Specifications for design-build projects

by Kevin O’Beirne, PE, FCSI, CCS, CCCA

Specifications originally intended for design bid-build (DBB) projects require significant revisions to be suitable for design-build or integrated project delivery (IPD).

A substantial challenge faced by professionals preparing construction specifications for design build projects is most master specifications were developed for traditional DBB or its ‘close relation,’ design-negotiate-build (DNB). Often, DBB specifications can be adapted with reasonable effort and cost for use on construction manager as advisor (CMa) and construction manager-at-risk (CMAR) projects. Greater challenges arise when adapting DBB source documents for design-build.

DBB and its ‘relatives’ are longstanding methods of project delivery with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and, therefore, drafting construction specifications for such projects is reasonably straightforward.

In DBB, DNB, CMa, and CMAR, the owner directly hires a third-party design professional to prepare the construction documents—over which the owner has full control throughout the design stage—prior to the contractor preparing its final pricing and constructing the facility. In each of these delivery methods, the design professional typically prepares very prescriptive, detailed specifications and drawings. The contractor is required to build the project in complete compliance with the drawings, specifications, and other contract documents (Figure 1).

Thus, whether it is the master specifications of an architecture or engineering firm or project owner, SpecsIntact (an automated master specifications system used by several government agencies), or commercial master guide specifications, chances are the available source documents were written for DBB projects. There are several factors to consider when adapting DBB specifications for use on a design-build project.

Images courtesy HDR
Images courtesy HDR

Design-build contractual relationships

In design-build, the owner typically enters into a single prime contract with an entity called the design-builder that is responsible for both designing and building the project. The design builder may be a single organization with inhouse design and construction expertise and licensure or, more commonly, it is either a contractor or design professional teaming with one or more partners via subcontracts (Figure 2).

An optional entity in design-build is an ‘owner’s consultant’ (not the project’s design professional) that may be retained to help the owner in selecting the design-builder and, perhaps, in fulfilling its duties under the owner–design-builder prime contract.

According to a June 2018 report titled “Design-Build Utilization Combined Market Study,” prepared for the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), up to 44 percent of the United States’ non-residential construction market in 2018-2021 is predicted to employ design-build project delivery, especially in manufacturing, highway/streets, and education. The proportion of spending using design-build may vary with the type of construction and the status of enabling legislation in each jurisdiction but, regardless, design-build will represent a substantial portion of the modern design and construction market.

Prime contract between the owner and design-builder

The following standard design-build contract forms are widely used in the United States:

  1. DBIA – DBIA’s documents are very common in design-build project delivery. At the time of this writing, most of DBIA’s 26 standard contract documents were published in 2010 and 2012. DBIA documents are used in both vertical construction and horizontal (infrastructure) work.
  2. American Institute of Architects (AIA) – AIA has approximately 11 contract documents specific to design-build, most recently published in 2014- 2015. AIA’s design-build documents are used largely on vertical construction projects.
  3. Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee (EJCDC) – A joint venture of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), EJCDC has a family of 16 design-build documents in its D-series, most recently published in 2016. These are used largely for horizontal projects.
  4. ConsensusDocs – ConsensusDocs is a coalition of approximately 40 industry organizations, led by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA). ConsenusDocs’ 400-series set covers design-build delivery and includes 22 documents, most recently updated in 2017, and primarily used on private projects.

The document used for a given design-build project may depend on the entity selecting or recommending the form of contract. In the author’s experience, owners seem to prefer DBIA contracts, contractors are more inclined toward DBIA or ConsensusDocs, engineers recommend EJCDC, and architects prefer AIA or DBIA. These are, of course, extremely broad generalizations. The form of the prime contract documents may have a strong influence on the associated construction specifications and are established before the latter are prepared.

The entity selecting the form of the design-build prime contract should be familiar with the risk allocations and responsibilities set forth in the owner–design-builder prime contract, and should consider them in conjunction with the owner’s project goals.

In addition to the owner–design-builder agreement, general conditions, and supplementary conditions, an essential element of the prime contract is the document(s) DBIA calls “owner’s project criteria.” EJCDC refers to them as “conceptual documents” and the AIA’s corresponding term is “owner’s criteria.” In the industry, the informal term “bridging documents” is often used.

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