When we had the brilliant idea to do an issue on design/build firms, we thought we'd given ourselves an easy summer assignment. We'd already planned a cover story on multi-talented Marmol Radziner and Associates, so picking a few other like-minded firms for our design portfolio seemed like a no-brainer. Certainly, other residential firms excel in both design and construction. Turns out, these Jacks and Janes of all trades are few and far between. Sure, plenty of companies promote themselves as design/build, but they should really call themselves build/design because that's where their priorities lie. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for clients who want a pleasant design and a one-stop-shopping process for delivering it. But we were on the hunt for companies whose houses stand up to the best that the design-only firms produce. Our ace reporters eventually located a few stellar ones, but they were surprised at the effort it took. Our cover partners spent some time looking for their mirror image too, hoping they could share wisdom with other large architect-led design/build companies. Like some Transylvanians we know of, they saw no reflection in the mirror. Our associate editor Shelley Hutchins had better luck and uncovered a team in Arizona they might want take to lunch: The Construction Zone. We were all skeptical that a company with such a hard-edged name could also draw beautiful houses, but they do. Our other featured firms do lovely work as well. But all the companies we profiled are inventing themselves with only their instinct and passion to guide them.
Passion here is key. Because, for all our complaints about contractors, we understand what they do takes nerves of steel—and the house in their spouse's name. Anyone who has worked in the residential construction profession for any length of time knows a builder who has gone belly-up because he underestimated a job, got in over his head, made a tragic mistake. And even if he does 95 percent of the job right, his customers will remember the 5 percent that went wrong. If he messes up the equation enough times, he's out of work or worse. You've got to love the business to stay in it.
There's lots of risk but done well there's plenty of reward in construction. Many builders make more money than architects. They sell something clients have an easier time understanding. Their efforts result in something tangible. Our design/build firms enjoy earning the full financial benefits of their designs by assembling them, stick by stick. They also love the control, start to finish, that they have over the entire process. There's no one saying it can't be done. There's no one misunderstanding the drawing and hacking the way to a solution. There's no one slicing the heart out of a design to balance the budget or pocket the profit. Ideally.
Design architects worry about removing the checks and balances of the architect-builder-client triangle in favor of more padding in the checkbook. If the motivation to build is simply more revenue flowing through the company, perhaps it's a concern worth pondering. All of our profiled firms came at design/build through hands-on experience in construction. Quite simply, they love putting beautiful things together beautifully well—and reaping all the rewards the effort entails.
Comments? Call: 202.736. 3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.