Building by Design The Design-Build Concept

James Hoban: Design-Builder

If you have never heard of James Hoban, you are not alone. He should be one of the most famous home-builders in United States history, yet he is relatively unknown.

Hoban designed and built, then restored and remodeled the most famous house in the United States: what was then called the Executive Mansion, now universally known as the White House

James Hoban was born near Callan, Kilkenny County, Ireland of a serving family employed by a local English aristocrat. Reportedly, his father was a builder, mason, carpenter, and general jack-of-all-trades – and through his father, Hoban became interested in building and design.

Although it was against the English law at that time to educate an Irish peasant, Hoban, a natural artist, won a drawing contest and a place at the then newly formed Dublin Society School (now the Royal School of Drawing). He studied architectural drawing which at that time meant the study of Greek and Roman classical buildings and their design elements.

Hoban then served as an apprentice under the renowned Irish builder Thomas Ivory, where he continued to study architectural drafting and worked with Master Ivory on the construction of the Dublin Exchange.

Emigrating to American in 1785, he was in Charleston, SC, by 1790. He became a noted designer and builder of plantation houses and designed and completed Charleston's Court House and the "fireproof" state capitol in Columbia in 1791 (which, incidentally was burned to the ground by invading Federal troops in 1865).

Hoban moved to Washington, D.C. in 1792 where he entered a competition to design the proposed Executive Mansion residence for the President, and won, receiving the then princely sum of $500.00 for his work. He was also hired to supervise the construction.

His design is believed to have been influenced by the Leinster House in Dublin. The Duke of Leinster was a patron of the Dublin Society School, and Hoban was acquainted with this locally famous house. It is widely believed that the curved facade for which the White House is architecturally noteworthy was a copy of the same feature on the Leinster House.

Hoban, having become a firm friend and proté gé of Thomas Jefferson, was made superintendent of the project, completing most of it in only nine years, just in time for President John Adams to occupy the new building at the turn of the new century in 1800.

But by the end of 1814, Hoban's creation was just a charred shell, burned by a British army during its occupation of Washington. Res­toration work under Hoban's supervision was completed in 1817. During this restoration, Hoban ordered the building painted white to hide the remaining evidence of the fire – which color it has remained ever since. Hoban continued adding to the White House until 1829, including the distinctive circular colonnaded porticos, by which time it looked essentially as it does today.

Hoban went on to become one of the new federal city's most respected citizens. He was Superintendent Architect of the Capitol from 1793 to 1802, took the city's first census, became a captain of the Washington artillery, and served as a lifetime member of the City Council. He designed and built several other federal buildings, including the Treasury Building and War and Navy Buildings, leaving a legacy that was "never approached in historical importance by any other single architect in the development of the city".

In addition to his public works, Hoban designed and built the John Mason Residence, Blodgett's Hotel, the Oak Hill mansion in Loudon County, Virginia, and St. Patrick's church, among others.

He died in Washington D.C. on December 8, 1831.

In the 1980s he made history for one final time when he was honored by a commemorative stamp issued simultaneously in Ireland and the USA – the first joint issue between the Irish Post office and any foreign post office ever to take place.

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A design-builder is a modern form of the oldest approach to creating buildings – that of the master builder. The master-builder was originally a combination architect, engineer, and builder, responsible for every phase of building a structure from initial concept to completion. He commanded the necessary resources: draftsmen, masons, carpenters, laborers, carvers, and metal-workers, and dedicated them to the single-minded pursuit of excellence in design and construction.

A Brief History of Home-Building

The concept of a master builder was formally recognized as early as 1800 B.C. when, in ancient Mes­opot­amia, the Code of Hammurabi assigned to master builders absolute responsibility for design and construction of all public works. A great many old and famous structures were built by master builders: the Parthenon, London Bridge, the White House (See the sidebar: "James Hoban: Design-Builder"), Central Park (OK, that's not a "structure" but it definitely was "built" and is, in fact, the world's largest artificial outdoor water feature), and most of the European cathedrals. Medieval cathedrals are, in fact, remarkable examples of building mastery. They often took centuries to finish, and sons and grandsons succeeded the original master builders to complete the work that may have begun generations earlier.

But as large buildings became more complex, increasing specialization separated the functions of design and construction. Architects and engineers became the designers, and builders erected the structure from these designs. The resulting process has become known as the design-bid-build process. Once a design was finished and plans drawn up, the project was put out for bid. The winning bidder was then responsible for building according to the design.

In residential construction, however, it took a lot longer for the break to occur. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, housebuilders continued to build and remodel homes much as they had always been built. The typical American home was not designed, it was just built. The process actually worked quite well, accounting for the majority of the housing built before the mid-twentieth-century, and still a lot of homes today.

Builders learned their craft through an informal apprenticeship process: A young builder went to work for a seasoned contractor and learned on the job how a particular house type was built. Most builders limited themselves to one or two designs that they built over and over again. Everyone in town knew that if you wanted a craftsman cottage you went to one certain builder. For a Tudor revival, you hired a different builder. If you wanted a colonial two-story, there was yet a third builder who only built colonial-style homes. Detailed plans like we see today were rare. The builder had built so many of the same house, that he knows exactly how to build it and did not need more than a sketch or two.

The effect of this form of builder segmentation is evident in the older neighborhoods of Nebraska cities. You see the same house in different colors with some variation in trim and finish all over the neighborhood – one on this block, two on another, a fourth across the alley. If you look at the building records, it's a sure bet they were all built by the same builder.

In the housing boom that followed the Second World War, this rather quirky and leisurely process of building homes changed quickly. A lot of housing needed to be built in a big hurry for returning GIs flush with VA guaranteed home loans. (For more information see Postwar Styles: Cape Cod, Colonial, and Ranch .)

Thus began the era of the cookie-cutter house plan. A designer or architect would develop a plan and sell it to hundreds, even thousands, of builders and homebuyers. Local craftsmen would make the changes necessary to adapt the plan to the site but this was largely the limit of their creative input. It worked because builders who did not know how to build a particular house could now do so by reference to the detailed house plan rather than to years of experience – and could build a lot of different houses more quickly. Much of existing American housing was built just this way – which is why you can see essentially the same house in Oxen Hill, Maryland as you can find in Broken Bow, Nebraska. They both originated with the same plan publisher somewhere in New York or California.

Some homeowners did not like the cookie-cutter approach, however, insisting on a little more personality and individuality in their homes. Their needs did not justify the cost of a full architectural design but they wanted more than the standard tract house. They turned to local contractors with the idea that a custom home could be designed as well as constructed by a seasoned builder. Over time, these builders became design-builders, unwittingly reviving that most ancient way of building, the master-builder.

What is a Design-Builder?

Most simply put, a design-builder re-consolidates the functions of design and construction under one roof rather than parceling it out between an architect or designer and a building contractor. A design-builder is not appropriate for some homes. The high-dollar, high-tech, designer homes a la Bill Gates still require the training and talents of a registered architect. But for the rest of us, design-build is the ideal way to build – combining design creativity and building expertise in one source for absolute coordination of effort, maximum efficiency, and lowest cost.

Design-build represents a substantial departure from the conventional design-bid-build project delivery process. In design-bid-build, homeowners hire a designer or architect to create a plan, then put the project out for bid to contractors. During the construction process, the architect may continue to represent the owner acting as construction manager but more often, the responsibility for management is turned over to a general contractor. In design-build, the homeowner, builder, and designer collaborate from the project's earliest stages to generate designs and establish costs. The designer answers to the contractor, who has ultimate responsibility for the entire project – including the design.

Benefits of Design-Build

The design-build process results in several significant advantages for the homeowner.

Improved Accountability: A key feature of design-build is that it fixes one source of responsibility. This concept is known as the "Single Point of Accountability". Single Point of Accountability requires you to deal with one and only one entity. Your design-builder representative is present at every meeting and is the channel for all communication. Where design and building are split between designer and separate builder, there are multiple points of responsibility, and in the event of a misunderstanding or dispute, you may end up becoming the mediator between the designer's plan and the builder's implementation – a role for which you are ordinarily not well prepared.

Time Savings: Because design and construction are overlapped, and bidding periods and redesign time are eliminated, total design and construction time can be significantly reduced.

Design-build is ideal for the application of "fast-track" construction techniques. Procurement and construction work begin before the working drawings are fully completed. The resulting time savings translates into lower costs and earlier occupancy. According to a study conducted in the late 1990s by the Construction Industry Institute together with Pennsylvania State University, design-build projects are completed, on average, 33% faster than traditional design-bid-build projects.

Cost Savings: When design and craftspeople work jointly on a plan, the designer has the benefits of the craftsman's knowledge of how things actually get built, and can early on find more efficient ways of building, and cost-saving material substitutions. This process, known generally as "value engineering" is easier to accomplish when builders and designers work as one team. And the results can be plugged into the budget earlier so that savings in one place can result in added features in another. The cost savings resulting from the process are real. The Pennsylvania State University study found that on average design-build results in cost savings of 6% over conventional building. And that's just the average. The study documented cost savings of as much as 40%. Think about that. On a $10,000 remodel, the savings can be as much as $4,000 – net cost $6,000.

Reduced Administrative Burden: Because design-build is a fully integrated process, your administrative burden is much reduced. You are not required to coordinate and arbitrate between separate design and construction providers. This reduces the inevitable stress of remodeling and permits you to focus on what is needed to speed the project to completion, like making the timely decisions that are certain to be necessary at various points in the construction process.

Early Forecasting of Project Costs: Firmer cost estimates are known far earlier in the process. The design-builder can be estimating construction costs at the same time he is formulating the concept designs. In fact, he must have a good idea of these costs, because a big part of preliminary design is trading off features to reduce costs. This gives you an early opportunity for a "go, no go" decision.

If the project is proving unaffordable, it can be terminated or radically redesigned before proceeding to the much more expensive working drawing phase. This early cost forecasting is not available in the design-bid-build process. Actual costs are not known until bids are received. Before bids can be let, the final construction blueprints must be drafted. So the process is much further along before firm cost figures are available.

Reduction of Errors: When the design has an error, it will be caught in the construction stage but often not soon enough to be fixed inexpensively. For example, the architect has specified a 30" cabinet where only a 24" cabinet can fit. The builder has ordered the cabinet based on the specifications but comes time to install it, the mistake is discovered – it won't fit. Not only is the right cabinet going to have to be reordered but also there is no refund on the wrong cabinet (after all the cabinet maker made the cabinet he was instructed to make), and there is going to be a time delay until the right cabinet arrives. Now the finger-pointing starts. The builder says the designer should not have made the mistake. The architect says the builder should have remeasured before he ordered the cabinets, and could have caught the mistake early on. You, caught in the middle, usually end up paying most of the cost of the error.

With design-build, the great majority of such errors are caught very early so they don't slow down the construction, and any errors that do occur in the design or building process are solely the responsibility of the design-build team. The design-builder pays for errors, not you.

Rev. 06/22/20