How to Delegate Design the Right Way

“Delegated Design” is the means by which the Design Professional of Record (DPOR) passes design responsibility for certain details or elements of a project to the Contractor. It provides flexibility so that proprietary materials and components can be incorporated into the project without the need to complete multiple, detailed design options in the construction contract documents. In addition, delegated design allows the contractor to modify certain aspects of the design to use their preferred means and methods, thus reducing construction costs.

The purpose of delegated design is to improve the performance and economy of delegated systems. Ideally, it should reduce project risk as well. However, the improved performance and reduced cost and risk do not always manifest. In my experience, both as a consultant for owners and design professionals, and as a specialty engineer preparing delegated design submittals, I have seen that the delegated design process can actually increase risk.

It is not that delegating design is wrong, but rather that it is often implemented poorly, resulting in suboptimal results. A lot of design professionals delegate design for the wrong reason, provide inadequate information for the designer and fail to provide proper oversight. Delegating design the right way can allow construction project stakeholders to exploit the opportunities presented by delegation while maintaining performance and avoiding increased risk and costs.

Delegate for the Right Reason:

Delegated design is much less likely to succeed if it done for the wrong reason. A few of the wrong reasons to delegated design are as follows:

  • Risk Transfer: Some design professionals delegate design with the primary motivation of transferring risk to the contractor and the contractor’s engineer. In this scenario, the contractor’s options are often too constrained and few opportunities for innovation and cost saving are permitted.
  • Ignorance: The DPOR may delegated design because they lack knowledge and experience with the system to be delegated. However, ignorance of the system may prevent the DPOR from determining performance requirements and understanding how to integrate the delegated system into the work, leading to design errors.
  • Reduce Design Fees: Driven by owner demands for lower fees, the DPOR may delegate design to reduce their design effort, especially if a project starts going over budget with respect to design or construction cost. This can fail because the effort required to properly specify the delegated system and review submittals is typically greater than when a complete design is prepared by the DPOR.

The real purpose of delegated design is to reduce construction cost by using proprietary systems or taking advantage of constructor economies, usually for elements and systems that are utilitarian or in some respect secondary to the project as a whole, where the choice has limited impact of the end user.

Specify Performance:

It is crucial for the DPOR to understand how the delegated system needs to perform and what constraints are to be imposed on it. This information needs to be clearly conveyed by means of a performance specification. Performance specifications are different from the prescriptive specifications that are typically issued in construction documents when the work is completely designed. From the performance specifications, the contractor’s designer should be able to quickly and accurately understand what the delegated system needs to do and how it fits into the project as a whole. These requirements typically include the design loading and allowable response (deflection, etc.) of the system, design codes and standards (especially project-specific standards) and perhaps interfaces with other work. As a general rule, the performance specifications should not impose extraneous or arbitrary requirements on the contractor or their designer.

Share Information:

To make efficient use of delegated design, it is necessary to provide the designer with adequate information. When the design of a system is delegated, especially in the context of an otherwise design-bid-build project, the contractor’s bid for the delegated design item is subject to increased uncertainty. The design team can reduce this uncertainty for the contractor by providing enough information to comprise a clear and complete basis for design. If the information provided is inadequate, both the contractor and specialty engineer have to make conservative assumptions, which will increase cost, especially if those assumptions result in compounding conservatism. It is the DPOR’s responsibility to know what information the contractor and specialty designer need to complete that design and make sure that it is available to them.

Review the Design:

Delegating design to the contractor does not relieve the DPOR of their responsibility for the performance of the project as a whole. It is therefore important that the design team review delegated design submittals. This provides a crucial opportunity for a ‘readback’ of design inputs and performance specifications. The basis for the review should be the contract documents, particularly the performance specifications. But even in the absence of good performance specifications, the submittal can and should be reviewed for general code conformance, substantial errors and coordination with related work. While there is always some asymmetric information between the specialty designer and the DPOR, the DPOR must have the knowledge and experience to to understand the submittal, confirm that performance requirements have been met and coordinate it with the work as a whole. If the DPOR does not have this capability his or herself, then appropriate specialists should be engaged.

Delegated Design is a useful means for the DPOR to make use of the economies offered by contractors and vendors for systems and elements where required performance can be defined and cost the primary basis of selection. On most construction projects, there are numerous examples of items where opportunities exist to economize by using proprietary system and coordinating the design with contractor means and methods without diminishing value of the project to the end user. Delegating the design makes this practical. However, poorly executed design can lead to diminished value and increased risk. The DPOR’s design effort may be reduced, but not eliminated by delegating design; the DPOR must still understand the demands for the delegated system, specify its performance, provide adequate basis of design information to the designer. The DPOR must also review the design for contract conformance and integration with the work overall. If this is done, the potential of delegating design can be realized.

The information and statements in this document are for information purposes only and do not comprise the professional advice of the author or create a professional relationship between reader and author.

See also: Design Services, Delegated Design