How to Balance Creativity and Constructibility? Design Assist Smartly Links Owners, Architects, and Contractors

Every project begins with a design, and ends with an attractive and functional building. What happens between these two end points is where it gets interesting - and challenging. The construction process is complicated. It means meeting and exceeding expectations in design, affordability and constructibility. It means overcoming hurdles and facilitating smooth transitions from design to engineering to construction. And for complex projects with more unusual features and elements, the risk factors increase exponentially.

Which is why any project with high design aspirations should start with a discussion around the design. What does the architect have in mind? What’s the inspiration? What’s the desired effect of certain design elements? Communication, awareness and accountability are crucial success factors for any team. Great teams talk and develop rapport. They rally around common goals and understanding. They push each other for excellence in all aspects of a project.

These team qualities also describe the benefits of Design Assist, the planning method and process structured to facilitate this kind of collaboration and cooperation among interdisciplinary construction teams. There’s a real concern among architects, owners and contractors that Design Assist slows things down, adds costs, and invites additional complexity. But the fact is, especially when it comes to architectural metals and fabrications, there are often knowledge gaps between design and engineering, materials and applications, attachment points and installations.

Design Assist can add a layer of knowledge that fills these crucial gaps and brings together the disciplines of architecture, engineering, metal fabrication, and construction. It expands thinking to solve design challenges with sophistication, elegance and practicality. Design Assist considers the whole project and makes thoughtful, well-informed recommendations that can save months in construction schedules, and millions in construction costs.

Design Assist should not begin as an accounting and value engineering exercise. It shouldn’t start with costs and timelines. Sure, those details are critical for project success, but they come later. First and foremost, Design Assist is a conversation about design inspiration, vision and intent. Balancing creativity and constructibility is the ultimate challenge for any owner, architect, or general contractor and early collaboration can help these key stakeholders achieve that delicate balance. The Design Assist phase of a project can be extremely useful and productive - and when done well with experienced practitioners - can often mean the difference between confusion and clarity, costly and cost-effective, mediocre and exceptional.

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Architecture firm Morphosis designed Emerson College LA and worked with Zahner’s Design Assist team of engineers and fabricators to manufacture and install a series of custom metal facades. Image © A. Zahner Co.

Great Design Assist Clarifies and Simplifies Your Project

In traditional construction projects, the design, engineering and construction teams often work independently on their respective parts. Construction documents are created; subcontractors submit their bids, and the process of coordination, shop drawings, and bid awards begins.

When inevitable discrepancies arise, the design team must answer requests for information and modify construction documents, causing delays, changes in orders and added costs. Fingers of blame tend to get pointed in all directions.

Design Assist prevents this dynamic. The best Design Assist practitioners, especially in architectural metals and fabrication, have multidisciplinary teams of architects, engineers, metallurgists and fabricators. These specialists assist the architects and engineers of record with input as designs take shape.

The end result is a well-informed construction team that’s better prepared to handle any hurdle or contingency that comes along.

The benefits of Design Assist are numerous:

  • Disagreements are reduced and resolved more quickly. Stronger relationships among subcontractors are established when project goals and priorities are discussed early.
  • Pricing is more accurate. Materials and labor pricing can be locked in when subcontractors are involved earlier.
  • Construction advances faster. Early collaboration gets construction teams up to speed faster so they can plan and execute more quickly.
  • Constructability efficiency is improved. Construction methods and materials are more clearly defined upfront.
  • When all parties understand and appreciate the design philosophy the highest value can be obtained. Each party is aligned with a single goal to have a successful project for all involved and to achieve something incredible. 
  • When design assist is a success, there is an alignment of goals and objectives. The fabricator and contractor understand the promise the design holds for the owner and all entities identify the constraints, negotiate the risk, and start the project on a path to success.

How to Balance Creativity and Constructibility? Design Assist Smartly Links Owners, Architects, and Contractors - Image 3 of 3
Herzog & de Meuron developed the idea of a variably perforated screen exterior for the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. In the Design Assist phase Zahner engineers and software specialists refined the design concept to save over $4 million in material and manufacturing costs. Image © A. Zahner Co.

What to Look For In a Design Assist Partner

The single most important factor in construction project success is subcontractor selection and execution. Here’s what to look for in a Design Assist subcontractor:

  • Reputation and Results. Look for prominent client testimonials and a track record of successful Design Assist engagements, including concrete examples of savings and recommended construction efficiencies.
  • Multidisciplinary Expertise. Make sure your Design Assist partner has the depth and breadth of experience on staff in design, engineering, materials, and fabrication.
  • Stakeholder Collaboration Method. Your Design Assist partner should have a defined methodology and cadence for discovery, diligence, communication and coordination.

Design Assist can have a significant and positive impact on design, cost, quality, and constructability. And that can be especially important in high-risk projects where sophisticated materials, specialized fabrication, and complex installations are in play.

But risk and uncertainty can be reduced in these high-stakes situations - and ensure project success - by assembling the right team of subcontractors early, tapping into their expertise, and using their best ideas to build in a smarter, faster and more profitable way.

By Bill Zahner, President/CEO of Zahner. 

Zahner is an architectural metals, engineering and fabrication firm that helps architects, artists, owners, and contractors through its own special brand of design assist - Zahner AssistSM - to make any project more feasible, achievable and affordable. Zahner brings a blend of architecture, engineering, technology and metallurgy - all under one roof - to every design and construction project. To find out more about Zahner Assist, visit us at or call +1 (816) 474 - 8882 to speak with one of our Project Specialists.

Cite: "How to Balance Creativity and Constructibility? Design Assist Smartly Links Owners, Architects, and Contractors" 02 Oct 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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