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Abstract: In-House Design and Construction

Many institutions choose to operate their own in-house design groups rather than navigating the design-bid- build, design-build, or construction manager process. These in-house groups are often in the facilities maintenance department and work best when empowered with the authority to deliver projects in a timely and cost-effective manner. This setup offers the advantage of no separation between designer and superintendent roles. The group is best structured to work as a team.

Mission and Goals

The mission and goals of the in-house design group need measurable goals and expected benefits. The design group can work on projects that require collaboration or autonomous action. Flexibility is required. Project management benefits from strong team communication and goals that are commonly monitored via brief daily meetings for complex projects.

Justification: Advantages and Disadvantages

Maintaining an in-house design team accrues advantages (e.g., supplemental local consultants and contractors, quick response, support for other units, fewer errors and omissions, ready resources) and disadvantages (e.g., staff development and retention, rate and fee setting, technology and equipment, project management skills, productivity maintenance, budgets).

Defining a Niche

Identifying projects appropriate for the in-house design team is crucial. Small projects that create big headaches are prime candidates for an in-house design team (e.g., office remodels, space reallocations).  If  the  institution has a detailed list of familiar standards, an in-house team knows those rules from day one, including  moving through decisions more quickly and processing permit paperwork more effectively, and using a library of forms  on file from past projects.

Budgets, Fees, and Rates

Even the most efficient in-house group must constantly prove its worth. Structuring the group to function as a recharge organization (100 percent) can protect it from budget cuts. Initial setup costs for computers and space suggest a 60 percent recharge when the group is established, increasing to 100 percent over a few years. The best course is to run the group as a business, with project fees covering all costs (e.g., salaries, benefits, leave). Fees are generally 10 to 15  percent  less  than those in the private sector. The three types of fees are fixed percentage of estimated construction cost, lump sum, and  time  and  materials.  Delivery  time  frames must plan for the expected and unexpected tasks (e.g., planned time off, unplanned leave,  training requirements). The most time that an in-house designer could hope to reasonably bill is 1,430 hours per year. Billable rates are determined by annual income capability to cover expenses. For example, if overall expenses divided by total salaries is 1.52, the billing rate for each individual person or service is a minimum of 1.52 times the cost of that specific person or service to reach the group goal (100 percent recharge organization). The rate is typically 100 percent wages (25 percent benefits, 25 percent downtime, 50 percent management).


The design group responds quickly and professionally to user needs.  The staff is typically composed of architects, engineers, and interior designers. This group is composed of hands-on problem solvers who can work on a variety of project types, have communications skills, and are well organized. Staff retention is crucial to group success; appreciation, training, clear advancement path, pleasant work environment, work diversity, and opportunity to own a project go a long way. The team includes the construction unit (e.g., carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters and plasterers, sheet metal workers, laborers) and office staff (e.g., manager, trade supervisors, estimators, schedulers, material coordinators, administrative assistants and clerks). Developing blanket agreements with institutional groups and contractors to maintain the flow of work during seasonal slow periods helps with ongoing construction contractor availability. Factoring in time for the design team and construction unit to complete professional training is important for both team effectiveness and staff morale.

Measuring Performance

To an employee, an important part of a job is being recognized and appreciated for a job well done. Establishing performance metrics that clarify goals outlines the organization mission and management perspectives on how the project plan embodies those objectives. An annual performance appraisal helps both staff and managers stay aligned with project goals. This three-part process includes a self-evaluation and manager evaluation, created independently  and reviewed together, while the goal planning process is collaborative. The appraisal should be viewed as a  private coaching session documented and focused on specific behaviors, actions or tasks with an action plan   for improvements if necessary.


The client might be a user, stakeholder, grantor, department funding source, or design team member. The user is the actual space occupant, and user goals are subject to institutional and regulatory limits. As an integral part of the construction process, design ensures compliance with university standards, campus master plan, environmental regulations, procurement guidelines, hazardous use codes, fire regulations, occupancy limits, HVAC codes, signage and lighting guidelines, and ADA directives. Other considerations include structural limitations; campus planning standards; facilities directives; ergonomic considerations; final project protocol; bidding and purchasing regulations; building system evaluations; and economic, operational, and constructability assessments. Respectful and responsive communications with the client are key. E-mails are the best medium for detailing and clarifying agreements and timelines, which help to establish and maintain a positive and clear relationship. Meetings are the appropriate communication method for delivering disappointing news or discussing cost estimates.

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