A new model for architecture



“We think about architecture and we draw architecture, but we don’t make architecture,” says Robby Johnston, partner in Raleigh Architecture Company and Raleigh Construction Company. “A general contractor manages the architecture, and the subcontractors – the masons, the framers, the plumbers, the electricians, the siders and the window installers – make the architecture.”

But with design-build, architects can talk directly with makers from the get-go, and work through potential issues early on. “For us, design-build is about closing a loop in the design and feedback cycle,” says Erik Mehlman, principal in Durham-based BuildSense Architecture + Construction.

North Carolina law prohibits architecture firms from operating as construction companies, so two separate legal entities are required – one for design and another for building. That way, designers can work both inside the studio as architects and on the site as builders. It translates into accelerated schedules, too, because the two companies are freed from the bidding process usually conducted by general contractors.

“The bank loan is for a year, so we design in three months and build in nine,” says Vinny Petrarca, partner in Tonic Design and Tonic Construction. “It gives you choices and options a little bit sooner,” adds his partner, Katherine Hogan. “We can understand the financial outcomes – and it adds design value.”

That might mean financial savings also, since client and architect get together for budget talks at the start – not the end – of the design phase. “If a client has a budget of $200 per square foot, we’ll design and build a house for $200 per square foot,” Johnston says. “In other delivery models, the same project might come in higher at bid time, and additional time and resources would be spent on redesign to reconcile the difference in cost.”

Let’s take a look at five recent projects, and see how design-build influenced them.

The Garrett, Alphin Design Build

The Garrett is a renovation for an attic space atop a 1990s home in Cary, completed in 2014. The clients asked for a flexible room that could double as an adult study or a sleepover space for children. It’s 17 by 26 feet, and it emphasizes horizontal lines with cherry paneling and thin aluminum plating. Eschewing light switches, it offers plug-ins for iPods to turn music up or down, to switch LED lighting on and off, or to open or close shades for four new skylights. “The clients are in the tech industry, so we wanted a warm, traditional attic feel, but also a 21st-century, modern and straightforward feel,” says Will Alphin, founder of Alphin Design Build. They delivered that in spades, because Alphin could work together daily with carpenters on site. “The closer the designer and the builder, the better,” he says.

The Hungry Neck House, Raleigh Architecture Company and Raleigh Construction Company

Built on an infill lot on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh’s downtown Hungry Neck neighborhood, this 2,000-square-foot home celebrates the client’s kitchen at its center. “He’s Korean, and his mom cooked every meal for him growing up,” says architect Robby Johnston. “He wanted a kitchen where he could cook with her and learn the recipes.” But perhaps the most innovative ideas here came through scheduling and financing. “There were 90 days to design and appraise it, to close on the construction loan and submit it for permit – and it took eight months to build,” Johnston says. “He financed the architectural fees in the construction loan – he would not have been able to afford the architect’s out-of-pocket fees without design-build.”

Horseshoe Farm, BuildSense Architecture + Construction:

Out in Creedmoor, on 20 acres at the northern edge of Falls Lake, lies Horseshoe Farm and the home that Randy Lanou designed and built with his wife. They’d lived on the land in a smaller cottage for 15 years, so they had plenty of time to ponder the layout of their 3,000-square-foot home. Lanou spent six months designing – his wife served as client – and about a year building. “I tried to put three full workdays in every week – I did a lot of the framing, and the family plumbed and wired the whole house,” says Lanou, the principal in BuildSense Architecture + Construction. The process paid off, because the same team that designed the home also built it. “There was a deep understanding of the project,” he says.


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