Delegated Design vs. Design Assist — What’s the Deal?

Delegated Design vs. Design Assist -- What’s the Deal?Delegated design and design-assist are two practices in the design and construction industry that have gained popularity in recent years. These practices have also caused some confusion and headaches for the parties involved perhaps due to a lack of clarity that differentiates each practice. In my experience, this often comes into play for the building envelope, the physical separation that protects the interior environment from the outside elements such as air, water, heat, light, and noise. From my perspective there are clear differences between delegated design and design-assist and the pros and cons of each inform the choices teams can make for their projects.

What is Delegated Design?

Delegated design is the transfer of design responsibility of certain aspects of the project from the architect to the general contractor. The success of delegated design hinges on clear communication between the parties at the start of the project. If expectations are well-communicated upfront, delegated design can offer a successful collaboration and results. However, a lack of communication can lead to misinterpreting expectations and often leads to a long and painful construction process. This is perhaps one reason the concept may not be universally well-received by general contractors in the industry. Specifically, there are some aspects of delegated design that have led to confusion for the teams, including:

  • Detailing that is not clearly spelled out in Construction Documents. This can happen when architects lack the budget or expertise to produce the necessary details, so unfortunately the responsibility for interfacing detailing falls to the general contractor. In these cases, the general contractor either does it internally or hires a 3rd party to do it, who then sends it back to the architect for “approval.” In my experience, most GCs do not want to add design to the risk they already have in delivering a project on time and on budget.
  • Projects can flip from design/build to build/design. In many cases, the GCs will come up with details on the fly due to schedule constraints, basically documenting how the sub-trades have integrated their systems in the field.
  • Disparity as to who (the architect or the GC) holds the liability for the final design. In most cases, the GC ends up with the liability (intentionally or unintentionally) and must document all the work performed.

These are just some of the potential challenges that can plague the practice of delegated design and prompts consideration of a potentially more effective alternative. This is where a design-assist process can help.

What is Design-Assist?

In the design-assist process, a consultant specializing in the specific trade or system (such as building envelopes) is brought into the team. This consultant assists the DOR (aka Architect) in staying ahead of potential constructability issues and identifies key interfacing design details early on. By early on, I mean hopefully in schematic design phase to inform building envelope best practices. The design-assist contract is typically carried by the Architect, as opposed to the Delegated-Design contract that is held by the General Contractor or Subcontractor. Ideally, the design-assist consultant’s expertise and experience includes construction means and methods to better guide the various systems and interfacing details.

Pie’s ability to hear critical input from the team and apply our expertise accordingly helps our clients to make informed decisions that benefit the project. Combined with the design intent of the architect and the constructability of the general contractor and sub-contractors, the team can use the design-assist process collaboratively to develop specifications and details that help ensure a high performing building. As a standard practice, the design-assist professional’s services should logically extend into the construction phase to verify the detailing is implemented and to address any unforeseen conditions that inevitably arise during construction.

Clearly, both practices can be an effective tool when exercised correctly. Whichever practice is followed for your project, two certainties remain. First, success can be best measured by the clarity provided from all parties in communicating design expectations early and often. And, engaging the right experts who can help to bridge the gap between design intent and constructability has proven to be an invaluable practice. If your project could benefit in a design-assist capacity, call Pie Consulting & Engineering.