Lately, I’ve been juggling two simultaneous office renovations. One was led by a Design and Build (D&B) firm, while the other was developed by the classic ensemble of Architects, Consultants, and Contractors, all corralled by a Project Manager — a process often referred to as “Traditional” or “Trad”. It gave me the chance to compare both jobs and to see just how these two very different processes work out.
Typically, my projects are handled by D&B firms, simply because that’s how it is mostly done in in the European market. However, I recently worked in New York, a city where Design and Build under a single company is somewhat of a rarity. Consequently, I found myself navigating the “Trad” pathway which was, without a doubt, an interesting journey.
The first thing you need is a Project Manager. You cannot do it yourself. A construction PM is a specialised beast. They will become the absolute heart of the project for both clients and contractors and so it must be someone in whom you have complete faith. If you get the type of PM that just keeps a list of tasks and when people say they will complete them by and just updates this at each project meeting, you are in big trouble. Deadlines will slip, costs will escalate, and your stress levels will skyrocket. I speak from bitter experience.
The PM must be able to push, chastise, negotiate, and yell occasionally. He must know how to build an office to ensure he knows when he is being flannelled and be able to communicate to the disparate parts of this team, what is expected by the client.
They also need to be able to manage the client.
Clients must understand what is possible within a given timeframe and what is not. They must be educated about the domino effect one tiny change can have on the project. If it’s a long project they have to understand the impact inflation can have on the final number. Essentially, they have to trust that the PM has their best interests at heart every day.
The challenge for the PM is that everyone has their own agenda and delivery of the project is just one item on the list. The Architects want to create their amazing design, the construction team has their eye on the schedule and the next job on their books, and the specialists want perfection in their particular discipline (acoustics, lighting, tech etc), irrespective of annoying trivia like design, budget and timescale. The client simply wants it delivered on time and on budget. A good PM knows that any change to the plan just shifts responsibilities in the group, it implies cutting corners and upsets the balance of power, and that just gets you pushback. From everyone.
In the world of D&B, everyone works for the same company and so tends to pull a little more in the same direction. I am certain there are “full and frank discussions” behind the scenes between the designers, the construction teams and the in-house PM, but, as the client, I tend not to see them or get involved. There is much less scope for one trade to publicly blame another for a delay or cost increase and the tendency is to present a united front.
The trust requirement is still there. You need faith that the team in front of you are as passionate about your project as you are, and that will be driven by the relationship you have with your “account manager” or point of contact in the company.
So … the pros and cons?
The Trad route will involve a lot of people and, in some places like NYC, it will involve a hell of a lot of people. Some of them with really odd titles like “expeditor”. The whole procurement and billing process is more complicated as there are simply more suppliers. Hopefully, a good PM will handle a lot of that for you. If you have challenges with elements of the team during the project, it’s a little easier to swap them out for a new provider under the “Trad” route.
The D&B route certainly has advantages in procurement and billing, as it is usually centralised and presented as a single invoice. The contracting of required trades is left to the D&B team, and they take responsibility for their performance.
It gets challenging if you fall out with someone on the main team. For example, if you and the designer turn out to have intrinsically different ideas about the project, it will not be easy to find a new one within the company and changing horses mid-stream is never going to be easy or cheap.
But overall, I prefer working with the D&B sector as it limits the “project overhead”. By that I mean, I get a single point of contact, I am not dealing with hundreds of different suppliers and invoices, I can build a closer relationship with the D&B team, and they all have the same goal. Namely, to finish the entire project. Not just their piece of it.