Specifications for design-build projects

Organizational formats for  bridging documents
Owner’s project criteria, also known as “bridging documents,” “conceptual documents,” or “owner’s criteria,” sometimes do not employ recognized organizational formats. Conversely, many sets of owner’s project criteria documents, especially for vertical construction design-build projects, are organized in accordance with CSI’s UniFormat, which structures construction information and requirements by ‘facility elements.’ In contrast, CSI’s well-known MasterFormat is used for organizing construction specifications and is based around detailed ‘work results.’

Since they are often generalized, owner’s project criteria for design-build projects should not be organized using MasterFormat unless the owner will allow the design-builder very little latitude in developing the design. This may, in turn, reduce competition among prospective design-builders and result in higher costs to the owner.

In addition to UniFormat, CSI also publishes PPDFormat, which presents a recommended approach for preparing ‘preliminary project descriptions.’ Although intended largely for design-bid-build (DBB), design-negotiate-build (DNB), construction manager as advisor (CMa), and construction manager-at-risk (CMAR) projects, the approaches set forth in PPDFormat may be useful in establishing the level of detail set forth in owner’s project criteria for design-build projects.

Chapter 12 of CSI’s Construction Specifications Practice Guide (CSPG) presents guidance on performance specifying, useful in preparing both owner’s project criteria and performance specifications for construction. Also, Section 1.14.3 of CSPG directly addresses owner’s project criteria and other documents developed in design-build project delivery.

Who is the builder?

It is important to understand which entity will be the construction specifications’ intended recipient and user before drafting the documents.

The builder could be either the design-builder’s employees, a general contractor (GC) hired by the design-builder, construction trade subcontractors, or a combination of these. Writing for the intended recipient of each specifications section is essential.

Where the design-builder’s employees will build all or part of the project, it is likely the design-builder would prefer broad specifications with some leeway in their implementation. In this situation, performance specifying is likely to be desirable, although they must be consistent with the owner’s project criteria.

When the builder will be a GC (i.e. construction subcontractor) hired by the design-builder (common when the design-builder is a developer or design consultant) or individual trade subcontractors, it is likely the design-builder would prefer the construction specifications to be the same as those used for DBB, DNB, CMa, or CMAR projects: prescriptive, clear, unambiguous, and with little leeway. Such specifications provide greater certainty of the outcome of the construction.

When the construction will be by a combination of the design-builder’s employees and one or more construction subcontractors, it is advisable for the design-builder to identify the construction elements it will build with its own employees and inform the project design professional(s) accordingly. Doing so will help prepare the necessary sections using performance specifying or with other appropriate leeway, while specifications for work that will be subcontracted can be prepared in a more prescriptive manner.

A consideration in preparing design-build construction specifications and drawings is how the design professional’s documents square with the builders’ construction means and methods. In DBB, DNB, and CMa, the project’s design professional rarely considers construction means and methods in detail during the design stage. In design-build, however, the designer and builder are on the same team and, thus, construction means and methods are important considerations during design. Design-build is, after all, a more-collaborative approach than DBB, DNB, and CMa, which means the designer must work closely with the builder(s) during the design stage and tailor the specifications and drawings accordingly.

Another consideration is whether the construction subcontract compensation method will be stipulated price or cost-plus-a-fee. Where the compensation method is cost-plus-a-fee, the design-builder may desire the construction specifications for subcontractors allow a certain degree of latitude to encourage the builder(s) to complete their work for amounts less than their associated guaranteed maximum price, under the premise innovation encourages cost savings.


In preparing suitable design-build construction specifications, the design professional needs to understand not only the design intent (as is always the case, regardless of project delivery method), but also how the design-builder intends to implement the construction, including which work will be subcontracted, subcontract compensation method(s), and planned construction means and methods, and appreciate the need for the construction specifications to be well-coordinated with the applicable contracts. Since there are many approaches to design-build project delivery, there are numerous variations and nuances affecting the preparation of construction specifications for each project.

Appropriate specifying methods need to be understood and employed, in both the development of owner’s project criteria/bridging documents and design-build construction specifications. The organizational approach, level of detail, and language/style employed in these documents will vary with the owner, design-builder, and project type.

Construction specifications should be drafted to use defined terms and terminology consistent with their associated contract(s). This will increase the potential for more consistent interpretations of contractual requirements, as intended by the documents’ drafter.

When design-build construction specifications are developed from traditional design-bid-build (DBB) specifications, commonly used defined terms in the source specifications may need modification. For example, “Contractor” will likely need to be changed to “Design-builder” or “Subcontractor.”

The role of the design professional in design-build is different from traditional DBB, design-negotiate-build (DNB), construction manager as advisor (CMa), or construction manager-at-risk (CMAR), and responsibilities allocated to the design professional in DBB specifications may need to be modified for design-build. In DBB, the owner-hired design professional is the owner’s representative and ‘watchdog,’ visiting the site and reviewing shop drawings to help ensure compliance with the contract. In contrast, in design-build, the design professional works for the design-builder and is responsible only to its client and the obligations of its professional license. In design-build, the design professional neither represents the owner nor serves as the owner’s onsite watchdog. In design-build, the design-builder’s project design professional(s) are responsible for the design, but not for observing the construction and ensuring it is in accordance with the owner’s project criteria.

Therefore, in preparing design-build construction specifications from DBB source documents, each instance of the terms “Engineer,” “Architect,” or “Consultant” (as applicable) needs to be carefully considered and possibly revised, depending on the project and how the design-builder will implement the construction.

This is not to suggest the design professional abdicates its responsibility for the design once construction starts. In some standard design-build prime contracts, the owner has an explicit right to rely on the design-builder’s project design professional(s) complying with the obligations of their professional license.

Finding the appropriate balance between allowing the design-builder and its construction subcontractors appropriate leeway in implementing the construction, while complying with the letter and intent of professional licensure obligations, can be challenging in design-build, where such responsibilities tend to become blurred compared with those in DBB, DNB, CMa, and CMAR.

Other defined terms or terminology common in DBB source specifications may also need modification. For example, many standard contract documents and specifications for DBB, DNB, CMa, and CMAR include the defined term “Work,” referring to the physical construction and related services to be performed by the contractor. However, in design-build, the term “Work” is often defined as including both the construction and project design professional services. The extent to which the design-builder warrants to the owner “the Work,” as opposed to “the Construction” (a term defined in the Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee [EJCDC] D-700–2016, “Standard General Conditions of the Contract between Owner and Design-Builder.”) is relevant to this matter. Even the commonly used term “Work” needs to be carefully evaluated in the source documents used for design-build construction specifications. Similar cautions may also apply to other defined terms.

Kevin O’Beirne, PE, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, is the national manager of engineering specifications at HDR, a global engineering and architecture firm. He has more than 30 years of experience designing and constructing water and wastewater infrastructure. O’Beirne serves on various CSI national committees and is an ACEC delegate to the Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee (EJCDC). He can be reached at kevin.obeirne@HDRinc.com.

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