Take Tom MacGregor, who spends most days driving his old pickup truck between construction sites in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and stopping by his wood-and-metal fabrication shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In the afternoons, he returns to his office, a converted garage that also doubles as his apartment. The projects he’s working on—five residential and four commercial—have budgets that range from $80,000 to $2.5 million.
MacGregor’s team consists of six CAD-savvy office employees, five primary builders, and some 45 freelance shop workers—carpenters, masons, metalsmiths. They call themselves ADBNY (Architecture Design Build New York). MacGregor spent the ’80s and early ’90s fabricating and installing work for artists like Donald Judd, then discovered his passion for architecture in the ’90s, when he renovated his own house in coastal Maine. Five years ago, he returned to New York, and has been living the dream of architects who want to control every aspect of their finished product—and get their hands dirty along the way. "From my perspective," MacGregor says, "design-build means you design it, you build it. Sure, I have lots of help from my guys, but there’s nothing in my projects that I couldn’t have built myself."
In recent years, "design-build" has emerged as a popular catchphrase in the architecture world. Whether it clearly defines a style of working is up for debate. MacGregor’s firm is at one end of the spectrum, producing hand-hewn projects from idea to finished product. At the other end are people like Tribeca-based Joel Sanders, a licensed architect who prefers to team up with contractor Saif Sumaida and work together through the building process.
"There’s a traditional idea of an architect as a tailor," Sanders explains, "who makes a pattern and sends it out for bid. These days, a better analogy is the architect as a film director, who has a vision that requires a variety of people to create, from clients to consultants to builders."
Somewhere in the middle of the design-build spectrum are Lower East Side–based Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis, headed by twin brothers Paul and David Lewis and Marc Tsurumaki, and Dumbo-based Freecell, headed by Lauren Crahan and John Hartmann. Both firms consist of licensed architects who spend lots of time in the shop, participating in the hands-on fabrication of their designs. While Freecell’s recent work includes furniture, exhibits, and apartment renovations, Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis has created restaurants, college dorms, and gallery installations.
According to Tsurumaki, the benefit of a design-build approach comes down to use of materials. "Traditional forms of architecture tend to reinforce conventional ways of making," he says. "In contrast, our recent projects tend to deploy conventional materials in unconventional ways. The final design doesn’t end with the issuance of drawings, but reaches the fabrication phases of the project."
Numerous conditions in New York City make it fer-tile ground for design-build. First off, the majority of architectural work in this city consists of residential renovation—smaller-scale projects suited to practices that do their own construction. Second, according to Freecell’s Crahan, New York’s manufacturing base is dwindling. Architects who want to exploit the melting pot’s panoply of building supplies are better off taking those supplies to the shop themselves. Finally, in the city that breathes the mantra "time is money," design-build often saves time, enabling the design process to overlap with every phase of a project, from construction permits to completion. "Because we design as we go," MacGregor explains, "we can start the demo the minute we get building permits."
Despite potential cost savings, the design-build approach is sometimes a hard sell to clients, who suspect a conflict of interest. "The first thing the client wants to know is how much the project will cost," says Sanders. "They seem to wonder, Aren’t you getting a kickback by taking away the competition of bidding? I find we need to address the issue up front, and explain why using the builder I know streamlines the process." MacGregor goes a step further—if the clients convey suspicion, he begs them to put the project out for bid, "to prove that I’m not ripping them off."
Meanwhile, the design-builders are swept up in a romance of sorts. Tsurumaki credits design-build for his firm’s success: "It allows us so much more potential for unpredictability and free play." MacGregor has little respect for architects who work at desks."
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