condo? Without proper inspections from professionals at the right times during the process, planning for these hiccups becomes challenging and change orders are likely. 

Extended Timelines 

When unforeseen circumstances happen like mentioned above, timelines will inevitably be extended. 

Communication Breakdown 

In an ideal world, the designer or architect hired for the renovation transitions the project seamlessly to the general contractor, and oversees work towards completion - in order to ensure their design plans are 100% met. Yet, this type of smooth transition in the general contractor environment is rare. Instead, architects and designers often hand-off the plan and leave implementation of their plans solely in hands of the general contractor - resulting in lack of communication between parties and more room for error. 

Project Management Overload 

Even though being in control of a renovation can provide firm hierarchy, the vast amount of management required can often become a burden. Between balancing conversations amongst contractors, material selection and procurement, plus filing permits and getting approvals, the variables are almost always better managed by seasoned professionals who regularly handle complex renovation projects and know exactly what to expect from every angle.

Kitchen from Manhattan loft renovation in Hell's Kitchen. View the full renovation before and after.

[#Compared]Compared: Design-Build Vs General Contractor[#Compared] 

At their core, the main difference between design-build and general contractors is that design-build offers a full-service, all-inclusive renovation package for those who value a partner with one main point of contact to oversee the entire process, whereas a general contractor delivers a piecemeal approach that allows for more flexibility. 

Why Choose Gallery As A Design-Build Firm?

Considering a renovation in NYC? View our full portfolio of New York City renovation before and afters, learn more about Gallery KBNY, or simply contact us today to find out why our full-service approach makes most sense when choosing a contractor in NYC.

We are an award-winning design-build firm in New York City with a full-service approach to residential renovations in Manhattan and Brooklyn that includes everything from interior design and architecture services to filing permits and construction. We’re experts in renovating pre-war homes, kitchens, bathrooms, flooring, sourcing custom pieces, building entirely new rooms, millwork, and all that falls in between. Let Gallery bring your dream home to life.

Marketing Director

Ben Bowdonhttps://www.gallerykbny.com/authors/ben-b

Ben Bowdon is the Marketing Director of Gallery KBNY, a full service design-build firm specializing in the design and interior renovation of apartments, townhomes, and lofts in NYC. For over a decade, Ben has navigated the ever-changing landscape of online marketing, delivering digital strategy solutions for companies of all sizes, until finding a permanent home with Gallery. As lead brand champion and curator, the proud Western Michigan Bronco strives to deliver thoughtful, industry-leading expertise to Gallery’s esteemed clientele via the most seamless omnichannel experience possible.

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