Is a design-build firm right for you? (© Robert Daly/Getty Images)

© Robert Daly/Getty Images

So you're considering remodeling that tired basement — or even building your dream home. You may have heard the buzz about the "design-build" approach.

What is design-build? Is it right for you and your remodel? And what are the pros and cons of this approach, compared with a more "traditional" method?

We've got the answers to help you sort it all out and decide how to proceed to make your home — and building process — the best it can be. (Bing: Fnd a design-build firm in your area)

What is design-build, anyway?
"Basically, design-build is a one-stop shopping option for homeowners. They can get their design and their construction done by one company," says Denny Connor, president of CRD Design Build, a Seattle-based design-build firm.

A design-build firm may employ a full-time designer or an architect, in addition to a production manager, carpenters and other workers.

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This contrasts with the more traditional "design-bid-build" approach, in which you hire an independent architect to design a home or a remodel, contractors bid to build it and the company you choose ultimately builds the project.

Design-build isn't new. The concept of a "master builder" who designs a structure and then oversees its construction is an idea at least as old as the ancient Greeks and the Egyptians who crafted the pyramids, architects say. And it's alive and well today in other nations.

But after drifting away from the concept, there's "absolutely a very, very strong movement" back to the idea in this country, says Luis Jauregui, who owns Jauregui Architecture Interiors Construction with his wife, Susan, and designs and builds new homes in Texas.

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"We're in an economy where every dollar that's invested must be invested at the highest, highest value in terms of efficiency," says Barbara Jackson, a professor of construction management at California Polytechnic State University and the author of "Design-Build Essentials," among other books. "The linear [design-bid-build] approach to design and construction is too inefficient, it's too wasteful, and it's too slow."

But is design-build always the best choice? Let's walk through a hypothetical remodel to see how the process works and where the pros and cons pop up.

Step 1: Getting to know you
Let's say you want to remodel your aged kitchen. You find a design-build firm that comes highly recommended by friends. Your first step simply may be a $500 to $1,500 feasibility study, says Victoria Downing, co-author of "Mastering the Business of Design Build Remodeling" and president of Remodelers Advantage, which consults with remodelers to help improve their business.

"The goal of that is to understand enough of the client's project to do a rough budget" and make sure it matches the client's budget, Downing says.

This is also the point for you, the homeowner, to get to know the firm and decide if you feel comfortable with the team and the approach.

"One of the benefits of design-build is that it's a phased process," she says. "There are many points of the homeowner to say, 'Go' or 'No go.'"

This differs from the traditional approach, in which you might initially meet and vet an architect, then talk about what you want, Downing says. But "there's no feasibility study," she says. And homeowners may never meet the contractors before it's time to choose one, so they often rely on the architect's recommendation.

Step 2: Design
The second step is developing a plan. Through conversations with a designer, you'll start to shape what your kitchen will look like — which can take several weeks or more, as you go back and forth. It also requires more investment.

This is where design-build can really start to shine. In this integrated process, the people who understand the costs of construction and materials — and who are in the same office — work with the designer as the vision evolves to gauge how the costs and other factors might change. For example, what if you decide to swap out cheaper laminate countertops for quartz?

"Then the next time you meet, the remodeler will say, 'We can do that, but it will increase the cost by $10,000,'" Downing says.

During the design process, "We'll estimate a project two or three times, depending on the size of the project," Connor says. He and a colleague have carpentry backgrounds, and they use those skills to gauge feasibility and costs. "We're more or less vetting the constructability of the design periodically as it goes through the process."

Because the firm is pricing as it goes, there often are fewer surprises, and "the pricing can be very, very accurate," Downing says.

This all may seem like common sense, you say. So what's the big deal?

Here's the difference, proponents say: In the design-bid-build approach, an architect consults with the client and then frequently works in isolation to draw up a plan. The result is often a nice design.

"(But) architects aren't always thinking about the cost — they're thinking about what it looks like," Jackson says. If the result is over budget, redesign may be necessary — at the owner's expense, says Jackson, who has built homes using both traditional and design-build approaches.

Sometimes, the result is that the design doesn't get built at all, she says. "I call it 'design-bid-bust-build,'" Jackson says.

Read:  How to talk to your architect

Bringing the builders into the design process early can help save money in other ways.

"Here's a classic," Jackson says. "Plywood comes in 4-by-8(-foot) sheets. So why would you design something that's 33 feet, 2.5 inches? It's not a factor of four. Guess what? I just threw away 70% or 80% of a piece of plywood. That's something that a contractor sees in an instant" when looking at a design, she says.

With design-build, she says, "We're trying to get the design right the first time, so we don't have to correct it during construction."

Many people like this coordination, which they think makes the process run more smoothly. "When you work with a design-build company, the entire team is on the same phone call. The key word is 'unified,'" Jauregui says.