Cutting Costs on Custom Architectural Millwork

Posted by Tracey Hepner on Mar 1, 2019 1:01:36 PM
Tracey Hepner
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The age-old dilemma in construction is how does one keep the quality and uniqueness in “custom” architectural millwork without driving up the costs?

At IWS, we have found over the years the best solution is to engage early with a time-tested, quality-minded company who can partner with the GC and the Architectural team. If a company has the talent and resources to truly assist in the early ROM’s, 3D modeling and the true value engineering of material usage and engineering; then their exposure and commitment early on can save all parties involved not only money but valuable time.

A lot of end users do not understand the numerous resources it takes to create any type of architectural millwork and casework, custom or not. The general cost of unique materials and the high cost of all labor components it takes to create these venues is never an off-the-shelf solution. Most products that fall into the common space or amenities areas of these beautiful buildings we are seeing have their own unique features and considerations that need to be factored into each project.
Even if a so-called “off-the-shelf” casework product is available, ensuring its fit and function still has costs associated with it, not including the original costs of materials & fabrication. These resources or costs include:

  • Estimating
  • Engineering
  • Shop drawings and submittals
  • Field Measurements & Verification
  • As-Builts
  • Coordination with other Trades
  • Interface with Stone, Metal, Acrylics, Glass and Equipment

In the end, if these costs have not been accounted for by whoever set the original budget and the bids start to come in; the Owner, Architect, and General Contractor can find themselves in the position of having to apply cost-cutting measures to the project just to meet the proposed budget. And if the budget is too far off as often can be the case, the only solution is to cut out product and then the owner and designer do not end up with the design intent of the project they had envisioned.

Standard Solutions

The typical approach that Architects and General Contractors (GC’s) take to manage the expenses usually comes as one of two strategies. The proactive strategy of doing the entire project as a Design-Assist project. Or the more common reactive strategy of endless value engineering that costs everyone more resources then any of us have time for. Since time is proving to be everyone’s largest constraint, this strategy results in significant impact.

Design Assist – This arrangement generally applies to the entire process. That is, the primary trades on the project are under the Design-Build contract between the Contractor and the Owner, including the architects.  The advantages to the Owners in this arrangement is well-documented. In fact, according to several construction industry surveys, its estimated that as many as 40% of all construction projects are Design-Build.

 Value Engineering – This cost-cutting process is typical of the Design-Bid-Build process, which is the contractual relationship of the vast majority of all construction projects. Value Engineering is the response to when either bids come in over the budget or, in some cases, when the Owner’s budgets were not well-known or communicated and the design the Architect put together exceeded them.

Value Engineering can be a valuable tool if everyone is open to the use of alternate materials and different approaches to the manufacturing and fabrication processes can be applied. Open communication and brainstorming with all affected entities is key to a successful value engineering exercise. However, when design alterations are suggested between a Sub Contractor and the GC, the benefits of that substitution are not always communicated upstream to the Design Team who makes the final choice for approval. This lack of communication can result in a lot of unnecessary time spent with addressing RFI’s, resubmittals and often times, change orders.


Design Assist – The New Way in Collaboration and Meeting Budgets

The difference between Design Assist and Value Engineering is that on a true Design Assist project the customer has a real design intent they are trying to achieve and a realistic budget that will allow them to get the design they envision.  In many ways, Design Assist is like a hybrid of Design-Build but done under a Design-Bid-Build contract arrangement.

In Design Assist, the Sub Contractor joins the Design Team early in the Design Development (DD) or Construction Documents (CD) phases to help the team firm up the design objectives, develop and review the constructability and fabrication details, select the materials, consult with the General Contractor on the installation and labor, and make sure they all come together at the cost that is allocated in the budget for the work.

Just a short list of the benefits of a Design Assist arrangement are:

  • Identify conflicts early with other trades, such as structural
  • VE ideas are applied upfront in the design process, not at the end
  • The vast reduction in RFIs and costly change orders because there are little to no surprises
  • Time saved for the design and construction team by eliminating the back & forth typical in projects when cost-cutting is being done during the construction phase
  • Design Team and Owner get the design they wanted at the cost they expected

Other levels of support that come out of partnering upfront are the availability for the sub-contractor to create samples and mock-ups that can help define the design details to be engineered early on into the design. And, leveraging technologies such as 3D modeling with BIM and video conferencing with the Designers and GC's via Skype or GoToMeeting when the designer is out of town can be valuable in understanding upfront the design intent and criteria.

In the end, the Design Assist approach can actually save the owner money by not taxing the Architect and or the design team’s time constraints. Redraws are an expensive cost and formulating a plan early can only help all parties get to the dance on time and within budget.


IWS has had the pleasure of providing design-assist on a number of projects over the years. It is always a pleasure to be brought in early on a project and to be considered a partner in the design of the project. The projects we have assisted on at this level usually end up within budget and the entire process for all parties, goes very smoothly.

“When IWS has been brought in during the initial design phases to work with the design team and contractor all parties benefit in the mockup process. The design firm has a functional and visual product that all parties can sign off on, the project owner and contractor in most cases see reduced cost by eliminating or reducing expensive materials that are not visible in the final design and reduced labor costs by proving a more efficient fabrication or installation method.” 

– Lee Steigerwald, Manager, Estimating Department , Interior Woodworking Specialists

Topics: Design-Assist

The Design Team and the Owner got the
design they wanted, at the cost they expected.




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