Unintended Consequences With Modern Day Construction Documents – Typically, “The Devil is in the Details”

07/20/2019 by George M. Nicholos

Whether this well-known proverb is attributed to French Novelist Gustave Flaubert or Modernist Architect Mies van der Rohe, the meaning is likely the same; costly mistakes usually originate in the details of a project.

Faced with shrinking design budgets, one of the first corners cut is usually the level of detail in construction documents. Key connections and conditions are frequently not shown at an adequate scale or level of development to properly depict the designer’s intent, and astoundingly, many times the “Devil” doesn’t even get a chance to make an appearance in the case where no details are provided! Frequently, junior designers with limited knowledge and experience are left to resolve and develop critical details or, alternatively, they are left to subcontractors and material suppliers to ultimately resolve. Under these conditions, inadequate quality control can further diminish the quality of construction drawings. Unfortunately, these conditions are frequently the source of claims for construction damages, which can be a treacherous walk through a minefield for designers when attempting to assess liability for associated errors and omissions.

While construction drawings are not a set of step-by-step instructions for each component in a building, they should typically clearly address the designer’s intent at key junctures and critical conditions to minimize liability for possible subsequent associated damages. Clear documentation of the designer’s intent can aid to shield the designer from a claim where the condition was not properly constructed or where unapproved materials were used. Whether it is an architect relying entirely on a roofing manufacturer’s details or a structural engineer flowing down connection design to a specialty engineer, ultimately the designers of record can be held responsible for the performance and safety of their designs where designers seek to transfer responsibility for unresolved conditions as illustrated by the judicial findings in the case related to the skywalk collapse at the Hyatt Regency in 1981.

To avoid and minimize exposure to such liability, designers should attempt to negotiate adequate design fees and earmark design budgets accordingly to allow for critical conditions to be adequately resolved and shown in the drawings, or in the alternative to support a harsh business decision to decline commissions where the fee does not support the proper level of research and drawings determined necessary to properly execute a design. Contractors should not have budget contingency time and money for such design issues, but increasing use of design “disclaimer” language and practicality require prudency about evaluating passed-down, or even just practical, risk assessment respecting design uncertainties. Lower tiers share those same risks, and all members of the contractor team should, regardless, evaluate and then as part of the contract negotiations either reconcile, avoid or incorporate the potential impacts of design or performance specification components within each project’s construction documents.

Wagering for successful results where complex major building connections are only depicted in a small-scale building sections with little or no detail should be a warning to all from the “Devil” that these connections have probably not been adequately researched and resolved by the designer. The risk and magnitude of subsequent claims for damages associated with, or worse such things as catastrophic failures because of, uncertainty respecting design intentions can result in fatal outcomes, economically and otherwise.


About the Author:

Construction law contract information

George focuses his practice on construction law, architectural and construction issues, public contracts, and community associations.  George’s 21 years of experience as a licensed architect includes a full-range of traditional architectural professional services including project management, fee preparation, fee negotiation, field data collection, direction of consultant engineers and coordination, project design, construction estimating, preparation of construction documents, specification writing, shop drawing review and construction administration for both commercial and residential project types. For more information, please contact George at gnicholos@vanblacklaw.com.

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