December 11, 2020 article

Design Assist vs. Delegated Design Industry Trade Associations Release Guidance

Mike Koger

Along the way, the AIA and AISC discovered that the terms “design assist” and “delegated design,” while commonly used in the industry, often mean different things to different people. These differences often result in differing expectations amongst project participants. Thus, the AIA and AISC set their goal for the paper – to describe the roles and responsibilities of project participants in these design collaboration scenarios and offer definitions that design professionals and the construction industry can adopt for their use.

Unlike the terms “design assist” and “delegated design,” the term “informal involvement” is not commonly used. Yet, everyone in the construction industry knows the concept. It is the casual phone call from an architect to a contractor to tease out a connection detail or to get a recommendation about a building material - all done outside the rigors of a contract and without the expectation that the architect can rely on the contractor’s input. It can look confusingly similar to design assist, but lacks the contractual formality and the expectation of, and responsibility for, reliance. AIA and AISC defined informal involvement as follows:

‘Informal Involvement’ is an informal exchange of information between a design professional and contractor in which there is typically no agreement, no compensation, and no expectation that the contractor will guarantee or be responsible for the accuracy of the information provided.  

Design assist and delegated design, on the other hand, are characterized as having a contractual basis, with real expectations and reliance on both sides of the exchange. AIA and AISC settled on the following definitions for these terms:

‘Design Assist’ describes a form of collaboration where a contractor (or subcontractor) provides information to assist a design professional’s design, typically before pricing for the work has been agreed upon or before the work has been awarded. The design professional and contractor typically have separate written contracts with the owner that describe the scope of the contractor’s design assist services and the extent to which the design professional can rely on the contractor’s information. The contractor may incur contractual liability for the information it provides, but the design professional is responsible for incorporating the contractor’s information into its design and maintains professional responsibility for the overall design.
‘Delegated Design’ describes a form of collaboration between a design professional and contractor (or subcontractor) where the contractor assumes responsibility for an element or portion of the design. The design professional and contractor typically have separate written contracts with the owner that establish their respective design responsibilities. In the contractor’s case, those design responsibilities are often established by performance specifications prepared by the design professional. The contractor may incur liability for the portion of design delegated to it, and may also assume professional design responsibility and liability for its design. The ability to delegate professional design responsibility has limitations and, in many situations, professional design responsibility must remain with the design professional of record for the project.  

With these definitions, the main points of commonality and divergence between design assist and delegated design become clear. Both require a contractual relationship where someone with a builders’ expertise is engaged in the design process. And in both scenarios, there is an expectation that the design team can rely on information or services provided by the builder (and its consultants). Yet, there are significant differences between delegated design and design assist. Delegated design tends to occur later in the design process than design assist services.

Design assist services occur as the design professional is still developing its design deliverables, while in delegated design, it is the design professional’s deliverables (i.e. the specifications) that set the parameters for the contractor’s design obligations. Another distinction between delegated design and design assist is that a contractor or subcontractor will often need to engage the services of a licensed design professional to provide its delegated design services, while contractors and subcontractors tend to rely on their own expertise to provide design assist services. 

The paper referenced in this article can be found at www.aiacontracts.org/design-collaboration-whitepaper-2020. Part 1 of this paper was written with significant contributions from the AIA’s Documents and Risk Management Committees and the AISC’s Committee on the Code of Standard Practice. For inquiries about the AISC’s work and its Code of Standard Practice, contact solutions@aisc.org or 866.ask.aisc. For more information about the AIA’s Risk Management Committee and Contract Documents Committee, visit aia.org/risk-management and aiacontracts.org/committee.

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Mike Koger

The American Institute of Architects, Washington, DC