GuardRailed Construction6 critical areas of focus to help the construction industry have more success !

Cone 3:  “Design Detailing”

This category of issues pertains to the owners appetite for design detailing, a builder’s need for certain drawings and the importance of shared understanding of the architects scope of work for all team members.  Everyone on the project will be impacted by how the role of the architect is decided.

First, I want to stipulate for purposes of discussion the following two related ideas:  1) In the world of commercial construction when the owner wants a permanent building we need to “fully” design (draw) and engineer before we build, and 2)  the more elements of a building that are fully designed and engineered the higher chance of the owner’s expectations being met.

There are many types of design drawings.  If you simply Google “design drawings” the concepts and purposes for them are quite straightforward.  So what is all the fuss ?  Well, it starts with money but also has to do with the variability in types of projects and the great differences in how people with different levels of experience approach projects.

The AIA web site offers explanations of types of design services for which an owner can hire an architect for example, concept planning, schematic design, design development, construction drawings, architect of record, construction administration.  Fees for design along this spectrum of involvement can generally range from 3% to 12% of the total cost of the owner’s project.  So should every project for a permanent building have an architect?  In short, I say yes.  But does every project need every available service?  No.  There is range of services that needs to be thoughtfully chosen.  What if a prospective owner doesn’t see the need for an architect on the project at all, and is speaking directly to the contractor about a potential project?  In that case, the builder should advise of the pros and cons and should provide the necessary professional services in order to add value for the owner.

Naturally, one needs to be deferential to a prospective client, however this doesn’t mean accepting their decision without discussion.  An Owner’s decision with regard to design services will have serious ramifications for the builder.  It is therefore imperative that the builder understand what the design documentation of the project will be.

I believe this is often overlooked and it contributes to the type of unhappiness that we are learning to avoid.  So what are these ramifications?They include, but are not limited to: Costly change orders, project delays, as well as undue stress on team members.

Have you ever seen the Holiday Inn Express commercials?  They depict clearly common people with limited skills in “real life” who become brilliant after staying at a Holiday Inn Express.   One of my favorites is the Bull Rider and a Rodeo Clown.  A bull rider is in the gate saddling up for his dangerous ride, with a nervous look he utters “you rodeo clowns are life savers ..” .. just before the gate opens, the Clown responds,  “I’m no rodeo clown I’m with the Birthday Party, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night ! ”




I use these videos whenever I can in preconstruction to remind our clients of what reaction to late breaking design looks like!  Project teams shouldn’t have to scramble to find experts and fill in design details “as they go.”   To help make this point we reference a typical list of project participants to a permanent project.   An assessment of this list may reveal design considerations that are added earlier or at least planned for as a part of the project.

A small sampling of late breaking requests for design detailing we’ve seen in the last few projects:  Better HVAC controllability, acoustically improved walls at certain locations, cooling requirements at data rooms, acid waste at certain sinks, compressed air (added to classrooms), larger decks and ramps to accommodate unplanned central egress requirements, added bathroom given a change in occupant count, solar orientation review for window blind procurement, added canopies, siding details where building meets the grade, and connection details to existing buildings.

It may not be possible to avoid some iterations in the design process, but design detailing should be front-loaded to the largest extent possible.   As I have said in the past and will continue to reiterate – construction of commercial buildings is an inherently complex undertaking.  It is also highly regulated, therefore changes in design will be brought on by committees and building officials.  Some changes will happen, we understand that.  However, whether intentional or not, “design creep” comes with host of symptomatic ailments.

To protect the schedule, in the “heat of the battle” the natural tendency of the contractor is to step up, play  “master builder” make the change while holding the schedule. The builder and his subcontractors end up performing engineering services required of the project by default.  The Rodeo Clown at his best. . .  They really should slow down and fully design and engineer the details, but they “did stay in a Holiday Inn express” last night!  This “just get it done” approach should be applauded -but at what price?

Unforeseen and uncompensated time and effort over the life of a project places stress on people and this is very hard to see at the outset.  Also, a lot of late breaking design changes can create quality and performance problems as piecemeal change orders can impact other systems, given a lack of holistic planning from the start.  The “firefighting” approach doesn’t allow for the builder to properly buy out those changes to get the best value for the owner.

It is not easy to ask a prospective client to pay for design and budgeting services.  Most owners ask “what will this whole project cost me?”  Without the design and engineering of the land and buildings figured out, it is not possible to accurately provide a price.

In closing, we have determined that risks of not having things “fully designed and engineered” at the outset are real.  Projects where the submittal process becomes the “design process” are choppy and place a burden on the project managers for both owner and builder which can cause fatigue.  Hopefully the more we collectively know about “design detailing” the better our projects will be planned.

Good luck.

Continue to Cone 4 – Soft Costs and Permitting