Dec 8, 2012
Design/build contractors are a great potential find. The trick is figuring out if they are actually great at wearing both hats. My experience is that they are good at one and better at the other. If they run an office, they spend less time in the field. If they are mainly contractors, they can't effectively run a job and design the next one, unless they have a staff, which makes them a larger firm, with more payroll and overhead.
In fairness, a large firm with specialized departments (lots of payroll) can actually be an advantage for some people who want a straightforward plan without a lot of special personalization. These firms can make a house appear quite quickly. Often these firms specialize in tract housing. We have seen wonderfully built and designed tract homes that on their own would be gorgeous custom homes. They just happen to be in a group of somewhat identical wonderful homes.
A large design/build firm can deliver increases in efficiency in exchange for a bit less in the finish department to cover their overhead. In exchange for speed, they will typically limit choices such as which subcontractors can be used, what styles of cabinetry or stonework can be selected, and so forth. If they offer "carte blanche" selection to the homeowner it will probably be at a price premium.
Another type of design/builder is the "one man show" designer/builder. this individual has no designer to builder miscommunications, but can be overwhelmed if they are not a good delegator. Further, if there is a middle of the run design change, they will be pulling double duty under pressure unless they delegate the city hall paperwork while running the project.
I have tried to do this for smaller jobs and if the plan is simple it is fine. For a large project, an architectural firm is invaluable.
Large projects require lots of plan checking, structural engineering, detailed elevations for builders to properly bid the finishes, and by the time you are done you have a big roll of complex drawings. Not really the job for a "hammer-swinger" contractor or even a "shiny shoe" contractor. It is a specialized role that needs the efficiency of schooled experts.