In this e-book, we’ll first outline the difference between Design-Build and Design-Bid-Build.

Design-Build vs Design-Bid-Build: What’s the Difference?

For anyone planning a construction project, the number of queries and various approaches to getting started can seem pretty overwhelming. For both residential and commercial projects, one of the first questions to answer is the working relationship with your architectural and construction team. Contractual agreements between clients, designers, and construction service providers commonly fall into two categories: Design-Build and Design-Bid-Build. But what exactly is the difference between these two approaches?

In this e-book, we’ll first outline the difference between Design-Build and Design-Bid-Build, before considering the benefits and risks of each approach and explore the Design-Build process here at Letter Four.

First things first, what is Design-Build?

Put simply: Design-Build is an approach that allows owners to hire a single entity (the Designer/Builder) to deliver their entire project under one contract.

Whilst aspects of the build may be performed by the company themselves or subcontracted to specialist teams, the Design-Build approach allows for high levels of collaboration between architectural design and construction services.

This means that a single entity bears the responsibility and risks for every aspect of a project. From initial estimations to architectural drawings, engineering, construction, and final touches — the Design-Builder will typically manage all contracts and ultimately deliver the finished build.

And, what is Design-Bid-Build?

Design-Bid-Build is a more traditional form of project delivery, where the owner will negotiate separate contracts with both designers and contractors.

The design firm will firstly produce complete design documents, which will then be used to seek quotations and bids from building contractors. This approach means that the designers and contractors bear no contractual obligations to each other, with all associated risks (including cost overruns, delays, or feasibility of plans) lying with the owner.

What are the benefits of a Design-Build process?

Design-Build is first and foremost a simpler approach to construction. It’s rapidly growing in popularity, now delivering almost half of America’s building projects.

Unlike Design-Bid-Build, this method brings both design and construction functions together as one team, working as a single entity with the owner. There are many benefits of the Design-Build process for both residential and construction. These include:

Efficiency and expertise

It almost goes without saying, but Design-Build firms are experts in just that — designing and construction. With everybody on the same team, the common goal is to arrive at a successful project that meets and exceeds expectations.

Greater accountability and communication between the design and construction aspects ensure that builds are more likely to finish on time and budget — a huge win-win!

Communication and collaboration

In our experience, we know that better communication leads to fewer problems. When problems arise on a build, instead of pointing the blame at other parties, a Design-Build firm will work on solutions together.

When designers and constructors work as one team, unified project recommendations are made. This culture of collaboration means that teams can successfully marry the demands of design, practicality, schedule, and budget from the offset — resulting in a smoother process.

Cost savings

Design-Build offers better solutions at a better price.

With multiple budget checks and a single point of responsibility throughout the project, owners are reassured that overspends aren’t going unnoticed.

With traditional Design-Bid-Build, owners can sometimes be left as arbiters between design and construction teams. With Design-Build, these risks are minimized. The entire team works together to produce a defined budget, sound designs, and excellent results.


Design-Build encourages collaboration, communication, and creativity. It allows clients to be part of the process from the very start — understanding and trusting each aspect of the project with advice from expert architects, engineers, surveyors, and builders. With greater communication, the best and most innovative solutions are found, leading to faster projects, lower costs, and beautiful buildings.

What are the risks of a Design-Bid-Build process?

It can be nerve-wracking for clients to delegate such a large amount of responsibility to a single company. Because of this, the Design-Bid-Build process usually appeals to owners with more time and expertise to oversee aspects of the project themselves.

Design-Bid-Build is also seen as a way to ensure competitiveness amongst construction bidders, with design plans being put out for fixed-price bids from construction firms.

Whilst there certainly are considerations to bear in mind, there are risks involved in the Design-Build process too. These can include:

Communication breakdown

Design-Bid-Build can result in a disconnect between architects, designers, construction teams, and homeowners. Construction teams can sometimes stray away from design documentation with cut corners to save costs, or a loss of design detail if timelines are running tight.

Fixing and communicating on these issues can often result in increased construction costs, schedule delays, and even litigation.

Increased client risks

Design-Bid-Build can encourage designers and constructors to work more as individual units, rather than two essential sides of one project.

For example, construction contractors will only bid on what is contained in design documentation. If key details have been left out or incorrectly communicated, this can result in financial disputes and costly changes to both designs and builds. And, unfortunately, these risks ultimately lie with the owner.

At Letter Four, as experts in Design-Build, we work tirelessly to ensure these issues don’t occur. With the Design-Build process, we close the gaps and make sure that projects are delivered exactly to design specifications, on time, and budget.

We are flexible to your needs

Design-Bid-Build is also possible with Letter Four. We can design the project (offering Architecture services only) before bidding on the construction aspects of the build alongside other providers. In this scenario, designs are produced first with full budgeting taking place at a later stage. Whilst this does not carry the additional benefits of cost savings, budget checks, and shorter timeframes it does allow flexibility for owners to design their construction project, their way.

How does the Letter Four Design-Build process work?

Letter Four is a full-service architectural design and construction firm. We offer Design-Build services with the seamless integration of licensed architectural and general contracting services, creating inspiring, original spaces.

To meet and exceed the goals of our clients, the Design-Build process works as follows:

 Letter Four Design-Build process

1.1 Due Diligence

The goal of this phase is to gather information needed to design and construct the project. During this phase we will evaluate both the project’s goals and constraints. This includes existing conditions, project timelines, and city requirements as they relate to your description of budget, projects needs, and desires. 

This phase consists of 3 parts:

  1. As-builts + Surveys: We’ll have our consultants come out to the site to scan and model the existing building(s) on site. A licensed surveyor will capture site topography and/or property lines and building setbacks
  1. Code Research: We’ll pull past permit records and determine setbacks, height limits, maximum allowable square footages, and parking requirements. We’ll also estimate our project timeline for the remaining phases through securing permits. All of this information is captured in the Due Diligence Report
  1. Your Homework: We’ll ask that you collect inspiration imagery and upload it to Airtable, noting what in particular you like about each image you’ve chosen

We’ll review all three of these items above together before getting your approval to move to the next phase.

Various consultants will be required, depending upon the particulars of your site and your project scope. If you have a flat lot we’ll need a boundary survey to locate the property lines and existing buildings relative to those lines. If your site is sloped then a topographic survey and soils report will be required. If your project is a remodel we’ll need as-builts. Our consultant will do a point cloud scan of the existing building(s) on site to provide us with a 3D model in Revit, our BIM drafting software.

1.2 Conceptual Design

This creative phase involves the formation of floor plans, interior, and exterior features. It’s time that we build the big idea and create the overall character and vision for the project. As part of this stage, we will produce hand sketches and imagery for your comment and approval.

The goal of this phase is to develop the big idea: What is the overall character and vision for the project and how does it relate to the site and comply with code requirements?

We create hand sketches to scale to review with you for comment and approval before completing the project phase.

1.3 Preliminary Pricing

This is our first project price check and the goal of this phase is to give you an idea of your total project cost. Pulling from our past and current projects, Jeremy creates a budget based on the Conceptual Design.

This budget includes not only the construction cost, but also project soft costs for architectural design, engineering, permits, etc. We even estimate the cost for Finishes + Fixtures, as those can be a significant part of any project budget.

If we are concerned that we’re getting close to your maximum all-in project budget we’ll propose areas for cost savings. Debating some extras, like a pool and spa? We’ll add those in as separate line items so you can make an informed decision as to what scope to move forward with.

The goal at the end of this phase is to have a Conceptual Design that you’re happy with, an all-in project budget that works for you, and a clear scope of work for us to run with.

2.1 Schematic Design

The goal of this phase is to model the approved Conceptual Design that corresponds with your project budget from the previous phase. We present floor plans, site plans, exterior elevations, and linework model views in order for you to fully envision the design and approve it prior to moving on to the next phase. 

Our goal is to pin down wall locations, openings, rooflines, and volumes because in the next phase we’ll on board our engineers.

2.2 Design Development

The goal of this phase is to prepare project documentation for our initial plan check submittal. This includes consultant drawings and calculations, which we will review and coordinate. You can see that we have a long list of drawing sheets and include the code information that the city needs to see.

If your project is on a sloped lot we’ll submit your soils report and secure the Soils Report Approval Letter prior to submitting for plan check. 

Any time we’re creating new square footage or adding volume or additional openings to a building we need to coordinate with a consultant for Title 24 Compliance to show that what we are building will conform to California’s energy code requirements.

As part of the Design Development phase we are required to create door and window schedules. These show every door and window along with their sizes, operation, and special characteristics such as fire ratings and egress. 

Our Title 24 consultant needs these for their calculations and the city will review to make sure that they are code compliant. We will also coordinate with our structural engineers for their designs and calculations, as needed for city submission to plan check.

At this time we will also do our first round of formal bidding. Reaching out to our subcontractors, accepting bids, and compiling them for you in the document you see here. We’ll schedule a meeting with you to walk through the construction pricing and let you know what items are fixed fees and what is still an allowance. Allowance items will be re-bid once the project is further along to lock in pricing.

2.3 Construction Documents

The goal of this phase is to develop the drawings and documentation needed to to build the project. This includes additional drawings like framing plans, lighting plans, power plans, floor finish plans, and additional details. At this time we will also work to finalize our construction bid and contract in tandem with the Permitting phase and Finish + Fixture selections. This way when our permits are approved we are ready to start construction if you are!

Here we develop all of the construction details needed for LETTER FOUR to build your project. These typically include foundation and framing details, roof details, door and window details, tile installation details, and more.

3.1 Permitting and Approvals

We’ll coordinate the entire permitting process, this includes initial submittal, various agency approvals, called clearances, consultant updates, and finally permit RTI (Ready-To-Issue). We’ll let you know what documentation we need you to provide.

The goal of this phase is to secure approvals and clearances related to the project. These can include but are not limited to: HPOZ, Design Review boards, HOA, Regional Planning, Building Departments, etc. We’ll coordinate all of the submittals and make updates requested by authorities during this time. We’ll also ensure that project consultant updates are communicated and coordinated.

We’ll keep you updated on a weekly basis as we work through the permitting process so that you always know what’s going on and what to expect next.

3.2 Interior Design

This phase involves initial budgeting, selection, approval, purchase, stocking, and detailing of all finishes and fixtures. While plans are going through the permitting process our in house interior designer, Amina, will work with you on selecting tile, countertops, flooring, decorative lighting, plumbing fixtures, etc. These selections are based off of the design inspiration we have gathered from you throughout the project and saved in Airtable. We will use Airtable heavily at this time to log all items selected, request your approval, and keep you up to date.

Prior to purchasing these items we’ll ask for a credit card authorization. This way we can place orders on your card, so you get our discounts without a mark-up and can benefit from the credit card points. We’ll send you copies of all receipts and update Airtable with order numbers.

During this phase we’ll update the placeholder interior elevations that we created in the Construction Documents phase with the actual selections you’ve made. We’ll show tile to scale and in the correct installation pattern. We’ll also update medicine cabinets, sconces, vanities, and cabinetry specs. This is incredibly important as these are the drawings that our installers will use to perform their work.

Let’s take a look at our Material + Fixture Boards next!

Most of our clients request that we create what we call our Material + Fixture Boards for each key area of their project. We’ll pull inspiration imagery and finish and fixture options, which we show alongside enlarged plans, model views, and elevations. We’ll also collect physical samples of tile, countertops, wood and metal finishes, so there are no surprises when these items are installed. The goal is to help you visualize how everything will come together to create a beautiful space.

3.3 Landscape Design

It’s important that landscape design is cohesive with architectural design and meets relevant City requirements. Our in-house Landscape Designer will work closely with you and our architecture team to complete hardscape design, select plantings, exterior lighting, and irrigation. She will create drawings for our installers and visit the site to coordinate everything.

It’s important that landscape design is cohesive with architectural design and meets relevant City requirements. Our in-house Landscape Designer will work closely with you and our architecture team to complete hardscape design, select plantings, exterior lighting, and irrigation. She will create drawings for our installers and visit the site to coordinate everything.

4.1 Construction

Prior to starting construction Jeremy and his team of sub-contractors will provide an itemized bid referencing the Construction Documents that our architectural team created. Contract terms will be outlined in the Owner-Builder agreement provided to you and signed prior to the commencement of site work.

Permits have been issued so it’s time to build! We’ll prepare a project schedule and share it with you for 24/7 access and updates.

We’ll keep you up-to-date as your project progresses via weekly meetings, Slack communication, schedule updates, etc. While our construction team builds your project our architectural team will make sure to be available to respond to questions from the field with a design eye.

4.2 Construction Administration

Once permits have been approved and construction has commenced, our design team will work with our in field team members to interpret drawings and make decisions with a design eye. We aim to be onsite at least bi-weekly to ensure what was designed is what gets built.

Here at Letter Four, our expert Design-Build team is to guide you through every step of your construction project. Whether residential or commercial, large or small scale, we deliver inspirational and cost-effective design and construction solutions. Our mission is to design and build great spaces with great people so why not reach out today to talk about your project?

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