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HOUSE BEAUTIFUL - Welcome to the Anti-Flipper Movement

High-end design-build firms are dramatically changing the idea of a spec home.

One of realtor Lori Harris' most recent listings was a century-old Mediterranean-style home in Beverly Hills, California. But unlike most other homes on the market, this one had been meticulously reimagined by a developer-designer team before it hit the market. House of Rolison, a design-build team led by managing partners Amanda Leigh and Taylor Hahn, incorporated high-end touches, importing a vintage door from Turkey that took a half dozen locksmiths to figure out how to configure, installing fixtures sourced in Morocco, and covering counters in the kitchen with statement-making a slabs of Nero Marquina, a rich black marble with creamy white veining.

Since starting in 2023, the women-led team with a 40-person crew has purchased, reimagined, and sold nine homes, with five more in the works, lavishing similar attention to detail on all of them. In a housing market flooded by facsimile flips outfitted with materials bought in bulk, this alternative design-build model is gaining fans—especially among those on social media and in neighborhood groups who bemoan the fact that old homes are being stripped of their character.



The living room, post-House-of-Rolison redesign.

These types of design-build partnerships come in different forms. Under some models, teams of architects, contractors, and designers collaborate under one roof, working directly with homeowners who are looking for an extensive renovation of their existing home or with buyers who want an ultra-custom home built or remodeled before they move in. Or, there are partnerships such as House of Rolison, who scoop up homes that have good bones but could use some TLC, give them a soulful renovation, and then put them back on the market.

Design-build firms are not nonprofits working on labors of architectural love; these are money-making ventures as well. The House of Rolson duo purchased the aforementioned Beverly Hills home for $2.4 million and, after they reimagined it, the property sold for just under $4 million.

One big fan is Harris, their realtor, who explains what she sees as the added value of design-build firms, saying, "They listen to the house, and they work with it, to understand what it could be instead of being confined to a design box with layout 1, 2, or 3 and design A, B, or C."

Intrigued? Here's what else buyers need to know about working with design-build firms, including how to find them and whether they can save you money.

What Is a Design-Build Firm?

While there's not a universal definition of a design-build firm, it's typically a design-forward group that has an in-house architect, interior designer, and general contractor. Think of it as a one-stop-shop for homeowners, instead of hiring a designer or architect to create a vision, and a contractor to execute it. Some design-build firms have even more specialties available, such as an expert who can make custom furniture or an artist to commission original works. The idea is everyone on the team has a shared vision.

Design-build firms are extremely popular in commercial spaces, with the Design Build Institute of America (DBIA) estimating that 47% of construction spending will go this route by 2025. While tapping a one-stop shop is less common in home building and renovating, there are still hundreds of design-build firms throughout the country and it's a "significant trend" in the industry, says Steve Mickley, executive director of American Institute of Building Design. And he's got the stats to back up that statement. In the latest survey the institute conducted, about 21% of firms self-identified as design-build firms. That compares to about 6% that identified as the contractor/builder/developer segment in 2009, according to the institute's internal surveys.

Chicago-based Elizabeth Krueger, principal of Elizabeth Krueger Design, says the main advantage of architecture and design studios partnering is that the team is familiar with each others' processes. "Ideally this allows for efficiency and not a lot of time lost in communication and understanding what details are needed in order to keep a project moving," she says.

When she first started her business, she worked with a developer who would recommend her to his clients. It was a win-win: He provided her with clients that he had and he had the edge to offer "in-house" design services. The con to these types of partnerships, she says, is that the variety of work, design and vision is likely hamstrung by only ever partnering with the same team. "I've talked to architects about how they wouldn't bring design in house because they love the opportunity to collaborate with different partners on different projects," she says. Of course, that singleness of vision is an asset to a homeowner if they like the style of a particular firm.

Designers as Developers

Some design-build firms aren't just waiting for clients to find them, but are developing homes. In New York, The Brooklyn Home Company is a group made up of designers, artists, and builders who are developing condos, townhomes, and vacation homes in the area and putting them on the market.

And House of Rolison bought the house Harris sold expressly to renovate it and sell it at a higher price. Just don't describe that as "flipping." Leigh bristles at the term “flipper,” partly because the projects her team pursue include preserving original features.

It's that eye for the unique, original and beautiful that makes design-build firms appealing to clients, as even first time-time buyers, are becoming more design-savvy. "They don’t want sterile boxes with no walls," Leigh says. They also don't want the drab feelings of old, disjointed homes. That's why designers are stepping in and redeveloping these types of properties.

What's It Like to Work with a Design-Build Firm?

Shawn and Christina Taylor, who started Dacotah Studio, their home design and remodeling contracting firm, in 2019, manage design-forward projects from concept to completion. When clients get started, they participate in a discovery call to go over the scope of work, review budgets, discuss timelines, and do site surveys. Then come mood boards to help them get the looks they want to achieve.

A Dacotah Studio home.

"It's like we're dating them with the questions that we're asking in the beginning," says Christina. The team is learning about where their clients are from, what they want to do in their free time, how they move about a kitchen, whether they have children, and how that influences their storage needs. Reconfiguring older homes to fit modern needs (i.e. making space for bigger kitchens) requires some creativity. Small details matter, too, such as whether a tall client might find typical countertops to be too low.

One tip Shawn Taylor shares with clients: Having a 10 to 20 percent contingency buffer in your budget is a good idea, just in case any problems with a home's structure or other issues are discovered when work gets underway.

Can Design-Build Firms Save You Money?

Most clientele who are going with a design-build team expect to pay a premium for customizations and that designer touch. For instance, Leigh told us that the initial appraisal on their first property was $2.45 million, but it sold for $3.2 million. "People will pay for soul and design," she says. "If you put more into it, you'll get more out of it."

But it is possible a design-build could save you money compared to a design-bid-build because it puts one team in charge of costs, timeline, and quality, and helps streamline the workflow.

Working with one firm could also reduce any redesigns or rebids, and speed up the process, too. A DBIA-commissioned study found design-build firms finished commercial projects 33% faster than those going through the design-bid-build process.

How to Find a Design-Build Firm Near You

If you're interested in finding a design-build firm in your area, try searching variations like "architect-designer" or "developer-designer" firms as well. Then, as you would have with an architect or contractor, interview some companies to see if your visions align and whether they can work within your budget.

If the idea of buying a home a designer has already worked their magic on appeals to you, seeking out these types of design-build firms in your area, and following along with their projects on social media, can pay off. House of Rolison, for instance, has interested buyers who are tuning into their social media accounts to try to purchase one of their old world charm or mid-century flair properties before it even hits the market.

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