Which Contract Document is Most Important?

Originally published: September 3, 2012
Updated January 7, 2022

Construction contract documents include the Agreement, the Conditions of Contract, the Drawings, and the Specifications. Because of the legal implications, owners produce the Agreement and the Conditions. Architects are responsible for producing the Drawings and the Specifications. Do they carry equal importance?

AIA General Conditions state the contract documents are complementary. None of the contract documents has greater value than another - no precedence is given. But during design there is a decidedly lopsided emphasis on drawings. Perhaps because drawings embody the design aesthetic, perhaps because architects are visual creatures, perhaps because of the schooling and training architects receive, perhaps because that is how it always has been.

Emphasis on Drawings
Architects begin design with sketches to develop concepts and the preliminary design for the ultimate construction. The initial sketches will show basic form and mass and relationship to the building site and surrounds. The architect uses these sketches to discuss and gain approval of the concepts from the owner.

As the design progresses, architects add more detail and substance to the sketches. The forms will be refined, basic materials will be selected, and systems will be identified. The results of these early decisions will be shown on the schematic drawings. The owner will approve the schematic drawings so the architect may continue to the design development phase.

The process is repeated during the design development and construction documents phases until the construction documents are ready for bidding and construction. More refinement, more detail, will be added as the design drawings are completed.

The initial set of concept drawings may be a few sheets. The final construction drawings may number several hundred with enormous time and effort required to produce each final sheet.

This approach is the traditional, and for generations it has been the process of phased design development. Today, design phases are blurred. Sharing the design model in the cloud to permit continuous development is common. This modern and dynamic approach creates drawings from the model with a seamless flow of information that extends from the concept phase - at project inception - through design and construction to owner occupancy and operations.

Architects Owe More than Drawings
AIA Owner-Architect agreements require the architect to produce outline specifications during the design development phase and specifications during the construction documents phase.

Unlike drawings, specifications are produced in a concentrated effort, near completion of the design development and construction documents phases. Why is this? Specifications document completed design decisions. Specifications are less iterative - less subject to complete reversal - than drawings. As a result, specifications require less time to produce than drawings.

Again, this is the traditional approach. Other new approaches are available, today. Like design models, written project information can develop continuously in the cloud. Written systems and performance descriptions and specifications can inform early estimating before drawings are created. By recording design decisions dynamically - say what you know when you know it - the information becomes a resource for all stakeholders - owners, architects, estimators, design­-builders, and construction managers. Continuous information supports early comparative analysis and informed decision making to ensure designs remain on budget and satisfy owner requirements.

For sake of discussion let's consider the relative costs to produce drawings and specifications for a new building with a $10 million construction budget, the architect's fee might be $1 million (Yes, it's hypothetical to make a point). Of that fee, approximately $700,000 or 70 percent will be spent on design phases to produce the construction documents. The remainder will be spent on bidding and construction administration phases.

The effort to produce specifications by traditional methods is minimal compared to the effort needed to produce the drawings. The cost to produce the specifications will likely be less than 5 percent of the total spent on drawings.

The new approach will increase a specifier's involvement in the project and the cost of the specification by virtue of the greater time over the full course of design. However, the extended involvement will add value by enabling continuous decision analysis. In addition, new, cloud based approach provides transparent collaboration resulting in more fully informed decisions that will benefit the schedule and budget. Imagine, what if eliminating redesign at no cost to meet the project budget was possible.

Specifications - the Other Contract Document
If drawings are the gold standard of construction documents, then specifications are the platinum standard because specifications give drawings meaning. 

To reach the platinum standard for every project:

1.    Specifications must be produced by highly qualified staff or consulting specifiers.  

2.    Specifications must be produced efficiently, collaboratively, and transparently.

3.    Specifications must be produced to avoid Value Engineering and design rework.

4.    Specifiers must be visible and accessible to the entire project team - start to finish.  

Qualified specifiers' data gathering, analyzing, and organizing skills add value to the project and helps educate the team in building science and materials technology. Data gathering includes asking questions and guiding the design team to informed decisions - - decisions that are documented in the specifications.

Specifiers must employ tools to automate and optimize the editing and quality assurance processes used to produce the specifications. Entirely manual processes take too much time and lead to errors and inconsistencies requiring additional time to correct when discovered.

Specifiers must use master guide documents and tools that accommodate multiple uses - systems and performance descriptions and construction specifications - without the need to recreate documented design decisions. Separate sets of documents for discrete deliverables at each design phase require repetitive editing and wasted time to create the construction documents.

Traditional methods produce documents asynchronously. Draft, print, review, comment, correct, and repeat in linear order. New cloud approaches embrace transparency. Skip the printing and allow all other aspects to occur simultaneously, synchronously. Transparency transforms —

  • Transforms individual behavior with improved collaboration
  • Transforms content with improved reliability
  • Transforms outcomes with informed decisions

Specifiers must provide a transparent approach. Conspectus and Conspectus Cloud provide this revolutionary approach to improving the industry.

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