Investigating Owner-Architect Disputes in the Project Design Phase Expert Article

Architects are tasked with providing a solution to their client’s unique building requirements. This demands an open and transparent interaction between the client and architect, particularly given the various influences that come to bear and the large amounts of capital at risk. Misunderstandings, miscommunication, and/or confusion over the responsibilities of all involved parties can lead to failures during the design phase of a project, resulting in costly and disputed consequences.

This article details the phases of project design, the responsibilities of the involved parties, and questions to consider when investigating a dispute.

Investigating Owner-Architect Disputes in the Project Design Phase – Expert Article

Design projects face complex variables which the client and architect must navigate together. These variables include the project type, scale, use and complexity, cost, schedule, project delivery method, location, level of functional and aesthetic design, team chemistry, complexity, relative experience, and the ability of both sides to manage the size of the project. Owners and architects must mutually understand the design and construction process and follow it accordingly through the life of the project. Breakdowns in this process can lead to failures ranging from incomplete designs and un-built buildings to cost overruns, delays, and design defects.

Performance Responsibilities

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) recommends that owners and architects enter into an agreement when designing a project. The purpose of these agreements is to formalize and describe how an architect turns a client’s requirements and ideas into a set of plans and specifications for a specific building on a specific site. Failure to meet the agreed upon responsibilities opens the door to misinformed decisions, defective designs, delays, and ultimately defective construction. Each side should share exactly the same understanding, not only of their own rights, responsibilities and duties, but also of those of the other contracting party. These responsibilities typically include at least the following:

Architect’s responsibilities

  • Provide professional services and hold the proper license in the correct jurisdiction
  • Coordinate the Architect’s services with other consultants and authorities
  • Research applicable design criteria
  • Attend project meetings
  • Communicate with members of the project team and incorporate responses
  • Report progress to the owner
  • Coordinate information furnished by the owner
  • Provide a schedule for the performance of the Architect’s Services to the owner
  • Provide conceptual budgets at reasonable intervals to allow the owner to make rational decisions

Owner’s responsibilities

  • Provide information in a timely manner including, the written program, site requirements, the schedule with anticipated design and construction milestones, constraints and criteria including space requirements and relationships
  • Establish the budget for the project, including reasonable contingencies
  • Identify a representative to act on the owner’s behalf
  • Identify the intended procurement and delivery method for the project
  • Identify any anticipated Sustainable Objectives for a project

Performance responsibilities are established and agreed upon by both parties in an effort to streamline communication and minimize any confusion, redundancy, and misunderstandings. Identifying reasonable expectations for response times also limits the likelihood of crises demanding immediate attention. When a crisis demanding immediate action becomes an emergency, the time wasted can pile up and result in missed deadlines, an extended schedule, additional fees, or poorly coordinated and/or incomplete drawings.

All Architectural Building Design Drawings Are Not Created Equal

Construction drawings should be detailed to a level that allows the contractor or builder to price and construct the building with a reasonable degree of confidence. Hiring a General Contractor early in the project, before or during the design phase, is one way owners can be assured that the drawings are adequate. Excessive reduction in design fees may lead to gaps in the construction documents, excessive and often times expensive change orders, and delays.

Owners and architects should discuss and agree upon the level of design and documentation that fits the schedule, scope, and budget for the project. Architects tailor their drawings and specifications to the purpose of their use as well as the agreed upon scope and fee. Design services typically include:

  • Schematic Design Drawings - As one of the first graphic steps, these drawings (and sometimes additional narratives) establish the general scope and conceptual design of the project, and the scale and relationships among proposed building components. The design’s goal is to arrive at a clearly defined, feasible concept presented in a form that results in client understanding and acceptance.
  • Permit Set - Since the majority of public and private buildings larger than single family houses require stamped architectural drawings, some owners may view the Permit Set as the “necessary evil” part. As a smaller and less detailed set of information, these drawings take less time for the architect to complete thereby costing the owner less in architectural fees. Since they usually contain the minimum standards required by the local building department, they may fall short of fully communicating the design to the owner and builder. A permit set typically will not include specifications & details necessary for a successful project without supplementation.
  • Builders Set - A set of architectural drawings somewhere in between a standard permit set of drawings and full architectural set. These drawings could include all the information found in the permit set of drawings as well as additional detailing of key features in the project; and more detailed product specifications. While still not full construction documents, this level of service and information is often used by experienced owners and contract actors to expedite the design phase and save on design fees.
  • Full Construction Documents - This complete level of service includes all information necessary to receive a permit, and for the builder to price and construct the building. This includes all of the information included in the permit set of drawings as well as full specifications, all interior elevations, cabinetry design, floor layouts, built-in design and detailing, trim packages, lighting layouts, and all detailing. Developing the full set of architectural drawings requires much more time than a permit set of drawings and therefore costs significantly more.

By agreeing to anything less than full construction documents, the owner assumes certain risks that include incomplete drawings, inaccurate construction cost estimates, a protracted permit approval process, and under-performing building materials and finishes. The effective use of contracts may help to align owner-architect expectations, thereby reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings, miscommunication, and disputes. Contracts can also clarify to the owner what is included in the architect’s basic services and what services are supplemental or additional. Documenting the basic and supplemental services at the beginning, or “honeymoon phase” of the project promotes accountability and may limit billing or other disputes later in the project.

Topics of Dispute

Large scale, complex projects require the alignment of vision and collaboration. Under the pressure of time and often limited resources, small breakdowns in the team dynamic can turn into catastrophic project disruptions. Without proper management and communication, these disruptions cause a variety of additional costs, which neither side wants to pay. When sorting out disputes between owners and architects, the following questions are relevant:

  • Did the owner establish and provide a clear project scope, program, budget, and schedule?
  • Was the owner’s schedule reasonable?
  • Was the owner furnished information accurate & reliable?
  • Was information provided through the owner representative or third party stakeholders that were not authorized to decide on behalf of the owner?
  • Did the owner provide information in a clear, precise, and timely manner?
  • Did the owner and architect agree upon the proper level of service appropriate for the size, scale, and complexity of the project?
  • Did the architect provide the team and staffing it promised during the marketing/interview phase?
  • Did the architect research applicable design criteria and incorporate those requirements?
  • Did the architect report their progress to the owner?
  • Did the Construction Documents clearly establish the owner’s and project’s design intent?
  • Were the construction documents sufficient for the purposes of obtaining a building permit?
  • Were the construction documents sufficient to procure an accurate cost estimate?
  • Were the construction documents sufficient to construct the building(s)?
  • Were the construction documents coordinated with other members of the design team?
  • Was re-design required to address permitting comments? If so, who was responsible for deficiencies?
  • Was re-design required to bring the project on-budget? If so, who was responsible for deficiencies?

Design Phase/performance Investigations

Robson Forensic employs architectural experts specializing in issues ranging from architectural design and code compliance to architectural standards and project management. Our architects have designed and built industrial, residential, commercial, and institutional projects and can help make sense of any issues relevant to your investigation.

To discuss your case with an expert submit an inquiry or contact the author of this article.


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