Architect-led design-build: What is it and where is it popular


I am nearing the end of my M.Arch education (in May) and I am looking forward to engaging with the built environment full-time.  Through time at school I have learned that I am a bit of a control freak in terms of design, and through internships I have learned that excessive time spent in an office can bore me quickly.  

This has led me to believe that I should pursue design-build because I enjoy working with my hands and want to actively participate in the full scope of the project.  In my mind, I would like to be able to literally design and build (in part) a project of manageable scale/labor skill level, while still maintaining a profit margin.  For those of you who are experienced in this style of practice; do I have unrealistic expectations for the course of my career and is this achievable?  The second part of the question is where can I find it?  I am looking to move mid-summer.

Jan 10, 19 1:32 pm

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The notion of a master designer who also swings da hammer sure sounds romantic, but in real life is reserved to tiniest residential work, and even then replace "swinging the hammer" to "delivering materials yourself in order to save on $15 delivery fee". 

Design-Build really only means that a single entity is providing both design and construction services. You will still subcontract the shit out of construction side.

Even in those HGTV house flipping shows they only pretend to be doing the manual labor themselves. 

Jan 10, 19 1:43 pm

I have some similar thoughts as someone working in CM and applying to M.Arch. Using my CM background and eventually adding design to practice D+B is appealing, but you have to consider how one takes away from the other. 

Managing subs is a full time job depending on the project scope, so it's hard to imagine having necessary time leftover to grow the design aspect of your hypothetical firm, without adding employees and growing it. Agree with @Rusty! about swinging a hammer... it would also be fiscally irresponsible considering what you could pay a carpenter, what you paid for your M.Arch, and what you could charge for designing.  

Get some CM experience if you haven't already and see if you like it enough. 

Jan 10, 19 2:02 pm

I appreciate the feedback.  In a way I understand that the profession exists the way it does because of the economics, and that "swinging the hammer" can be seen as a romantic depiction of the renaissance master builder.  However, I would hope that the ends of the project materialization arc are not always mutually exclusive.  Seeking CM experience has been on my radar, but I already know I can't ignore my urge to design.  A bit of an unfortunate grass-is-always-greener situation.  

If the designer who builds can only exist as a kind of tale,  I would still like to know what the closest possible role could be.  Or at least find a way to work with some element of the virtual and physical building.

Jan 10, 19 2:52 pm

There are plenty of D+B firms out there. Most of them probably being residential? I would also think that positions would be more specialized as the firms get larger. 

Interested to hear what you end up doing and how you liked your M.Arch program with those kinds of preferences, as I feel the same way sometimes. Shoot me a message! 


Personally I LOVE this idea but except for Gluck I don't know too many firms in the NY area doing it. And I think Gluck does residential and maybe some small commercial projects. There are a lot of commercial issues when i comes to doing bigger architect-led design build projects, bonding capacity, insurance, etc. 

If there was an arch design build firm in the NY area doing bigger projects i would jump ship today. 

Jan 10, 19 4:03 pm

I had come across Gluck+ in my earlier search for firms practicing this way and there work is compelling. Although they are probably as big as a D+B firm gets, it still seems as though there is a disconnect between the people drawing and those that are making. They are worth checking out, but I wouldn't be able to get myself to live or work in the City.


Unless he or she only does one tiny project at a time, the architect running their own design-build would have to hire multiple people to effectively perform the on-site and office ends of the construction work.  The average firm owner barely has enough time to decently run an architecture-only operation.

The licensing, insurance, and funding hurdles are also pretty stout.

Design-build shops are mostly owned by contractors because their background covers a lot more of these bases.  These guys can simply hire employee architects to work on staff for them.

Jan 10, 19 4:49 pm

Absolutely. It would not be much of a practice with only a one-man band. The firm would still have employees and likely those who prefer to do certain tasks, but might offer the potential for rotating teams or studios that carry a project through its phases while other teams are working independently on other projects. I have seen that the vast majority of D+B companies are contractor-led under the guise of "custom home builders". However their buildings reveal they weren't design by architects.


There are a number of firms practicing this way but although trained as architects they tend to choose to practice as "house designers / builders".  Decent work but as was mentioned earlier tends to be only advanced as far as single family residential, which isn;'t too say that that isn't a substantial market, because it is.  For those creative hands on type it's really the only scale that works, beyond that scale the work requires a more commercial approach for cost efficiencies etc. No surprise.

Jan 11, 19 12:41 pm

That does seem to be the overwhelmingly popular building type for the style, which i''m certainly not against. The tough part is finding the ones who really do care about design or at least making more contemporary houses. Do you know of any regions or states where this is relatively common? Or do they tend to be in random one-off locations?


Any market / region where there is a larger percentage of higher end custom homes being built some actually build on spec knowing that there are wealthy buyers looking for quality. Differentiation of what "quality" can be a bit suspect in those markets, but be clear it's not about size or volume.

Good comment Whistler, except for the spec part, because that's all about size / volume of return.

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There are actually a few guys in my hood doing some pretty decent stuff "On Spec" using some big name guys from around the PNW ( Olson Kundig / Brian Hemingway / Paul Merrick / BCJ etc )stuff that I wouldn't consider having the monster house characteristics of a typical suburban spec home. But they aren't doing what we normally consider "design build" either. However the builders are going way beyond what I consider your average custom home by getting a decent Architect / Starchitect to for the overall design, that they then flush out using their own team. Makes for a pretty nice home that has all the markings of a unique custom home, that is based upon some good DNA!


The on spec approach is a bit concerning, but you're right about the locations where it's practiced having high chance of wealthy clients buying in. I suppose it would be a little more common to find this practice on the West coast. Olson Kundig's work is fantastic and the fact they still get their hands dirty in the shop is nice. Getting a firm with a profile like that to initiate the design for the contractor to run with it makes a lot of sense too.


hufft and eldorado in kansas city have architecture and fabrication.  that might be what you're looking for.  you won't be the architect and the GC and the electrician and everything else unless you build your profession around designing people's decks.  they're different full-time jobs with different skill sets.

Jan 11, 19 6:03 pm

design and fabrication does seem a lot more manageable than biting off too much to chew with the responsibility of the whole building. Offering lines of custom casework or fixtures would contribute to a firm's profile too and sounds like the work environment of a firm with an in-house workshop would stimulate creativity. I like the idea of scaling the built elements back.


Walker Workshop does nice work and does design-build sometimes.

Jan 11, 19 9:47 pm

Excellent work on their website and their bio sounds exactly like what I'm looking for!



Jan 13, 19 12:46 am

Nice work on the website! These CA firms have some high-paying clients.

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I am currently working at a traditional firm. However I am doing my own design-build on the side... just single family / duplex  homes on infill sites. It’s a pain in the ass dealing with subs especially since I work full time. I can’t be constantly picking up the phone and handling my own business when I’m at work which sucks. So my lunch breaks turn into going into my second office space (my car) and handling calls. 

Also I am not swinging the hammers. I just have my own small crew to get the job done. If you interested in design build I would save some money and start your own little project first. Small single family. I would try to save 50% of project funding and try to get the rest fianced that way interest doesn’t kill you. There are a lot of finance options look for the cheapest one. Then you can either sell it, rent it, and move in it yourself. Rinse and repeat.

 But if I you are interested in doing design build, just start a small project yourself. Also Network with like mined individuals. Join Facebook groups where a lot of people discuss their own projects. Also I would Look into Jon Segal... he is doing the similar thing above just at a larger scale than me in San Diego. 

Best of luck whatever avenue you go down.

Jan 13, 19 8:23 am

Thank you! It sounds like your plate is full managing those 2 jobs but i suppose that's the best way of starting your practice while maintaining a steady income. I appreciate your advice about how to initiate a practice with 50% of the cost put away. And looking into social media should turn up some more practices!

Wood Guy

Most of my career has been in the residential design/build world, in various positions, mostly as a lead designer and project manager at a firm building $250K renovations and $750K new homes, with the occasional $1-2M new home (and plenty of $50K bathrooms) as well. I've also done every other task needed to build a house, including a stint as a cabinetmaker.  

After a few years on my own now as a designer (I'm not a licensed architect but my experience is equivalent, for residential only) I recently started building as well. For the last few months I've literally been swinging a hammer and doing other on-site work, with two part-time employees. It's been a blast, for the most part, but as the others have said, it does not make financial sense. Now that I have a few months of work lined up, I'm advertising for a skilled carpenter who can take over daily management on site, so I can focus on designing and pricing the next set of projects, and other office-based tasks, to keep the ball rolling. 

A benefit of including construction is that it's much more resilient in the face of an economic slowdown, which is imminent. A downside, as others have said, is that most of the best residential projects are design by stand-alone architects, and built by stand-alone builders. It's hard to do everything well, and design/build tends to attract clients with a bit of wealth but also relatively tight budgets. 

As for advice, based on my own experience, I would strongly recommend spending some time working in the field for a good contractor, or several different contractors, including some who are design/build and some who are build-only. You may decide, as many do, that you want to continue building with your hands, but in any case you will gain credibility with builders if you decide to focus more on design over time, and you will be a better designer if you understand how buildings go together from a first-hand point of view. 

Jan 13, 19 12:30 pm

It is great to hear that you've been working this way first hand and that you've enjoyed it. I suppose as others have said the biggest hurdle is delegating enough to make sense financially while still reserving enough of the fun parts. What you said about a D+B firm fairing better against recession is intriguing though. I have had some (informal) building experience in terms of building a pool deck, fence, trellis, and master bedroom suite when helping my father finish the house I grew up in (which really inspired my pursuit of D+B), but some formal experience certainly makes sense. Definitely agree with your last point about architects knowing how building go together. Thank you for your insight!


I am a Licensed Architect, in New York and New Jersey. I practice as a sole proprietor on the Architecture side and do mostly small to medium sized residential and commercial projects. I also own my own general contracting firm.

On the architectural side, I do things pretty much myself, drawing, design, filing with DOB, etc. Occasionally I will source out to freelance for cad work, or 3D renderings, but I do most of it myself at night, after hours.

On the construction side I am also very much involved. I have a full time foreman/super and we hire subcontractors as required. I have done material sourcing myself, picking up, delivering, carrying doors up 4 flights of stairs, painting, plastering or carpentry. Demolition is pretty much in house, and so is day to day construction supervision. 

I love what I do and I have total control as a master builder. Yes things can get hard and are hard in the beginning, but hope to have larger projects in the future where I can hire full time staff and I don't need to do the dirty work as they say.

Feb 3, 19 11:47 am

It does sound like a lot to take on as an individual, but good to hear you were in pursuit of the same idea. I think I'm interested in joining an established firm before developing the resources and experience to branch off someday though. Smart to outsource the things you aren't too much a fan of to be able to partake in the things you're interested in.

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