The Design Build Process

Except on very rare occasions, we have always done the planning, architecture and construction for our projects. We believe this is the best way to make good buildings and good projects. The design/build process suits us.

During the past decade, the creation of our interior design department and energy services department means we can truly integrate the entire process in-house:  design, engineering, interiors, and construction.

Design/build is when buildings (or anything else for that matter) get built with the design and construction process united and carried out by a single firm, entity, or team working in concert with the client/owner. This approach has historical precedent - the "master builder" concept was prevalent before the industrial revolution and indigenous peoples from time immemorial have built this way. It has longevity in the various arts and crafts - a practitioner, in most cases, designs and produces a piece of work, whether it is a painting, a piece of furniture, or a piece of jewelry. This integrated approach is not, however, how most buildings are created in today's world.

Design/build keeps the responsibility in one place. It's very direct - just SMC and the client, working in collaboration, fully responsible to one another. Although many other important contributors are involved, and become part of the team, this central relationship provides clarity and integrity to the complex process of making places and buildings.

By practicing in a small region, we have been able to stay connected to our buildings and our clients and learn from them. Principles have emerged to guide our work and allow us the comfort to explore a variety of interesting design paths. The design/build process has enabled us to develop an intricate web of fulfilling relationships with consultants, subcontractors, regulatory officials, suppliers, and, most of all, clients.

The Nature of Our Work

We try to attract work that fits our mission and suits us well. We try to create a constant mix of new construction, renovation, and development projects - all can be valuable and satisfying.

We evaluate each potential project carefully, in the same way that our potential clients evaluate us - to determine whether there's a match. If it's a development project, our concerns are about community benefits and the creation of affordable housing. Do the project's benefits outweigh the detriments to the community as a whole?  If it's a custom home or a renovation, we need to be certain that the scale, the spirit, and the environmental aspirations match ours.

We work primarily on Martha's Vineyard.  We are committed to that. It's too hard logistically to work in other locales.  It's also too unfamiliar - we do not have sufficient knowledge of the history and the landscape. We don't know the people. After nearly four decades of working on the Vineyard we have begun to understand this small region. So we mostly stay close to home, except for educational and consulting work beyond our shores. But every once in a while a mainland project captures our imagination and we will do what it takes to participate in those adventures.  It never hurts to ask.

The Art of Design

We use a collaborative design process to attain the results we seek. Designing buildings, communities and landscapes is a complex process of establishing criteria and priorities, gathering information, expressing feelings, testing hypotheses, and synthesizing solutions. 

Design is an adventure.  When designers and clients understand the process it's cathartic.  Our forty years fo collaboration with clients and other professionals has been an evolution.  We learn from experience and our design abilities and range are always increasing.

Our usual pattern is that one of our architects or designers shepherds each project through design and construction - working with clients, engineers, consultants, crews, subcontractors, suppliers, and municipal officials - but it's very much a team effort, with everyone playing important roles in the design, as well as the construction. John Abrams is involved in all design/build projects - sometimes more, sometimes less. Site and landscape designers are brought in early. Deirdre Bohan, who manages Interiors, is a primary player. Director of Engineering Marc Rosenbaum is always involved. And one of our construction foremen is an essential part of the team from the beginning.

Early on, in schematic design, we try to get everyone in the same room so intelligence is concentrated. We develop relationships that go from project to project, so teams don't need to be constantly re-built, but only adjusted. The more participants, and the more everyone acts as a designer, the more likely it is that we avoid designing buildings and communities that are, as longtime collaborator Bruce Coldham says, "... a settlement between the various designers and consultants, each defending their own turf." Synergies require collaboration.

The process begins with a written questionnaire and discussions with you that provide us with the information we need to develop a design program and a budget.  We listen.  We digest.  We learn.  There's no point in designing a beautiful house that satisfies every need, but costs three times what our client has to spend. We match the program and budget with your needs and desires. Only then can we move into design.

We also try to spend time with you examining past projects.  These are our “design laboratories.”  There is no better design tool than the act of experiencing a building with a client. We are fortunate that much of our work is in a small geographical area. We've built and kept strong relationships with our clients and made a point of cultivating access. We spend a lot of time in the design phase in and around past projects with new clients. Here is where we find connections with you, gauge reactions, and start to weave the fabric of the new building.

In schematic design we create sketch plans and elevations; these are often accompanied by a set of design concepts or a design narrative.  At SMC we also specify performance – how will the building function in terms of its health and safety, comfort, acoustics, and resource usage. Sometimes we're right on the mark with the first schematic effort, or close; sometimes it's back to square one. But usually the first schematic design effort gives us, at least, something to build on. From then on it goes back and forth with our clients until the design is fully resolved.

We also do the Interior Design for most of our projects: furniture, fabrics, rugs, etc. This brings greater integration to the process.  Because our interior designers work with our architectural designers, from the beginning, and work very closely with our clients, everyone is on the same page and design intention is fully expressed.

Our Design Philosophy

At the beginning, nearly 40 years ago, we were influenced by the work of the Shakers, Bernard Maybeck and the California Arts and Crafts practitioners, the timber framed New England colonial buildings, the shingle style, the passive solar pioneers (of whom Frank Lloyd Wright himself may have been the most important), and Christopher Alexander

These blended with our handmade sensibility and environmental ethic to produce, over time, our own particular design language.  These days, the mid-century modernists exert more and more influence.

But every building is fundamentally different, and the power of design goes far beyond style.  Our ambitions for our buildings is that they will:

  • Feel timeless
  • Be durable, flexible and easy to change 
  • Perform well and be healthy to live in
  • Be artfully crafted
  • Adapt seamlessly to site and community
  • Fulfill the needs and desires of our clients
  • Be loved

Design is looking for needles in haystacks. All too often, we stop before we have searched diligently for the ultimate solution. Quick solutions come from a lack of faith in the process, the fear of not knowing the answer, and sometimes from a fear of expressing needs. Designers are used to not knowing. If we're lucky, we've learned to handle the fear of not knowing because experience has taught us that if we keep working the process, good solutions will come. We relish the not knowing because that means the rush of discovery still lies ahead. If the client trusts this too, we can keep working until the right solution develops.

Embracing the uncertainty, we can stay with our apprehension long enough to find just the right needle in the haystack.