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Giants have to consider technical issues during the design phase if they want truly satisfied customers in the long-term. Find out how it can be done with an integrated design process.

June 01, 2006

Giants are constantly striving to meet buyer expectations with exteriors that entice, floor plans that excite and interior spaces that meet the needs of ever-changing lifestyles. But in today's environment, designing the right look and feel isn't enough to ensure long-term customer satisfaction. What if a design that looks great from the front elevation translates into problems with the roof construction or has features that are difficult to install correctly? Or what if the layout requires such extensive structural gymnastics that the framing costs expand out of control? Builders have to consider technical issues like these during the design phase if they want truly satisfied customers in the long-term.

 
In today's production home building, the construction team isn't usually involved in the design process, so the home is designed without the input from the people who produce the home in the field.

The newly built home has evolved into a much more complex product over the last 20 years, says Steve Baczek, AIA of 3-D Building Solutions, a Bexley, Ohio, architecture company that helps builders solve persistent design problems. "Each day, new and improved products — from garage doors to cabinet hardware to membrane flashing — become available, and it's a challenge to keep pace with all the new options," Baczek says.

To differentiate their products in an increasingly competitive market, some production builders are rethinking how they design, engineer, purchase and construct their homes. And to accomplish this goal, they're taking a new approach to the design process.

Traditional Building Design

Knowing the traditional design process helps explain the motivators behind taking a new approach. The traditional design process starts with the product and marketing staff who select features and amenities they know will appeal to customers in their market. Architectural designers incorporate the preferences into the plans, elevations, sections and other drawings. These drawings document the look and feel of the home, and they contain sufficient specifications to show that the home meets the municipality's minimum code requirements. After the municipality approves the plans, the engineer determines the home's structural elements. From there, the plans are given to the purchasing department, which requests bids and negotiates with the trades and suppliers who provide the building materials and construct the home.

 
When the construction team has to improvise solutions in the field, builders risk producing a home with lower durability and energy efficiency.

The trades aren't involved in the design and engineering stages, so the look, feel and structural elements are determined without their input. The plans show the construction team what features the home should contain, how it should look and what must be done to meet code requirements, but they typically don't show every detail of the structural and mechanical elements. When construction begins, the team in the field has to take the plans and decide how to integrate the home's systems into a finished product while including all of the desired features and amenities. Construction managers have to coordinate the trades and solve unanticipated problems integrating the home's systems. They have to build the product without the benefit of detailed drawings for the structural and mechanical systems while producing comfortable, energy-efficient homes. If trades have to interpret ambiguous plans in the field, then builders risk paying a heavy price in lower product durability and energy efficiency.

Problems for Giants

For Giants, the problems with traditional home design are compounded because Giants build their product in multiple locations with multiple trades. If you send one design to five divisions, and if each division hires five different trade groups, the original design could proliferate into hundreds of different designs, leaving builders little control over quality. What if a division begins receiving callbacks on the design? It can be difficult to identify the root cause of a problem when the systems are installed differently throughout each division, even if the divisions are delivering what they consider to be the same home to their customers.

One common design challenge production builders face is integrating the HVAC system with the framing. In a modern, open-home design, space for ductwork is limited. One solution is to run chases and soffits through the home to accommodate the ducts — but no customer wants unattractive duct chases and soffits running through their open floor plan. Another solution is to install the ductwork in the attic; but in the attic, it's subject to the extreme temperatures, which could reduce indoor comfort and energy efficiency. The results are often callbacks involving complaints for the builder and higher utility bills for the homeowners.

Integrated Design Process

 
In the integrated design process, your trades are your partners, helping you to ensure an end product that's consistent between and within divisions.

To solve these design problems, some production builders implement the Integrated Design Process, a brainchild of the Department of Energy's Building America program. IDP treats the home as a single product comprising several carefully engineered and integrated subsystems.

In an IDP, all of the parties responsible for the design, construction and servicing of the home — such as the designers, the suppliers, marketers and purchasers, as well as the trade partners, consulting engineers and even local code officials — come together at key stages in the design process to provide feedback on their respective areas of expertise. Including all of the key players in the planning gives the builder a chance to address issues such as:

  • Can this complex design be built so that the roof doesn't leak?
  • Can this building accommodate the ductwork necessary to maintain a comfortable environment?
  • Will the plumber be able to route waste pipes without creating noise problems in the main living spaces?

New Town Builders of Denver recently implemented the IDP for its high-efficiency homes. "We'd decided to increase the energy efficiency of our homes to meet the needs of our market, but we had a problem; the new energy-efficient designs didn't work with our open floor plans," Bill Rectanus, building systems and technology manager, says. New Town Builders got help from 3-D Building Solutions, which worked with the builder's architects to integrate new energy-efficient duct layouts into the overall home design. "They provided multiple scenarios that showed us how we could adjust the floor plans while retaining open spaces," Rectanus says. "After we settled on our new energy-efficient floor plans, 3-D provided a packet of scopes and specifications that we now use to bid out all of the energy efficiency details. They also sat down with our current framers and HVAC partners, explaining our new floor plans, answering technical questions and obtaining input on the designs."

Baczek says integrating the construction team into the process is critical to product consistency and quality control. "Establishing a project as a team effort ensures that everyone involved in the home-building process offers their expertise and asks the critical questions that lead to good design solutions. The best time to fix problems is when they're still just lines on paper rather than actual sticks and bricks on the job site."

In IDP, all of the decisions made during the design phase are fully documented in the construction drawings and scopes of work; the drawings include structural layouts that are integrated with the plumbing and ductwork locations so that when the purchasing department is bidding the same work to multiple trades, it's asking these trades to install the systems exactly as shown in the plans. By building a design the same way in each home, builders can control quality across divisions.

Baczek notes the team approach to IDP works from his perspective as an architect. "I never issue drawings that don't include details for the structural and mechanical trades. If I write 'no ducts in the outside walls' in the plans, I provide duct pathways that don't run through the outside walls. Most of my layout strategies come from my experience in working with very talented trades who have shown me new and better ways to install their systems. I'm always amazed at how excited a framer, plumber or HVAC trade becomes when I ask them for a suggestion."

To implement IDP successfully, builders should hire or designate a champion for the process who has managerial skills and a broad knowledge of building systems. Without such leadership, your IDP may be ineffective. "It's important to get expert help," Rectanus says. "Changing one aspect of your design can affect five others. Get expertise on your team; don't try to do it all yourself."

Builders also need to have specifications and scopes of work revised to include material callouts, installation requirements and performance standards. "Put it all in writing," says Rectanus, "so your trade partners don't have to perform guesswork in the field."

The Payoff

Although the initial cost of implementing an IDP may temporarily increase the design budget, builders who have implemented an IDP have found that it doesn't increase the cost of building and servicing their homes. According to the Department of Energy, IDP can reduce service and warranty claims after closing, lowering back end costs and increasing customer satisfaction and referrals.

If builders iron out all of the details during the design phase, the other phases of construction become easier. Purchasing is uniform, construction teams have detailed plans and sales staff don't have to explain nuances such as why a heating register is in a different location in the customer's home than it is in the neighbor's home. The service and warranty department can spend less time following up on mysterious defect callbacks and more time on education and customer relations, spending more time on homeowner maintenance issues like changing air filters rather than on fielding complaints.

Applying IDP can help Giants spend more time explaining the features and benefits of their products and less time solving problems. IDP can significantly increase a builder's ability to replicate product across communities and divisions.

Once builders have a design that customers really like, they can rest assured that it will be built the same way in every home, every time.


Author Information
Michael Dickens is the CEO of BuildIQ, which provides online training on best practices in home building.


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