Assignment of design to constructors: A discussion and direction

by Keith Robinson, RSW, FCSC, FCSI, Cameron Franchuk, P.Eng., and Gerald Murnane

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This article is published in two parts. The first part deals with identification of issues and concerns in communicating the need for design solutions during construction. The second part deals with different approaches to describing how to manage the deferred design process. Both articles draw attention to the “elephant” in the room and issues causing disruption and disagreements in executing this requirement.

The concepts identified are not new. Complexity of design is driving an increase in the quantity of specifications dealing with the deferred design process. The authors recognize experience of design professionals varies greatly and may be contributing to confusion, misconceptions, and inconsistency for those parties involved with providing design solutions identified by the deferred design process. Recent changes to professional design services and construction procurement have put more pressure on expectations for completeness of construction documentation. Downward pressure on professional fees translates directly to a reduction in design effort to fully describe construction, and consequently, a transfer of responsibility for many design solutions to the constructor, essentially delaying or deferring design responsibility to the construction phase of the work.

This deferral of design occurs separately from the production of construction documents, and is typically finalized by an entity other than the Registered Professionals of Record (RPR).

The Canadian Construction Association (CCA) recently identified disturbing trends indicating the professional design community in Canada is failing in its responsibility to provide complete and appropriate design solutions to the constructor.

The critical outcome of the CCA recommendations is a need for explicit communication to constructors from the RPR clearly describing solutions presented within specifications that do not form a part of a firm’s standard services for engineering and design. Full acknowledgement of deferred design components is the responsibility of the RPR.

The CCA identified several reasons leading to the increased number of concerns associated with this practice, including a substantial decrease in design budgets, a lack of appropriate time to complete the design, and a reduction of the specialty design knowledge that does not normally form a part of traditional professional design responsibilities.

CCA indicated the subsequent decrease in quality of documents is not directly related to the quantity or effort to create extensive drawings and specifications from design professionals, rather it is a problem of the quality of communication within the whole of the construction documents. The association also indicated the use of computers and processes such as building information modeling (BIM) are implicated in the decrease in quality of documentation as users rely on imported information rather than creating project-specific content.

References in this article to Canadian construction groups and concerns for deferred design are similar in the United States.


Prior to the middle of the 19th century, there was a single role encompassing builder and designer. The separation between engineers, architects, and constructors evolved to what is now associated with modern construction practice: the arrangement of design responsibilities between licensed design professionals (architects, engineers, and interior designers) and constructors (contractors, construction managers, and design-builders). Design professionals were respected and trusted to deliver on the full extent of the owner’s design brief. Constructors understood their contributions, using craftsmanship and intrinsic trade knowledge to provide expertise in interpreting the requirements described by the design brief.

There is an opportunity for the community of design professionals to take leadership on this issue, and to act on necessary improvements to communications with the constructor within documentation by identifying appropriate risk appropriation and managing that risk to the benefit of the project and the owner. Ultimately, this controls exposure to liability arising from the responsibilities of the RPR. The authors believe concepts in this article can establish a standardized national understanding of issues surrounding deferred design, and an approach to reduce exposure to risk for design professionals and the construction community.

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